Style / World of Watches (WOW)

Comprehending the Popularity of Dive Watches

We examine the popularity of the very specific and constraining aesthetic of perhaps the most famous look for a wristwatch, the dive watch

Jan 15, 2021 | By Ashok Soman

It is uncertain if history repeats itself, but historians definitely do. That is a somewhat old joke told by historians, and really could be applied to teachers of all sorts everywhere. Although it sounds somewhat ominous, there are plenty of inherent positives here. As far as Singapore goes, citizens of the republic will always look back to the independence era, including the events leading to it and the aftermath. This is a collective act of remembrance, even for those without those memories. One could very easily generalise that the same is true for all nation-states that have a founding date – National Day celebrations everywhere help to make this point. Yes, the fact that these events have all the regularity of clockwork helps to make this introduction work.

Unlike history, time certainly repeats itself, while also moving relentlessly in only one direction. That is a pretty neat trick, with the second that just passed being indistinguishable from the one that follows, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum. Yet each second is unique and can only be experienced once – unless you find yourself travelling at the speed of light, or at the event horizon of a black hole, but I digress. Timekeepers of any sort allow us to distinguish between the seconds – and to decide which ones are worth remembering and recording. Timepieces, like history, are intrinsically tied to human beings and our societies. This helps to explain why watch brands are constantly celebrating anniversaries (case in point, our cover this issue, and the last one for that matter).

On 7 October 1927, Mercedes Gleitze swam the English Channel equipped with a Rolex Oyster.

Although these birthdays repeat themselves, each one is unique – this is obviously different compared with how every second is unique, but as humans we do like to recognise a pattern there. In other words, it is the emotions that matter. As far as timepieces go, brand identities and the concept of time itself come together in unrivalled form. In the best examples, just one watch can say everything about a specific way of looking at time; most likely one brand’s vision. If I had to define why the WOW team gets excited about new watches, this would be my short answer. It also explains why we are always circling back to certain categories of wristwatches, from complications to specific types of watches.

Popular Synchronicity

For this issue, given that the Chanel J12 is our cover personality, so to speak, we wanted our central features to leverage on that. The powers-that-be at Chanel are no dummies after all and so there is a reason that the J12 is so central to this particular tradition of watchmaking. We do not dive too deeply into this in the cover story but the fact that the J12 is a dive watch, otherwise known as a diver’s watch, is important. The simple reason for this is that the dive watch might well be the single most popular type of wristwatch in the world, running the gamut from Swiss to Japanese watchmaking. Speaking of which, one of the many inspirations for this story was the Bonhams special online auction of Seiko dive watches that happened in August, as we were ramping up production on the issue you are reading. As we will show, and you probably already know, Seiko is very important in the story of the dive watch.

Oyster Perpetual Rolex Deepsea

On that note about important brand names, by the time you read this, you will already know the new Rolex watches for 2020. This story was planned earlier this year as a way to address the possibility that there would be no new watches from Rolex, Patek Philippe and Tudor. At that time, we really did not know – nor would we have had any way of knowing – that Rolex would be revealing a particularly apt timepiece for this story. It gave us the chance to add a paragraph here and there, and to swap a watch out here and there. Originally, we had planned to include the 2019 Rolex Sea-Dweller in what was meant to be a recap of standout dive watches, with a side note about fresh pieces. That list is now mostly new watches, with a few holdovers from 2019. It just goes to show that if you bet on dive watches, the odds are ever in your favour. There are no lines in this story about the new Submariners – skip ahead to part two for that.

Close up of the new Rolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner

Back on point, writing last year for Hodinkee, the watch sage Jack Forster expounded on the somewhat inexplicable appeal of the dive watch, first obliquely acknowledging how weird this phenomenon is. Hodinkee and others have written about this many times, without coming right out and noting that it is truly strange that dive watches should be so popular – an alien visiting our world could be forgiven for thinking that humans must really love water sports. To be clear, we are not being critical of the coverage on this subject; WOW has covered the dive watch many times, almost always without addressing any of the abovementioned points. We did address the overwhelming popularity of the sports watch recently, but aesthetics are barely in play with regards to the pure dive watch…sort of.

Standard Issue

The dive watch is of course just a subset of the much broader sports watch category, making it a truly niche proposition. After all, sports watches include racing watches, sailing watches and can even extend to pilot’s watches. Unlike most other types of sports watches, there are very specific criteria that watchmakers have to apply if they want to make true dive watches. Typically, dive watches are built to one of two ISO standards, as we covered most recently in #47, three years ago. Of those two, ISO 6425 defines the proper dive watch; ISO 22810 is more flexible and basic, not covering some staple features that divers need.

Laser photogrammetry in progress as part of the great hammerhead shark conservation programme, which is supported by Blancpain

As is our usual practice, we begin with a definition from Berner’s Illustrated Dictionary of Horology. A dive watch is a “watch designed to withstand immersion to a depth of at least 100m and the satisfy requirements specified in ISO standard 6425.” Voila. With ISO 6425, some quality tests must be done on every watch, not just a batch of test watches, while other quality assurance steps can be done on a sample from the actual production run. Whether this is a dive watch from Oris, Omega or Rolex, all would have to meet the same standards. Now, this should mean that dive watches are pretty standard – like stock cars in stock car racing, for example. Well, if you think so then you have another thing coming. Also, if you think the Submariner and the Fifty Fathoms look the same, the dive watch is probably not for you

In this issue, we are combining our recurring how-to story with our broader re-examination of the dive watch. Rest assured then that we will be covering those ISO standards briefly again. To get it out of the way, ISO 22810 relates to water-resistance and how the watches should be tested for this. This is the vital bit of information, because the watchmakers get to decide how to test the watches, beyond a certain level, and what features to include. This means that a watch made to this standard might have most of the features of a dive watch, yet might not qualify to be a dive watch. Dive watches have to meet every one of the criteria under ISO 6425 — meaning they have to be tested for each one in a specific way.

Diver’s Mark

If you are considering buying one of the many very worthy dive watches out there, you do not need to familiarise yourself with ISO 6425. The beauty of the system is that it takes all the guesswork out of the equation. You need only ask your friendly retailer if the watch is properly certified under ISO 6425… Actually, you will have to ask because not all watchmakers place the “Divers” mark on the case, and its absence does not mean a watch is not a dive model. In fact, the only brand to consistently use this mark (on the dial mainly) is Seiko, which is one of the top makers of dive watches. Arguably, the Japanese firm is so famous for this that it does not even need to tout its credentials, but it is useful here because Seiko has watches with great water-resistance that are not dive models.

Two big names in dive watches that do not make much of their ISO credentials are Rolex and Blancpain. Blancpain is the originator of what we call the dive watch today, as we will show in the historical section, while Rolex defined water-resistance standards for professional and regular wristwatches. Both brands define what the dive watch should look and feel like in the 21st century. For its part, Omega does put the “Diver” mark on the caseback. Just as in the Seiko example, this is useful because Omega has many top-notch water-resistant models that are not dive watches. Of course, both Rolex and Omega have their own standards for performance and quality and need not rely on ISO standards that relatively few collectors would care about. Seiko is likewise fastidious about its production quality, and has earned the respect of collectors.

Omega supports exploration and conservation, this time with Nekton, a non-profit foundation

To put it another way, many brands have introduced their own quality assurances and standards, which they say go beyond official third-party metrics. They do not need to prove any of that, but the general public accepts that high-minded brands such as Patek Philippe, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Chopard will always try to raise the bar. There is nothing wrong with that, for the most part, but dive watches would first have to meet the ISO 6425 bar before leaping above it on the path to excess. It is certainly comforting to know that someone independent has fact-checked and verified the claims of any given manufacturer. When you are heading off on an adventure into the deep, or perhaps even to a salvage job that pays for the roof over your head, this goes beyond the level of mere comfort.

Fourth Wall Break

ISO standards aside, all this information is sometimes interpreted to mean that dive watches are vital instruments for professionals. Once again, if that is what you think, then magazines such as this one have not done their work very well. The dive computer is the professional instrument that will help keep you alive beneath the waves, and it replaced the dive watch in the 1970s. At best, the contemporary dive watch is a back-up tool. Our panel of divers, professional and recreational told us so in 2014, and prominent diver/watch writer Jason Heaton regularly makes this point. It lives on today as a symbol of excellence, just like the mechanical wristwatch. In a world of objects designed for obsolescence, the dive watch feels very reassuring.

Military divers such as the Italian navy divers and their Panerai instruments helped popularise dive watches

At this point, a brief address that breaks the fourth wall, as they say is required. I am the editor and I approve this message. Personally, it defies belief that a watch ostensibly meant as a tool makes a living in a variety of over-engineered guises – with some dressed in precious metals and equipped with high complications. The dive watch is indeed so popular that even I, a non-diver who has absolutely no affinity with this activity, have had several. I still wear one that I bought brand new years ago regularly. This kind of watch is certainly just right to be suitable for all occasions, day and night. The major downside of the dive watch for me is that it hogs my wrist, keeping me from wearing anything else. This might not be true for you, dear reader, and I salute you for that. I bring this up directly to demonstrate that I am not immune to the charms of the dive watch, yet am completely unable to justify it from the perspective of my sporting activities. And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Values Matter

To begin to understand the universal appeal of the dive watch, a brief history lesson is required. See the second part of this special focus story for that. As is so often the case in watchmaking, we might be done with the past but it will always have unfinished business with us. To summarise, there was a moment in history when the lives of professional divers, military and civilian, depended on impeccable timekeeping instruments. Though this is in the past, it does not mean that the dive watch has had its day – in many ways, the dive watch has triumphed completely over obsolescence. Even the luxury mechanical wristwatch has to take a backseat to the dive watch. Yes, the wrist-borne tourbillon plays second fiddle to the most humble dive watch. In fact, there are still divers who do like to use traditional watches as backup devices, as we learned in our story about dive watches in 2014 (issue #32). Against all odds, there is a semblance of utility appeal here; no other broad category of watches can claim this.

Blancpain CEO Marc Hayek (seated left) volunteered as an underwater photographer for the Mokarran Protecton Society

Even so, the greater part of the dive watch story remains one of values. It might be the story of a highly skilled no-nonsense marine professional, or that of military special forces – indeed we will see both examples when we look to specific watches, updated and expanded for 2020 from what they were three years ago. In the fever dreams of watch enthusiasts, figures such as Bob Maloubier, Cousteau and Guillaume Nery meet with members of the US Navy SEALS to plan a daring rescue of the Galapagos from rogue fishing trawlers. It goes without saying that every one of these heroes would be wearing a noble yet completely functional watch of some kind.

On a not-so-heroic front, dive watches are also incredibly sought-after on the vintage side of things, meaning prices can approach ridiculous levels. Rolex Submariners are already difficult to get, brand new, and the secondary market can make your eyes water. The good news is that there are plenty of dive watches out there, including a fresh crop from Ulysse Nardin and Citizen (including the Kuroshio, covered last issue) that should satisfy every sort of collector. For a look at the latest dive watches we have seen, check out the second part of this story in this issue.

Editor’s Note: As usual, we are indebted to many sources for this article, some of which are not explicitly stated in the main text. This includes the author of our previous dive watch story in 2017, Roger Valberg, and the authors of our 2014 dive watch piece, Celine Yap and Jamie Tan. In addition, the technical notes on ISO 6425 are sourced from a 2014 WatchTime article, and various stories from the archives of EuropaStar.

Tech Specs

For ease of reference, here are a few key points from the technical documents related to ISO 6425. These are not the tests themselves but are instead the requirements.

The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms demonstrates just how legible a watch can be in total darkness

It is important to note that the standards do not mandate that the watch be mechanical. They do not even state a preference for analogue displays over digital ones. These are key points that sometimes get lost in the marketing drama.
The following points are by no means exhaustive, but do cover the important points.

  • The watch must have a function that allows users/wearers to select a period of time of up to 60 minutes – this function can be mechanical or digital
  • Whether mechanical or digital, this period selector must be protected against accidental adjustment
  • If it is a bezel (external or internal), it must have a scale that displays the time period in intervals of 5 minutes.
  • Visibility of all markers, on the dial or otherwise, must be good enough to be read up to 25 cm away in the dark
  • The minute hand must be clearly distinguished from the hour hand, for analogue displays
  • The time indications must be clear, following the same standard as the markers
  • It must be obvious that the watch is running. For analogue displays, this means that the central second hand (not a requirement) is coated/treated with some kind of luminescent material. Digital watches will have a low battery indicator

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