For lots of collectors, the dive watch story begins in 1953 when Blancpain Fifty Fathoms and Rolex Submariner came out. But divers needed water-resistant watches long before these iconic models were sold. Let’s explore how underwater exploration and wristwatch development are linked.

In 1942, the German trade publication Uhrmacher-Woche (Watchmaker’s Week) published a detailed article about water-resistant watches, starting with this opening paragraph: “15 years ago, when the water-resistant watch hit the market, many expected it to be an advertising gimmick or a fashion fad, because it isn’t really necessary to wear a watch when swimming.” The author then quickly concluded that “the development of the air-tight watch became a technical necessity and important for the outcome of the war, because in rooms with lead storage batteries, in factories, onboard submarines the air is filled with acid fumes.”

Transitioning from Pockets to Wrists: Watches in WWII Waters

This article from 80+ years ago stands out because it combines several misconceptions about the development of waterproof or water-resistant wristwatches, leading to the invention of the dive watch. First, Rolex made a significant impact with its famous full-page advertisement in London’s Daily Mail on Nov. 24, 1927, celebrating the success of the first waterproof wristwatch. This followed British professional swimmer Mercedes Gleitze wearing a Rolex Oyster while swimming the English Channel, spending over 10 hours in chilly waters. Second, the article doesn’t mention divers or diving, despite helmet diving being established by then. Other applications, like firefighting or mine work, were deemed more important. This pattern mirrors the history of diving innovations, such as Charles Deane’s smoke helmet in 1823 leading to successful diving helmets, and the oxygen rebreather, originally designed for emergency escape, enabling helmet divers to work more independently.

In 1932, Omega introduced the Marine, a watch with a double-case construction aimed specifically at “athletes, sailors, and soldiers.

Interestingly, early helmet divers found a practical way to track their time underwater: they used regular pocket watches mounted inside their diving helmets. One reason for this was that at the time, wearing a wristwatch was seen as a joke by Americans. However, the New York Times article from July 9, 1916, also noted that due to modern warfare’s reliance on telephone and signal services, soldiers were required to wear watches. Wearing a wristwatch underwater, especially over a thick dive suit, would have been risky and expensive. So, mounting a pocket watch inside the helmet, where it hopefully stayed dry, was a safer option.

Two years after the New York Times article on trench watches, on June 11, 1918, New York-based company Jacques Depollier & Son received a patent in the U.S. for a “waterproof and dust-proof watch” designed for soldiers, sailors, aviators, and others. In an ad from the same year, Depollier noted the growing demand for waterproof watches among those in outdoor activities. Their “D-D” field and marine watch featured a double-clinched bezel to keep out

water, dust, and gas. Despite its ability to be submerged in water, the watch wasn’t marketed specifically for divers, as seen in their advertisement showing it placed in a fishbowl.

In the 1930s, Philip Van Horn Weems’ invention introduced rotating bezels to the watch industry. Longines was the first watchmaker to adopt this patented innovation.

In 1922, Rolex introduced its first attempt at a waterproof and dustproof watch called the Submarine. However, Rolex found this design impractical because it relied on a second outer case to protect the main watch body. This outer shell needed to be opened daily to wind the watch, weakening the metal gasket that sealed the opening. Four years later, Rolex made two significant technical innovations that made the single-case wristwatch watertight: a screw-down back and bezel, and a newly patented winding crown that could be screwed down to seal the case. Rolex advertised this watch, named the Oyster, as the “wonder watch,” with Mercedes Gleitze providing proof of its effectiveness and becoming the brand’s first testimonial.

Like Rolex, Omega also devised a double-case construction for a watch aimed at “athletes, sailors, and soldiers.” In 1932, Omega introduced the “élégante” Omega Marine, which used a patented case sealed with cork to protect the watch from water and the elements. This rectangular watch even had an adjustable clasp and underwent testing in Lake Geneva, reaching a depth of 73 meters. Subsequent laboratory tests confirmed the watch’s waterproof capability to a depth of 135 meters.

A Novel Watch Design, Durable for Underwater Wear

In 1935, the watch industry and underwater operations merged when the Italian Navy asked Giuseppe Panerai, director of G. Panerai e Figlio in Florence, to develop a water-resistant compass and watch for its new manned torpedo operators. Although Panerai had supplied navy equipment before, they had never made wristwatches. So, on Oct. 24, 1935, Rolex sent Panerai a Ref. 2533 watch with a large 9k gold cushion case for testing. This same watch later evolved into the Radiomir, used by Italian special forces and later by the Germans after seizing some during the German occupation of Italy until May 2, 1945.

Initially, members of the Decima Flottiglia MAS commando frogman unit used Panerai-supplied Rolex watches. Meanwhile, the American Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT), predecessors of the U.S. Navy’s current SEAL teams, were issued “canteen watches” from brands like Hamilton and Elgin. These watches featured a screw-on cover for the crown held in place with a small chain. Similar to Panerai’s watches, these smaller canteen watches lacked a bezel and indicated time using luminous hands.

Similar to Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms and Rolex’s Submariner, the Turn-o-Graph from the company also featured a rotating bezel.

The idea of a rotating bezel, the most visually distinctive feature of a dive watch, initially came from aviation. Philip Van Horn Weems applied for a patent for a “method of and apparatus for navigator’s timekeeping” using a rotating bezel on July 31, 1929. The patent was granted in 1935, and it soon appeared on many pilots’ watches, notably the legendary Weems watch from Longines.

It wasn’t until a few years later that the watch industry recognized its potential for diving. With the emergence of autonomous diving, powered by open-circuit compressed-air devices like Yves Le Prieur’s invention from 1925, and more importantly, Émile Gagnan’s and Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s regulator patented in 1943 (mass-produced by La Spirotechnique after the war), SCUBA diving revolutionized the sport. This led to increased demand for a reliable underwater timing device.

In the early 1950s, Blancpain began developing its first wristwatch specifically for divers. Called the Fifty Fathoms (referring to its depth rating of 300 feet or 91.4 meters), it was the idea of Jean-Jacques Fiechter, Blancpain’s CEO and an avid diver himself. Fiechter had a close call while diving off the coast of France, running out of air and risking decompression sickness due to losing track of time. This experience inspired him to create a solution: the first modern dive watch.

Commercialized in 1953, the Fifty Fathoms featured a redesigned caseback and crown gasket for better water resistance, earning patents for both designs. Fiechter also introduced a unidirectional bezel, allowing divers to track their time underwater more accurately. In essence, Blancpain improved the watch’s water-resistant case and added a bezel specifically designed for underwater timekeeping.

Rolex’s Contribution to Dive Watch Innovation

Rolex was at the forefront of dive watch innovation. They implemented a bezel on the Zerographe and developed the Deep-Sea Special, the most water-resistant watch of its time. It underwent deep-sea trials attached to Piccard’s Trieste, reaching depths of 3,150 meters in 1953. Subsequently, in 1960, Rolex watches accompanied Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, a depth of 10,916 meters. Almost simultaneously, Rolex introduced the Submariner in 1953, equipped with a rotating bezel. Europa Star, the watch industry’s trade publication, recognized the Submariner in 1954 as a watch specially designed for deep-sea diving. It featured a Time Recorder bezel, facilitating the control of air consumption in independent diving equipment. The Submariner underwent 132 sea trials in the Mediterranean and was deemed an essential accessory for diving equipment.

Blancpain and Rolex pioneered the modern dive watch, focusing on robustness and high water resistance, along with a bezel to withstand external pressure. However, they didn’t anticipate the emergence of saturation diving, introduced by Dr. George F. Bond in the late 1950s. Saturation diving allowed divers to live and work underwater for extended periods, leading to the U.S. Navy’s Man-in-the-Sea Program and the launch of Sealab experiments in 1964. Despite these advancements, saturation diving presented new challenges, such as helium causing watch crystals to pop off during decompression.

In 1968, a saturation diver from Kure City, Japan, wrote to Seiko, reporting similar issues with their dive watches. Rolex responded differently by introducing the Sea-Dweller dive watch in 1967, equipped with a patented gas escape valve. This valve allowed the watch to decompress with the diver, addressing the crystal popping issue. The Sea-Dweller became standard equipment for Compagnie maritime d’expertises (COMEX) employees, replacing Omega’s partnership with COMEX.

Seiko spent seven years developing the Professional Diver’s 600m watch for saturation dives. When it was launched in 1975, the watch introduced over 20 innovations.

A Diver’s Essential

Omega and Seiko took a different approach to solving the helium problem. Instead of improving existing watches, they started from scratch. Omega introduced the Seamaster 600 “PloProf” in 1970, built to be more robust than any previous model. The watch underwent rigorous helium testing, proving its exceptional durability. Omega highlighted three major innovations: a monobloc stainless steel case, a screw-in hardened mineral glass, and a lockable elapsed-time bezel. Seiko followed suit with their professional dive watch, the 6159-7010, introduced in 1975. It took seven years to develop and featured a monobloc case construction with a guaranteed water resistance of 600 meters. The Seiko also had 20 patents and included a protective shroud for heavy underwater work. However, both watches had a design, size, and price that limited their appeal to a wider audience, unlike the more versatile Sea-Dweller from Rolex.

All three models significantly contributed to the improvement of dive watches. In 1966, the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) formed an investigation committee to assess diving equipment, including dive watches. These watches were considered crucial but often problematic. In 1968, BSAC member Geoff Harwood found that many complaints were related to diving watches. This led to a survey to gauge the extent of the issue. Unfortunately, the survey didn’t provide a clear recommendation, stating that even expensive, well-known watches could still have water damage after deep dives.

Becoming a Sea Ambassador

In 1983, amidst a recovering watch industry, the Orca Edge emerged as the first commercially viable dive computer. While watch brands primarily focused on enhancing water resistance, dive computers quickly gained popularity, relegating mechanical dive watches to backup instruments or status symbols. Seiko launched the world’s first computerized diver’s watch in 1990, featuring water and depth sensors. Citizen introduced the Aqualand, the first quartz watch with a digital depth gauge, five years prior. Despite the availability of more versatile and often cheaper options, dive watches have become a lucrative category for luxury watch manufacturers. Brands like Breitling, Tudor, Rado, Seiko, Panerai, and Omega have found significant success with their dive watch collections. Omega, in particular, has gained fame for equipping the world’s most famous spy with a Seamaster dive watch since 1995, creating one of the industry’s most iconic luxury timepieces.

The Evolution of Dive Watches: From Performance to Preservation

Dive watches now serve as ambassadors for ocean conservation. Blancpain, through its Blancpain Ocean Commitment Initiative (BOC) founded in 2014, has been a leader in protecting ocean biodiversity. Oris is also committed to conservation, launching limited edition watches that support various environmental efforts. Brands like Luminox, Breitling, and Ulysse Nardin have begun promoting upcycling methods in their releases.

Today’s mechanical dive watches excel in quality and performance, reaching unprecedented depths in the ocean and offering a wide range of features. They symbolize sustainability and preservation while also evoking nostalgia for humanity’s deep-sea conquests. In essence, dive watches have endured over time, demonstrating that analogue products can thrive alongside digital alternatives.