Diver watches, the history of fighting against water.
Diver watches represent a very modern obsession, starting in the Fifties with the launch of the Submariner by Rolex and the Fifty Fathoms by Blancpain. But the waterproof watch, which today has been renamed “water-resistant”, is the modern heir of another kind of timepiece, which was much acclaimed at the beginning of the century: the dust-proof watch.
People noted that watches subject to extremes in climate, that is, temperature, humidity, and the like, began to behave erratically. Dust was one of the main culprits. It entered into the movements and tended to accumulate in the recesses, namely the settings of the jewels where the pinions of the wheels turned, effectively slowing them down by building friction.
We should also note that watch oils used back then were organically-based, subject to natural decay, and gooing. Water had similar issues because it instead provoked the formation of rust inside watch movements.
The first waterproof watches
The first experiments to get rid of dust and water were pretty rudimental, as it was quite challenging to seal away the movement, creating a complete dust- proof and waterproof case. The first companies which tried to eliminate these issues – and managed to do it – were Rolex and Omega.
Rolex was the first to refine a waterproof case in 1926, patented under the fitting name of Oyster.
Hans Wilsdorf, the founder of Rolex, presented it with these words:
“The oyster is a ‘model’ hostess and will not tolerate any dust or other impurities. […] Well, gentlemen, we have borrowed its qualities and its name. Here is an example of the Rolex Oyster, so- called because it lives in water and excludes all impurities”.
To reassure the public about the qualities of its watch, Rolex, in 1927, contacted an English swimmer, Mercedes Gleitze, and supported her attempt to cross the English Channel by swimming.
The lady had a new Rolex Oyster hanging around her neck, and made it to the other side of the Channel, with the watch correctly working after the feat.
The first Oyster featured the elements that would render it famous, like the screw-in bezel and back, with the two o-rings and the screw-in crown.
The automatic movement, essential to guarantee that the crown remained waterproof, debuted a few years later, in 1931.
Omega instead followed another path: in 1932, it created and patented a double sliding rectangular case, known as “Marine.”
To ensure water resistance, its crown was kept inside the double case.
This watch was the first real watertight timepiece: it was tested and certified by the Swiss Laboratory for Horology in Neuchâtel to withstand a pressure of 135 meters.
The development of modern diver watches
In 1936, another famous diver watch appeared: it was the Panerai Radiomir, made by the Italian Maison expressly for the needs of the Royal Italian Navy, to equip its force of frogmen. This watch, however, was originally manufactured by Rolex and rebranded by Panerai. The Panerai Radiomir saw extensive use during WWII, demonstrating its qualities in the field.
With the end of the war and the diffusion of leisure scuba diving, diver watches started their expansion as reliable tools for divers. One of the rst models available for public use was the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, launched in France in 1953, which was worn by the underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau during his award-winning documentary “The silent world” of 1956.
The Fifty Fathom (its name derives from a nautical measurement of around 1.9 meters, indicating its maximum water resistance) was created at the request of the French Navy. A specific note was that the watch should have a system to show the remaining immersion time left, giving birth to the now typical rotating bezel.
No more “tool watches”
Rolex, which was working on the same concept, launched its model, the quintessential Submariner in 1954, at the Basel Watch Fair. The model surged to glory when it was used by the most famous fictional secret agent of all time, James Bond, in 1962.
From this appearance of the ref. 6538, the Rolex Submariner skyrocketed to glory, bringing the whole brand with it and becoming the style icon that we know today.
The first diver watches were certified water-resistant to 100 meters, like the Fifty Fathoms. Still, technical advancement brought this limit much forward, with many reaching 500 meters and more, to the present record of the Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean Ultra Deep Professional, which has safely reached a depth of 10,928 meters.
One of the other devices used to guarantee the watch worked at high depths was the helium escape valve, so to prevent the watch crystal from being blown o by internal pressure caused by the buildup of helium.
The use of diver watches today to monitor safe diving has been superseded by diving computers. However, a diver watch is a testament to the more heroic times of undersea exploration – and it looks perfect as well at the wrist.
You can find much more about horology and its fascinating history in The Watch Manual, a thorough e-book that explains all the basics about watchmaking and its protagonists.