What Matters #3

The World of Dive Watches

Date Published
May 15, 2021
Author
Zong Lie
Category
Gnomon Viewpoint

In this series of “What Matters,” we’ll share the various aspects that affect our watch collecting. Everything might seem to be on a personal level, but we find this is an excellent opportunity to share our love for the horology stuff that matters to us most. From the particular type of complications the watches possess to our indulgence in strap-changing, or simply our personal enjoyment of both quartz and mechanical timepieces. This series will explore our own journeys in this niche hobby to better understand what keeps our passion fired up through our own obsessions that keep drawing us back and inform people who are into watches so they might have a consensus with us. So without any further ado, let’s get things started with “what matters” to us in our voyage of watch-collecting.

Introduction

Let’s be honest, how many of you are reading this with a dive watch on your wrist right now? If you don’t, you probably have one residing with the rest of your watch collection. Like many other watch enthusiasts, dive watches have undeniably played a massive role in my unceasing watch collecting journey. Here at Gnomon, it is apparent we wholeheartedly love our dive watches, having a significant portion of our catalog dedicated to spectacular dive watches from various brands.

(Dive watches are our souls at Gnomon) (Left: Oris Aquis Date Green, Right: SBDY053)

Diving into (no pun intended) our third article of “What Matters,” I’ll be exploring the many fascinating aspects of dive watches, a deeper insight into their history, and how they developed to be one of my favorite types of watches. It’s no surprise that dive watches are trendy amongst the watch community and perhaps the rest of the world. Dive watches are arguably the ultimate tool watch, being a robust companion on your wrist that can handle just about anything. For the most part, they also look visually stunning without much effort.

Early Days of Dive Watches: Here’s a Little History Lesson

Before a time when dive watches even existed, who would’ve thought a timepiece made for divers could become one of the best selling genres of watches? Ever since the invention of intricate mechanical machines made to measure the passage of time, otherwise known today as wristwatches, engineers and watchmakers have been on a never-ending quest to bring creative innovations to improve human lives.

(One of the historical watchmaker in dive watch history)

Before the invention of dive watches, one of the significant issues of pre-20th century wristwatches was their poor resistance to water. Water, dust, and moisture find their way into just about anything, including watches. So when the Scuba diving apparatus was invented by Yves Le Prieur in 1926, the demand for watches that could handle the deep underwater depths and pressure became increasingly in demand. This sparked the invention of various ingenious watches with brilliant features protecting the watch against water and pressure.

(Yves Le Prieur, Inventor of Scuba diving apparatus) (Photo Credit: All Things Diving)

1932 – Omega Marine

Despite having numerous watches featuring mechanisms to protect against water damage, such as the illustrious Rolex Oyster, there wasn’t a watch made to be submerged underwater for prolonged periods seen in the watch industry at the time. It wasn’t until 1932 when Omega released the ‘Omega Marine,’ a legendary watch worn even by Yves Le Prieur himself, became the first-ever timepiece designed, tested, and qualified for diving.

This was a breakthrough and a considerable step for Omega, making a massive leap in the history of watches that paved the way for dive watches as we know them. In contrast to the screw-down crown system of the Rolex Oyster, the Omega Marine achieved a hefty water resistance by simply encasing the watch with a secondary water-tight case. It was essentially forming an airtight seal with gaskets and a spring clip that further compresses the case for a tighter seal as it goes deeper underwater.

(Photo Credit: Omega Watches)

Sure, Omega definitely solved the problem of water entering a watch. However, is it really an actual dive watch? Many may beg to differ because it lacked a rotating diving bezel, a screw-down crown, and a screw-in case-back. It certainly didn’t look like many of the dive watches we see today. Well, let us move onto a timepiece that launched later in the ‘30s that seems a little more like one.

1938 – Officine Panerai Radiomir

Like many of today’s great inventions, one of the first variations of water-resistant watches was initially industrially produced for the military, developed to aid Navy divers in their underwater operations. In 1935, Italian watch manufacturer Officine Panerai was tasked to create dive watches for the Regia Marina, the Italian military’s most elite unit of Navy divers, to assist them in the harsh underwater conditions.

(Radiomir Ref. 3646) (Photo Credit: John Goldberger)

However, lacking the technical know-how and experience in producing dive watches, Panerai sought the aid of renowned Swiss watch manufacturer Rolex, the leading player in the business. (Well, it’s not surprising they still are in the current day). Thus, later in 1938, the historic 47mm Radiomir was born, a genuine dive watch with movements, cases, and crowns produced by Rolex. The name “Radiomir” comes from the Radium luminescent material allowing it to retain visibility in dark underwater environments, a crucial factor for the Italian Navy.

1953 – Blancpain Fifty Fathoms

The history of dive watches would be incomplete without mentioning a watch nicknamed “the grandfather to the modern dive watch.” In 1952, the newly formed French commando frogmen unit, led by Captain Robert “Bob” Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud, required reliable and precise tools to equip their elite divers for grueling underwater missions. The two officers sought out the help of Jean-Jacques Fiechter, the CEO of Blancpain at the time, and also a passionate diver, devising a set of specific criteria for a tool watch that would assist combat divers in their operations.

(Photo Credit: Revolution Watches)

A year later, in 1953, Blancpain successfully built a watch that met the criteria of the French frogmen – this was the birth of the fabled Blancpain Fifty Fathoms. This first-ever purpose-built dive watch featured a unidirectional diving bezel, a distinct characteristic that gave birth to the distinctive look of dive watches we know and love today.

What Really Makes a Dive Watch a Dive Watch?

Well, a dive watch is definitely much more than just a timepiece that is resistant to water. You may wonder when a watch is genuinely qualified to be entitled to be labeled as a dive watch. Many fellow watch enthusiasts (including myself) began embarking on a watch journey with little understanding about the technicalities of capable dive watches, drawing a sense of intrigue simply due to how cool and dauntless a dive watch appeared on the wrist.

Often people may unambiguously describe dive watches merely as a large chunk of steel with a rotating bezel that could tell the time. However, dive watches are traditionally defined with certain attributes to measure up as an accurate dive watch.

(It’s chunky for a purpose)

Of course, water resistance is one of the most vital elements of a dive watch, being the apparent feature that protects the watch against the hostile environments of deep waters. But, with professional divers trusting their lives on the reliability and the performance of a timepiece on their wrist, how would we really differentiate an actual dive watch from a water-resistant dive-style watch then?

Fortunately, an international set of specific requirements is set by an independent, non-governmental organization to define what truly makes a dive watch, courtesy to the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO). Unsurprisingly, the ISO is based in Geneva, Switzerland, a beautiful city otherwise known as the cradle of watchmaking.

(A 300m “traveller” style dive watch would pasts the test)

According to the ISO 6426 list of technical horological vocabulary, a watch could be classified as an actual dive watch if it is: water-resistant to at least 100 meters, the presence of a unidirectional rotating bezel with clear and distinct markings at least on every 5-minute interval, sufficient legibility from at least 25cm away in complete darkness, as well as resistance to shock and magnetism with minimal influence on accurate timekeeping. While conforming to these specifications may qualify the watch for a complete ISO 6425 certification, it is worth noting that now watch brands submit their watches to this certification and opt to conduct their very own in-house tests to ensure their watches are up to the mark.

For the rest of us non-diver dive watch owners, understanding the building blocks and thoughts that went into a beloved dive watch indeed brings a strong sense of reassurance, especially knowing a dive watch is built to be tough as nails, ready to take a beating.

My Favorite Dive Watches

Often a staple of many watch collections, dive watches continue to reign as one of the most popular genres in the watch community. As a result, countless unique watch brands are on the never-ending quest to spark enthusiasm in the hearts of us watch lovers with exciting new dive watch releases.

There is a seemingly endless choice of designs, specifications, dials, sizes, and unique traits to pick from in the extensive market of dive watches. For this reason, collecting dive watches has become progressively addicting, a guilty pleasure of the hobby, so to speak. So, here are some of my very own personal favorites that have found a special place in my heart (and my collection) without further ado.

The Japanese “Tuna” With A Frosty Dial

Clearly, a Seiko had to be on the list, deeply rooted in the history of dive watches with the release of the legendary Seiko 62MAS, Japan’s first-ever dive watch in 1965. The Japanese watch manufacturer has paved the way for countless dive watches we see today with a whole range of innovative horological developments. Seiko was proven to be truly ahead of their time by perfectly blending fine Japanese watchmaking with their deep culture of innovation. We just simply couldn’t get enough of Seiko, could we?

(The Kira Zuri Tuna strikes a balance on utility with aesthetic)

The Seiko Tuna is undoubtedly an icon in the vast universe of dive watches, having over 20 patents with only the exterior when it was first introduced in 1975. Even 46 years after its first release, this one-of-a-kind diver has drawn a massive cult following all over the world. Earning this unique dive watch its quirky nickname, the most defining visual element of the Tuna lies in its distinct screwed-on shroud for an extra layer of protection for the case. While significantly different from the first-ever 6159-022 Tuna, the Prospex 200M Automatic Baby Tuna Kira Zuri Ref. SBDY053 fits right in my collection as a modern interpretation of this illustrious watch.

(It meant business alright)

Carrying a stunning icy-textured dial reminiscent of Grand Seiko’s ‘Kira Zuri’ dial, the dial of the ‘Ice Frost’ Baby Tuna is definitely my favorite aspect of this piece. It is simply amazing to see such intricate and captivating dial work from Seiko even at this affordable price range. Looking down on my wrist at this piece never fails to impress me time after time, looking like something that would cost multiple times its price. Comprised of mostly stainless steel on most parts of its hefty exterior, including its bezel, shroud, and bracelet, this is a solid beast that both looks and feels incredibly premium on my wrist.

One That Packs Traveller’s Need

When choosing a Swiss-made dive watch accompanied by a rich heritage, Squale is perhaps the first brand that comes to my mind. Squale has demonstrated remarkable competency in manufacturing stunning dive watches, embracing over 75 years of watchmaking experience with the core focus on dive watches. Coming from a brand that produced cases for highly-esteemed dive watch brands, including Doxa and Blancpain, their modern-day offerings certainly reflect on this extensive experience with beautifully crafted cases, fantastic attention to detail, and above all, uncompromised underwater performance.

(Check out that forest sunburst green dial)

Apart from being a capable 300m dive watch, the Squale 30 ATMOS Alpine Green GMT Ceramica – SEL Bracelet doubles up as a handy GMT piece with an additional GMT hand 24-hour bezel, effectively allowing the tracking of a second-time zone. Taking this into account, this is definitely my favorite pick as a perfect travel watch for the holiday season. Taking a plunge in the pool for a tranquil morning swim on holiday can certainly be rewarding. But, at the same time, knowing what time it is back in Singapore, my home country, indeed brings a greater gratification.

Even to this year of 2021, green timepieces continue to dominate the market, proving once again that green can be a vastly underrated color that manages to look like a million dollars. Favorably, green is one of the colors I undeniably adore. The radiant green sunburst dial of the Squale 30 ATMOS Alpine Green GMT Ceramica – SEL Bracelet brings an adventurous touch of color in contrast with monochromatic black or white dive watch offerings that are commonly perceived to possess a “safer” appearance.

The Teutonic One

The Germans have undeniably displayed unmatched performance in the field of engineering. Even for a relatively young brand that started only in 2006, Dievas has dedicated themselves to produce incredibly well-built German-made tool watches combining both functionality and a cohesive design distinct to the brand. You can find out more with our in-depth look at its legacy (INPUT DIVAS VORTEX BLOG). Although my latest Dievas Marine 500 may seem relatively straightforward, I’d know it packs a mighty punch with its beefy specifications. So let’s talk more about it.

(Latest generation of Vortex, the Dievas Marine 500)

The central focus of the Dievas Marine 500 rests in the meticulous attention to detail that went into every aspect of the piece. As a result, this genuinely magnificent dive watch has captured my interest for its sheer unyielding performance.

With features such as the special coating on the case that provides extra scratch and corrosion resistance, a well-defined case, and the heaps of BGW9 Blue SuperLumiNova lume that simply glows like a torch in the dark, I would certainly reach for my Dievas Marine 500 without hesitation. It’s my go-to whenever I require a robust dive watch that I can depend on in my life (and perhaps survive a zombie apocalypse with it).

(Lefty crown with helium valve escapement)

Despite being a right-hander, the signature “Destro” left-side crown is more than just a novelty. The Dievas Marine 500 sits exceptionally comfortable on my wrist. With the crown situated at the 8 o’clock position, it doesn’t dig the back of my hand whenever I’m articulating my wrists. Everything about the Dievas Marine 500 just screams quality. Without a doubt, this one will always have a spot in my collection.

With Military Pedigree

If it’s good enough for the military, it’s undoubtedly good enough for me. Even after 4 generations of family ownership by the Wein family, Marathon uses highly precise and reliable timepieces for the military that accompany countless troops in their operations under adverse conditions. In addition, military watches ceaselessly bring fascination for myself and numerous other avid watch collectors for their strong heritage and the story they tell.

(The one that’s still being used by several nation’s military)

While many watch brands carry a history of producing timepieces for the military in the past, Marathon still stands as one of the existing brands actively produces watches for the military. So having a taste of wearing an actual mil-spec timepiece brings me satisfaction, knowing I’m wearing a piece essentially made ready for war.

(And it clads some serious luminance for night time reading)

The Marathon GSAR Government Diver Automatic – Bracelet Ref. WW194006BRACE-US is a dive watch that could very well be my one-dive-watch in my collection if I had to choose one, being a purposefully-built piece that excels in every aspect of a tactical dive watch. With its sturdy case construction, having the GSAR on my wrist certainly evokes a valiant sense of boldness, feeling as if I were a fearless soldier out in the field.

The Over-Engineered Skin Diver

Speaking of underwater reliability, how can I leave out Ball watches? From a brand that holds an excellent emphasis on precision and accuracy, my Ball Engineer Master II Skindiver Heritage Blue stands out as the only heavy-weight dive watch in my collection.

(The over-engineered one in my collection)

Modeled after the historic design of the first-ever Skindiver from the 1960s, this is an offering from Ball that embraces its proud heritage while managing to look exceedingly contemporary with the cutting-edge modern watchmaking of the Swiss. Ball never fails to amaze me with how much technology they packed in a timepiece. Clearly, this is a brand that deserves so much more attention.

Everybody needs a black dive watch in their collection – the Ball Engineer Master II Skindiver Heritage ticks all the right boxes as my everyday dive watch, striking a perfect balance between a robust dive watch for underwater adventures and an elegant timepiece that could be easily dressed up with a suit without much effort. Versatility is one of my favorite attributes of the Skindiver, a piece that looks stunning in just about any outfit.

I’m Not a Diver. So Why Am I Wearing Them?

Aesthetics aside, dive watches unwittingly make a lot of sense in everyday lives. They’re highly legible, water-resistant, and also tough as hell.

Sure, dive watches are inherently meant to serve a specific purpose in underwater usage. However, there’s undoubtedly more to it than simply being waterproof. Admittedly, I’m not a diver myself, nor have I taken a dive watch for a dive ever in my life. They are usually spent on my wrist on occasions where I would never have them submerged in anything (and the rest of the time, for a quick post on Instagram). I’m confident this is the case for many of our esteemed readers and having dive watches primarily for “desk diving” at the office through a sea of colleagues rather than marine wildlife. Considering how underutilized my dive watches are, how do they even fit in my everyday life?

(It handles well in both office and underwater with ease)

For starters, dive watches are a genre of watches that just manages to look visually stunning with a whole range of components for watch manufacturers to spice things up with, from the materials of rotating bezels to the numerous designs of dive watch cases. There’s just so much to love about them. Aesthetics aside, dive watches unwittingly make a lot of sense in everyday lives. They’re highly legible, water-resistant, and also resilient as hell.

As a person who does not baby my watches, hitting my watches by accident, especially on those nasty door frames, is definitely a common occurrence for me. Fortunately, dive watches are probably one of the most robust types of watches out there, being able to take a beating from daily wear effortlessly. Compared to those dress watches with delicate mechanisms and fragile form factors, dive watches are considerably more robust on the strength of their shock-resistance and over-engineered case construction that are commonly associated with high water resistance. For this reason, when it comes to choosing a daily beater piece to handle everyday tasks, a dive watch is definitely my go-to choice.

Water resistance can often be easily overlooked, especially for someone who has never got their beloved timepiece sent for a repair from water damage. (Let’s not try our luck here by submerging them in uncooked rice). If a dive watch can handle the deep depths of the ocean, one could definitely run it under a tap while doing dishes without worries. Moisture remains one of the worst enemies for mechanical watches, and you never really know when it might find a way into your precious timepieces. Having a dive watch on in my daily life feels exceedingly reassuring because I know it would handle an accidental splash without a problem.

(Ready for a swim)

The practicality of a dive watch rotating bezel evidently goes beyond measuring time while diving underwater. Trust me, I’d used it often. While not as accurate as a chronograph, a rotating bezel could function exceptionally well as a primary timer. It works like a charm for conveniently timing tasks such as timing a steak as it cooks in my day-to-day life. Although many may argue with timers being a built-in feature of our smartphones nowadays, timing stuff using the bezel of a dive watch certainly feels much more gratifying when you think of the crispy audible feedback when it clicks every half a minute.

Conclusion

For  good reason, dive watches are undeniably one of the most popular types of watches that have brought a great deal of enjoyment for us watch enthusiasts. From wearing as an indispensable tool underwater or a ravishing fashion statement, dive watches have effortlessly found their way into many of our watch collections, with countless exciting new offerings appearing on the market every now and then.

It almost seems like this journey of finding the perfect dive watch is never-ending. There are just so many to choose from. One thing for sure, though, the surge of endorphins from the arrival of a new dive watch is immensely fulfilling. Whether it is a dive watch to pass down as an heirloom, a piece to mark a special occasion, or simply one that accompanies you to the office, they definitely play a significant role in many of our lives and have brought meaning and joy. Besides, they will always be ready for action, anywhere and everywhere you go.

Gnomon Watches first opened her doors for business online in early 2002, founded by bona fide horology suitors who share a profound passion for watchmaking and fine craftsmanship.

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