Dive watches are everywhere in the luxury watch market. However, have you ever stopped to think about what defines a dive watch? Originally built to accompany military professional and recreational scuba divers on underwater adventures, the dive watch has transcended its intended purpose to become one of the most popular sport watch styles today. Let’s take a look at the history of dive watches, the characteristics of a dive watch, and some of the best luxury dive watches that you can buy today.
In the early 1900s, men were still carrying pocket watches while wristwatches were primarily reserved for women. However, the two World Wars that took place in the first half of the 20th Century fundamentally changed that. During the First World War, soldiers transformed their pocket watches into wristwatches with straps since it was quicker to read the time that way than having to dig through one's pockets to pull out a timepiece. In the years after WWI, men’s wristwatches started to become accepted among the civilian population.
In 1926, Rolex presented the Oyster watch, which offered exceptional water resistance. The Oyster watch's water resistance was possible due to its screw-down caseback, bezel, and winding crown. The following year, Rolex gave English swimmer Mercedes Gleitze an Oyster watch to wear around her neck while she attempted to swim across the English Channel. The Rolex Oyster was subjected to ten hours of frigid waters and remained perfectly functional during the entire time. Although the Rolex Oyster was categorized as a waterproof watch, it was never tested for water pressure.
In 1932, Omega created the Marine watch for diving, compete with resistance to water pressure. In 1936, the Omega Marine took a 73-meter deep swim in Lake Geneva, and one year later in 1937, the watch was officially certified with a water resistance rating of 135 meters deep.
In addition to water resistance, a dive watch needs to be legible underwater to be useful. Officine Panerai was already supplying nautical instruments to the Italian Navy when the watchmaker applied for a patent for a luminous material in 1916. The glowing substance was radium-based and Panerai called it Radiomir. By the mid-1930s, the Italian Navy needed wristwatches for the frogmen unit to take underwater and Panerai presented prototypes in 1936. These watches, (which would later be known as Radiomir watches) sported large waterproof cushion-shaped cases and manually-wound movements (supplied by Rolex) and had luminous dials painted with glowing Radiomir paste. The Panerai prototypes went into production two years later in 1938, and later were used extensively as dive watches in WWII by Italian combat divers.
In 1942, Captain Jacques Cousteau and Émile Gagnan invented the Aqua Lung, an open-circuit, self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (aka SCUBA), which paved the way for recreational diving. After the Second World War in the 1950s, scuba diving took off - and the need for dive watches followed the same trajectory.
The first two watches that set the groundwork for modern dive watches were the Zodiac Sea Wolf and the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms - launched at the same time duriung the 1953 Basel Fair. As the old saying goes, "necessity is the mother of invention," and Captain Bob Maloubier from the French Ministry of Defense needed a dive-ready watch for his Frogmen. So he teamed up with Blancpain (after many other watchmakers turned him away) and the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms dive watch was born.
The watch featured a large 42mm stainless steel case, a black dial with luminous details, a rotating dive bezel to measure immersion times, and it could dive down to fifty fathoms (around 91 meters) deep. Because of these traits, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms is considered the first true diver in the history of dive watches. Also in 1953, Rolex released its first purpose-built dive watch in the form of the Submariner. The Rolex Submariner may have come out after the Fifty Fathoms, but it won in the water-resistance department with a depth rating of 100 meters. Similarly, Rolex's dive watch was a stainless steel model featuring a black dial with plenty of luminescence and a rotating bezel marked to 60 minutes.
Swiss watch brand Oris also began making dive watches with rotating bezels in the mid-1960s, branded as "Super" divers. Not to be left behind, Omega joined the modern dive watch trend with its own version. In 1957, the Omega Seamaster 300 dive watch made its debut in 1957 with (somewhat confusingly, given its name) a water resistance rating of 200 meters. Breitling released two dive watches that same year - one chronograph and one time/date - called the Superocean. Finally, Jaeger-LeCoultre entered the dive watch market in 1959 with the Memovox Deep Sea, complete with an alarm to signal to divers that it was time to ascend.
From the late 1950s onwards, watchmakers continued to enhance their professional dive watches with better water resistance, tougher construction, and slightly modified dial designs. Other watch brands also developed their own divers, including Seiko from Japan, first with the 150M Diver in 1965 followed by the 300M Diver in 1967.
As the 1960s ushered in the commercial diving industry, professional divers need watches that could go not only go deeper but also face the unique challenge of helium penetration that occurs during saturation diving. To reduce the risk of decompression sickness, saturation divers live for extended periods in pressurized diving bells and breathe a special gas mixture in which helium replaces most of the nitrogen in the air. The small size of helium molecules means that they can sometimes squeeze past watch seals and get trapped inside the case. During decompression, the trapped helium molecules would expand, creating enough pressure inside the watch to pop the crystal clear off its case.
To solve this problem, Doxa and Rolex co-created the Helium Escape Valve (HEV to fit into the watches they were supplying to the commercial dive company, Compagnie Maritime d'Expertises (COMEX). In 1967, Rolex introduced the Sea-Dweller, which was water-resistant to a depth of 610 meters and equipped with an HEV to release any helium buildup inside the watch.
On the other side of the world, Seiko released a new high-beat Diver 300M in 1968. However, Seiko soon received a letter from a saturation diver complaining that the crystals would burst off the watches during decompression or would get damaged during use from knocks and impacts. Consequently, Seiko established a new R&D department focused on the development of professional dive watches. Finally, in 1975, the Seiko Professional Diver's 600M was released with a titanium case shrouded with ceramic for greater impact resistance, and re-designed gaskets which resulted in an impenetrable seal that helium could not breach.
Likewise, Omega also began building professional dive watches, introducing the Seamaster 600M "Ploprof" (Plongeur Professionnel, or "professional diver" in French) to the market in 1971 and Seamaster 1000M "Proprof" in 1972. The watch featured a distinctive case silhouette machined from a single block of steel, which successfully sealed off helium from creeping in.
As the decades went on, top-tier watch brands battled to make better luxury dive watches, with increased depth ratings, better lume, and more appealing overall designs. Although highly capable dive computers have taken over from dive watches as the must-have underwater equipment, luxury dive watches remain as some of the most coveted sports watches for sale today.
What are the necessary characteristics of a dive watch?
To be considered a true dive watch, they have to adhere to the International Organization for Standardization 6425, which includes the following stipulations:
It should be mentioned that many of the luxury dive watches for sale today may not be ISO-certified, yet they are still highly capable diving watches.
Without a doubt, the most popular dive watch model today is the Rolex Submariner. While the Sub began its life as a time-only stainless steel watch, Rolex has since rounded out the collection with plenty of different versions. Rolex introduced the first Submariner Date in the late 1960s, and today the brand focuses on this model over the time-only Submariner (which has only ever been available in stainless steel and with a black dial and bezel). On the other hand, Rolex has offered the Submariner Date in steel, yellow gold, white gold, and two-tone steel and yellow gold. What's more, along with the standard black dial and bezel combo, there are also green and blue versions of the Submariner Date.
Beyond their iconic Submariner collection of dive watches, Rolex also makes the Sea-Dweller professional dive watch (water- resistant to 1,200 meters) and the mega Deepsea dive watch, which is water-resistant to an incredible 3,900 meters. Omega also boasts its own collection of popular dive watch models, all housed inside the Seamaster collection. There's the Seamaster 300M, the Seamaster Planet Ocean 600M (which debuted in 2005), and the modern versions of the Seamaster PloProf 1200M. As expected, these Omega dive watches come in a wide array of sizes, styles, and materials, including steel, gold, ceramic, and a mix of all of the above. In 2019, Omega announced the Seamaster Planet Ocean Ultra Deep Professional as the deepest diving watch of all time (certified to 15,000 meters). The watche was strapped to the outside of the Limiting Factor submersible, which broke the record for the deepest dive ever reaching 10,928 meters to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
Although the original Panerai military dive watches such as the Radiomir and Luminor would not be considered diving watches today given their lack of rotating bezels and other necessary characteristics, Panerai does make the Submersible collection of dive watches. These are built to perform as contemporary dive watches with depth ratings ranging from 100 meters to 300 meters, unidirectional dive bezels, and dials designed to be highly legible underwater.
Other popular top dive watches include the Breitling Superocean models, the Tudor Black Bay divers, and the vintage-inspired Oris Divers Sixty-Five collection. Lastly Seiko is still recognized as making some of the best affordable dive watches for sale today with many options available at remarkably accessible price points.