Going overboard: Why people want watches with functions they'll never use

Alex Doak
A diver is dwarfed by an iceberg

Almost three years ago in New York, a very special Rolex fell under an Antiquorum auctioneer’s gavel.

Fetching way over estimate at $184,000, anyone with half an eye on Rolex trends would just assume this is yet another steel ‘Paul Newman’ dialled Daytona chronograph. But they’d be wrong. It was in fact one of the earliest-known examples of the Sea-Dweller diving watch, which once belonged to Philippe Cousteau – son of a certain Jacques.

Celebrating its 50th birthday this year, the Sea-Dweller is undeniably one of the most important diving watches ever designed. Yet, despite this particular piece’s remarkable provenance, it’s still remarkable that a ‘tool watch’ designed in collaboration with industrial divers back in 1967 should command proper haute-luxe prices.

Truth is, the diving watch is that potent cocktail of plebian extremity; a typically unfulfilled exercise of high engineering that serves as a powerful status symbol on civvy street. Just as you’ll never take your supercar to 207mph unless you’re riding shotgun with Jenson Button on a McLaren PR junket, you’ll almost certainly never take your Sea-Dweller down to 1,220m.

In fact, it’s only ever been as far as a record 534m in 1988, and even that required its elite Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises (COMEX) diver to wear a hyperbaric suit. To be honest, most serious divers favour the multifunctionality of a digital Suunto anyway.

“[Mechanical Swiss] dive watches transcend their purpose and now represent a derring-do that is largely absent in our modern lives,” ruminates Jason Heaton, watch expert for Gear Patrol and an experienced diver himself. “It is akin to the booming popularity of ‘work wear’ clothing and 4x4 vehicles, all allowing men to recapture a bit of the adventurous spirit from the golden age of exploration. Wearing one to the office hints at a more interesting life beyond the beige cubicles, whether imaginary or real.”

Indeed, it was the amateur recreational scene, with access to new SCUBA technology, that properly accelerated the diving watch’s development, long before the extremities of the Sea-Dweller et al. And yet again, it was Rolex who kickstarted everything, with the Submariner of 1953, resistant to 100 metres.

To this day, the Sub’s groundbreaking spec continues to define the diving-watch standard: screwed-down crown to seal the case, like the hatch on a submarine; screwed-down “Oyster” caseback; rotating bezel to time your dive up to 60 minutes; plus luminous numerals for easy reading in the murky depths.

After the Sub’, Omega swiftly followed up in 1957 with the similarly immortal and ubiquitous Seamaster, and then, seemingly, everyone was in on the act. Even the Japanese were quick to prove their chops in this emerging market, with the country’s Antarctic Research Expedition of 1966–69 all being kitted out with a Seiko diving watch.

“Divers came into prominence at the height of wristwatch development in the 1960s,” says Heaton, “so the style of that era, marrying craftsmanship with rugged purposefulness really appeals from a stylistic point of view.” This might have something to do with the fact every cinematic incarnation of Commander James Bond has worn either a Submariner or a Seamaster (plus a few non-aquatic, digital Seiko’s funnily enough, in Roger Moore’s Seventies heyday).

“Let’s face it, much like 007, diving watches are uncomplicated creatures, and the specs of the original ones from the 50s would still do fine today,” Heaton says of the genre’s modern era. “But watchmakers are irrepressible tinkerers, hence the absurd depth ratings of Hublot’s Oceanographic 4000 for example,” he says referring to the high-tech brand’s limited edition, rated all the way down to 4,000 metres. “But again, it’s a talking point at the water cooler on Monday morning…”

It also happens to be the perfect choice of wristwear when summer comes. Even if you harbour an abject aversion to seawater or jellyfish, let alone getting a PADI certificate, a diving watch means you can plunge straight into the hotel swimming pool without even thinking about it; or splash off the sand from a day’s sunbathing without a care.

Plus, an innate cool factor means it will always straddle beach and beach bar effortlessly.

5 things you may not know about sub-aqua timepieces

• Almost 30 years before Rolex launched their bona-fide Submariner diving watch, the foundations were laid in 1926 with the immortal ‘Oyster’ case. In a stroke of marketing genius, the Swiss giant ran a full-page advertorial on the cover of the Daily Mail that year, heralding the success of their new Oyster, strapped to the wrist of one Mercedes Gleitze during her English Channel swimming attempt.

• Blancpain invented the circumferential “bezel” ring in 1953 for the military, which allows you to align a triangular marker with the minutes hand and read off elapsed dive time. These days, decent diving watches have bezels that you can only rotate anti-clockwise – reason being, if you accidentally knock it against some coral during a dive, it’ll only move to display a longer elapsed time, falsely alerting you to less remaining oxygen in your tank rather than a potentially lethal perceived surfeit of air.

• Lots of brands love to boast of their diving watches’ helium escape valve – first introduced by, you guessed it, Rolex for their commercial Sea-Dweller model, made public in 1969 by Doxa. But it’s a feature that’s useless even to the keenest scuba diver. It is in fact designed for industrial divers who spend hours in a bathyscaphe diving bell. The air mix contains helium, whose atoms are tiny enough to leak into even the tightest watch case. Without a special valve, the helium wouldn’t escape quickly enough during repressurisation, and could ‘pop’ the crystal out.

• A ‘true divers’ watch’ even has its own ISO standard, 6425. Introduced in 1996, it demands – among many other exacting criteria – at least 100m water resistance, the ability to time dives with a rotating, circumferential bezel ring, legibility in the dark from a distance of 25cm and even end-of-life indication in case the watch is battery-powered.

• Quoted water resistance of any watch, not just diving watches, is the deepest the watch can go without water leaking in, but only under perfectly still conditions. In reality, flailing your arms around underwater creates eddies around the case’s joins and junctures, and therefore adds to the water pressure. So a “200m” diving watch is just about good enough for a scuba lesson; your “30m” dress watch will survive a light rain shower at best…

Five to dive: The horological waterbabies rocking our boat this year

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe 38mm
£TBC, blancpain.com

Preceding Rolex’s Submariner by less than a year, it was Blancpain who first introduced the rotating bezel to a production watch – on its Fifty Fathoms in 1953. Like Panerai’s ersatz diving watches made by Rolex (again) for the Italian Navy back in the Thirties, it was a military commission – this time from the French elite divers unit called ‘nageurs de combat’. The modern, haute horlogerie incarnation bears little similarity, but progress is a good thing – especially when it comes in crisp, ultra-contemporary lines such as this, and in a smaller size than the sector’s typical wrist ballast.

Tudor Heritage Black Bay Steel
£2,580, tudorwatch.com

Hans Wilsdorf founded his Tudor label in 1946, exactly 40 years after founding Rolex. Less than a decade later, he launched in parallel to the immortal Submariner the Tudor equivalent, a rose-tinted reissue of which is now spearheading Tudor’s exuberant revival, now kitted out with an in-house movement for the bafflingly low price of two and half grand.

Panerai Luminor Submersible 1950 3 Days Automatic Bronzo
£TBC, panerai.com

Florentine naval equipment supplier Panerai was a diving-watch frontrunner in the Thirties, recruiting Rolex to make them a limited and now-highly-collectable run of cushion-shaped pieces for the Italian Navy’s elite frogmen. That cushion shape endured, the emphasis on diving less so, but the Submersible collection has endured, now fitted with a rough-hewn case of marine-grade bronze that will patinate to a unique, salty-seadog green crust – surface corrosion that actually protects the metal beneath.

Bremont Supermarine Type S301
£2,995, bremont.com

New from Britain’s rapidly expanding military-style watchmaker, this watch’s namesake derives from the 1930’s aircraft company, Supermarine, whose first ever Spitfire prototype – the Type 300 – led to one of Britain’s most iconic aircraft. We love the retro, but not mawkishly vintage, styling in combination with every hipster’s favourite horological accessory, the “NATO” nylon strap, which is still a standard MoD part.

Seiko Prospex First Diver’s 1965 Modern Reinterpretation SPB053
€900, seiko.co.uk

It wasn’t just the Swiss who proved themselves as diving-watch pioneers – in Japan, Seiko’s efforts helped define some ongoing characteristics to the horological genre, such as magnetic resistance and the use of lightweight titanium for the case. This year’s super-smart modernisation of 1965’s watershed model is a brave move in an industry awash with slavish reissues, but make sure you go for the “accordion” silicone strap, which expands to fit around your wetsuit – another Seiko innovation of 1975.

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