The Evolution Of The Dive Watch

GQ’s Deputy Editor Bill Prince writes exclusively for The Watch Gallery on the evolution of the dive watch…

“There are those who still wonder at the resurgent popularity of mechanical watches. After all, time-keeping is far more accurate – if necessarily reliant on extinguishable power sources – using quartz.

But the rest of us understand how the near-magical properties of a mechanical movement elevate the task of telling the time in a way more recent technologies haven’t quite achieved.

But I’ll admit one recent trend in the horological world slightly defeats me: the rise of the ‘vintage’ diving watch. Make no mistake, the world’s first water – and dust- proof case, developed by Hans Wilsdorf and the basis of the Rolex megabrand, pushed the wristwatch further forward than perhaps any other innovation – suddenly the hitherto dainty timepiece had the wherewithal to travel beyond the drawing room for the very first time.

It made sense for divers to deploy this innovation – with the arrival of the SCUBA system in the early Fifties, timing dives and in particular the rate of ascent was crucial to safety. So it’s little wonder that the great examples of diving watches arrived at much the same time: Rolex’s much-imitated Submariner, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, and later, even a waterproofed version of Jaeger LeCoultre’s Memovox alarm watch.

Each has its place in the history of horology – and each has been revived more or less simultaneously. But why? Perhaps the reason is that such watches supremely encapsulate what a ‘tool’ timepiece is all about – strong, bold designs intended to deliver legibility, with a proven track record for surviving in situations that would destroy lesser timepieces.

And it’s perhaps this combination of simplicity of use and indestructibility/robustness that’s so in tune with the times. And as our watch collections grow, so we all feel the need for something a little chunkier and more adventurous to run alongside the classic three-hand gold-cased watches we all know and love.

Officine Panerai may well have kicked off the trend back in the Nineties (and the whole ‘big watch’ craze that ran along with it) but now even the ‘dressiest’ brands have picked up on it: the Calibre de Cartier line gained a divers piece this year, a necessary supplement to the otherwise classic collection of automatics and chronographs, and a serious sports watch to boot: waterproof to 300m, it carries the authentic (and authenticating) international standard for diver watch classification, IS0 6425.

With its uni-directional timing bezel and an unusually slim case (just 11mm) for a diver’s watch, it’s a legitimate, handsome addition to the line.

Elsewhere, other brands are working hard to update their diving ranges; IWC announced a major overhaul of its Aquatimer this year, also adding for the first time a perpetual calendar with digital date-month displays.

TAG Heuer’s Aquaracer line continues to offer solidly-built automatic and chronographs for fans of all water sports, while Rolex, interestingly, has de-‘hulked’ its pro-diver line this year by focusing not on its hefty Deepsea (capable of descending to 4,000m), but the altogether more wearable Sea Dweller. The case incorporates a helium escape valve and the instantly adjustable bracelet allows the wearer to adapt to a bulky wetsuit.

Other stalwarts in the field are Omega, whose Seamaster range (originally launched in 1957) sees several recent innovations in the use of synthetic materials incorporated into its movements, and Girard-Perregaux, whose Sea Hawk features all the hallmarks of a professional tool watch, including an offset crown at 4pm that prevents snagging whilst underwater.

For those less bothered with plunging to the depths of the ocean, several brands have delivered products with flair as well as function. Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak Offshore Diver comes in a ferociously hard ceramic case, ensuring it dazzles above as well as below the waves. And a welcome return to the UK market this autumn comes in the form of Tudor’s ‘neo-vintage’ Pelagos, not a million miles away from its close relative the Rolex Submariner but at an eminently reasonable sub-£3,000 price point.

But perhaps the overriding reason to invest in a diver’s watch is its appeal as perhaps the ultimate ‘knockabout’ timepiece. Honed to deliver years of subaquatic service has ensured such timepieces will resist whatever the weekend can throw at it – the more rugged the better.”

Bill Prince is the deputy editor of British GQ, and the editor of GQWatch.