Although the oceans were conquered long before wristwatches were invented, horology and the science of keeping time played a vital role in making navigation on the high seas possible. Mastering surface exploration of the seas was a 19th century development, plumbing the depths was a more recent developing, with the evolution of the modern dive watch taking place from the 1950s to the 1990s.
A dive watch is not simply water resistant – which was something Rolex accomplished with the Oyster in 1926. Instead, a dive watch is specifically designed for diving, from recreational scuba to professional deep sea saturation diving. Unsurprisingly, Rolex figures hugely in the story of the dive watch. Rolex’s intense dedication to performance engineering, legibility and fundamental watchmaking values that have helped set its dive watches apart from the field.
One of the all-time greats in the category, and arguably the first, is undoubtedly the Rolex Submariner. Introduced in 1953, the Submariner was the first dive watch water-resistant to a depth of 100m, or 330ft, a rating that soon grew to 200m the same year, and then to 300m, where it stands today.
The first Submariner was equipped a rotating, graduated bezel to record elapsed time underwater, while the intelligently designed dial relied on geometric shapes to identify the orientation of the watch and differentiate the quarters from the other hours. Add to that the distinct shapes of the hands, now known as “Mercedes hands”, and you have the design template for which all subsequent dive watches have utilized.
Launched nearly 15 years after the Submariner was the first Sea-Dweller. It evolved from the Submariner with only one purpose: to serve professional divers going to great depths. The case was thicker than the Submariner’s and rated to 610m, and soon included a helium escape valve for saturation diving.
With its red text, crisp white print, stunningly beautiful proportions and cutting-edge capabilities, it is no wonder that the vintage Sea-Dweller is a collectors’ sweetheart today. And Rolex recently paid tribute to the original last year when it rolled out the current Sea-Dweller, slightly larger but the same thickness, and featuring the classic red lettering on the dial, maintaining the appeal and relevancy of the Sea-Dweller fifty years after it was invented.
As professionals were getting more serious dive watches, the 1970s also saw the rise of the luxury sports watches, able to withstand the depths but less for divers than for who never left the decks of yachts. That trend started with the Royal Oak of 1972, a watch that is as iconic as the dive watches of Rolex.
Gerald Genta’s inspired design was based on the octagonal portholes of a ship, and brought about an entirely new era for luxury watches altogether. Crafted from steel and designed to be much larger and much bolder than high-end watches at the time – which were almost entirely in gold or platinum – the Royal Oak slowly but surely achieved an irreversible breakthrough in watch taste. The Patek Philippe Nautilus, also designed by Genta, followed shortly after in 1976, no doubt because of the shift in market taste. It is arguably because of the Royal Oak that high-end watches today are available in all forms, and even in materials that are not intrinsically expensive or luxurious.
Since then, the Royal Oak has grow to include countless iterations, from the most conservative remakes of the original to grand complications, and to actual Royal Oak Divers equipped with with rotating inner bezels and enhanced depth ratings, no doubt for the modern man who takes his aquatic recreation seriously.
The 1980s was a most peculiar era, notably in product design. As far as high-end dive watches are concerned, the IWC Porsche Design Ocean 2000 is a watch that has been gaining more and more traction among watch lovers of today – some 40 years after it was launched. It was the result of a collaboration: Porsche Design worked with IWC between 1977 and 1997, and the Ocean 2000 was arguably its greatest hit.
Originally designed for German navy combat divers, the Ocean 2000 was water resistant to a depth of 2,000m – a record setting depth rating at the time. It came in a 43mm wide titanium case, but smooth and streamlined like a 911, and even with a matching titanium bracelet – making it a pioneer in the use of the lightweight alloy, decades before it caught on in the mainstream.
Military origins also inform the development of another iconic dive watch: the Panerai Luminor. When Panerai watches became more widely available in the 1990s, they were a sensation, being massively oversized for the era, with 44mm cases and an enormous crown locking mechanism. The Luminor became a hit with celebrities, and one of the major success stories of the 2000s.
But the design was no gimmick, it was a recreation of a dive watch developed for the Italian navy that progressed over several decades from the 1930s to the 1950s, with the Luminor being the ultimate evolution of the concept. Its cushion case, round bezel and minimalist dial have made put the Luminor on a winning streak that’s now closing on 30 years. And that perhaps illustrates the fundamental qualities of a winning dive watch – form follows function, and even when the function is no longer needed, the form endures.