The Wristwatch as Tool – Purpose-Designed Dive Watches
Contemporary wristwatch case design foundations were established during the latter half of the 19th century, as described in Part I of this series. Several names stand out for their early innovation of design features adopted later by household name watch producers. Among others, Dennison, Waltham, Droz and Borgel each contributed important pieces (e.g., threaded bezel and case back, threaded crown and packing or gland seals) or improved their use in overall case designs providing enhanced resistance to the elements.
Part II further explored wristwatch case innovation, concluding that most early 20th century “transitional” watch cases essentially combined elements developed in the late 19th century – albeit often in new, innovative ways. With the mid-20th century came two world wars, driving refinements to earlier designs and experimentation with new materials. Part III considered further innovations, evolving towards specialized “tool watch” designs. This fourth installment in our series focuses on one segment of the increasingly important and popular tool watch sector – purpose-designed dive watches.
Earliest “True Dive Watches” – Omega Marine (1932) & Panerai Radiomir (1936)
Through the early 1900s the need for a true dive watch simply did not exist. But as the 20th Century marched on, the need increased for specialized “tool watches” that could stand up to the rigors of extreme outdoor conditions. The two earliest purpose-designed dive watches were the Omega Marine and Panerai Radiomir. Both are discussed in Part II of this series, but highlights are summarized below for context on later dive watch designs.
Omega’s Marine diver prevented winding stem leakage by encasing the entire watch within a second, external case. The Marine’s internal case was fitted with a gasket which was compressed when inserted in the external case. When submerged, increasing water pressure further compressed the two cases, resulting in a more effective seal with greater depth. The design required interior case removal for winding, but this was a minor inconvenience for a tool watch not intended for everyday wear. The Marine gained fame following its use by Aqua-Lung inventor, French Navy Commander Yves Le Prieur, and by American Bathysphere explorer Dr. William Beebe.
The Radiomir, by contrast, was designed for Italy’s Royal Navy frogmen commando corps. Lacking its own manufacturing capabilities, Panerai turned to Rolex for a purpose-designed dive watch, employing a 47mm adapted version of the early Oyster case. The first Radiomirs were supplied in 1936, with luminous dials as the name suggests. The earliest Radiomirs lacked the oversize crown guard that has since become synonymous with Panerai. Perhaps ironically, the now iconic crown guard was a later addition designed to keep the crown seal compressed given the Oyster crown threads and gasket were prone to rapid wear, compromising water resistance.
Earliest Commercial Divers – Blancpain Fifty Fathoms & Zodiac Sea Wolf (1953)
Although Omega and Panerai had introduced the first purpose-designed true dive watches, both were intended for dedicated diving tool use given the limited consumer market. Following WWII, however, consumer demand grew for practical designs appropriate for recreational diving and all-around sporting wear. The earliest such commercial market dive watches continue to be household names. The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms and Zodiac Sea Wolf both were introduced at the 1953 Basel Fair; both are credited as the first commercially available diver’s watches.
As its name suggests, Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms was rated for depths up to 300 ft (50 fathoms, or ~91m). In 1952, France established an elite commando force, the Nageuers de Combat, commanded by Captain Maloubier. After Lip passed on his design, Cpt. Maloubier approached Blancpain, which supplied the earliest Maloubier divers to the French Navy under subcontract through La Spirotechnique, founded in 1947 to distribute Jacques Cousteau’s Aqua-Lung regulator, at that time exclusive equipment supplier to the French military. Hence, like the Panarai Radiomir, the Fifty Fathoms claims military roots pre-dating its commercial success.
Zodiac’s Sea Wolf also was a purpose-designed dive watch that, along with its sibling Aerospace GMT version, later became a favorite of US military forces during the Vietnam conflict. The Sea Wolf employed a specially designed snap-on caseback with a gasket seal, marked “20 ATM Especially Water Tested.” This new case seal system was combined with a thick domed acrylic crystal and longer crown tube, making the Sea Wolf a genuine diver tool watch, with a 200m (660 ft) depth rating. The Zodiac also boasted an external bidirectional steel “countdown” bezel, and was powered by the thin but robust Cal. 70-72 automatic movement, jointly developed by A. Schild and ETA, with hacking mechanism added to subsequent models.
Close on Their Heels – Rolex Submariner (1954)
Although the Panarai Radiomir employed a modified version of the Oyster case (described in Part II), it wasn’t until the early 1950s that Rolex commenced developing a true dive watch for the consumer market. The concept has been attributed to René-Paul Jeanneret – a member of Rolex’s Board of Directors, scuba enthusiast and friend of Jacques-Yves Cousteau. In September 1953, Rolex tested a diver prototype affixed to Auguste Piccard’s Bathyscaphe submarine, which achieved a depth of over 3,100 meters.
When the Submariner became available in 1954, three models were offered: Ref. 6200, with self-winding Cal. A296 movement and 200m water resistance; Ref. 6204 with 100m water resistance; and Ref. 6205, with self-winding Cal. A260 and 100m water resistance. The Submariner’s water resistance derived in part from its “Twinlock” crown, combining elements of the original Oyster screw-down crown combined with an o-ring gasket inside the crown tube or pendant (both concepts borrowed from earlier innovators including Waltham, Droz and Borgel). Early models lacked crown-guards, and the “Submariner” branding didn’t appear on the dial until late 1954.
Taking it Up a Notch – Omega Seamaster 300 (1957)
Recognizing the growing consumer market for sport-influenced wristwatches, in 1957 Omega released a trio of sport watches, including the Seamaster 300 diver (ref. CK2913). The original Omega Seamaster was introduced in 1948, later supplied to RAF crews. Testing of these early Seamasters reportedly confirmed water resistance to 60 meters. The Seamaster 300 took it to a new level, officially rated to 200m water resistance – although Omega claimed this resulted from testing equipment limitations rather than case design limitations, implying even greater depth capabilities. In 1964 Omega unveiled the Seamaster 300 Ref. 165.02X. The case diameter increased from 39mm to 42mm, and the new model received a thicker bezel with wider insert, featuring individual minute markings around the dial. The original model’s arrow-shaped hands also were replaced with large, sword-shaped hands. The second-generation Seamaster 300 was issued to the British Royal Navy.
From 1963-66/67, Huguenin SA Le Locle-Suisse were Omega’s primary case suppliers for the Seamaster 300. Huguenin Frères also gained fame from their 1958 collaboration with Certina to develop the innovative DS case, incorporating a patented “double security” movement suspension. A portion of case production later shifted to Fabrique la Centrale SA Bienne, with a corresponding shift from Acier Staybrite to Acier Inoxydable stainless steel suppliers. Staybrite is trademarked chromium-nickel steel with roots dating to the origin of corrosion resistant stainless steel, the only patented Swiss stainless steel (Firth AG, 1954), used extensively in the watch industry due to its high corrosion resistance and polishing properties.
Function Meets Elegance – Aquastar (1962)
Another iconic dive watch line with a connection to Jacques Cousteau, Aquastar was founded in 1962 by Frédéric Robert, who inherited the JeanRichard brand from his father. Robert changed the company’s name and re-focused the brand on watches and other instruments purpose-designed for professional divers and aquatic sports. With a beautifully polished 37.5mm stainless steel case, the Aquastar 63 was among the brand’s most iconic models. While relatively large compared to some divers of the era, such as Zodiac’s Sea Wolf, the Aquastar 63 was smaller and thinner than the Rolex Submariner and dispensed with the inconvenience of a screw-down crown, despite its 200M water resistance.
A streamlined model without bezel, the Grand’Air struck a more elegant note, although still rated to 10 atm (100m). Aquastar’s simple, elegant case design quickly became an icon, copied by numerous brands ranging from Bulova (Sea Hunter) to Seiko (62MAS), among many others. Aquastar also claimed the 63 as the first dive watch with an internal rotating dive bezel. External bezels provide greater water-tightness, but are prone to unintended movement during use. The Aquastar 63’s interior bezel also just looks fabulous; thus, like its case, the Aquastar internal bezel design also was widely copied – perhaps most famously by EPSA, whose dual-crown internal bezel Super Compressor divers also have become iconic unto themselves.
Japan Takes the Plunge – Citizen super Jet 150m (1964) and Seiko 62MAS-10 (1965)
One of Japan’s earliest watchmakers was Seiko founder Kintaro Hattori, who initially imported Swiss clocks and watches. By 1892, Hattori-san established his now famous Seikosha factory in Tokyo, producing watches with assistance from engineers trained in Le Locle, Switzerland. Seiko pioneered Japan’s first wristwatch, chronograph, and dive watch – the Seiko-Matic Selfdater powered by Cal. 62, AKA the “62MAS-010.”
Released in 1965, Seiko’s 62-MAS-010 represented a significant technical advancement for Japan’s watchmaking industry – a 150m waterproof wristwatch with robust case (styled after the Aquastar 63), double sealed crown, rotating bezel, luminous hands and indexes, and quickset date function (missing from the Rolex Submarinar Date Ref. 1680 introduced the same year). Given this combination of features, it’s no surprise the Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition (JARE) selected the 62MAS for hard-duty use from 1966 to 1969.
Citizen has a more complex history, driven in significant part by Swiss and US partnerships. In 1894 Rodolphe Schmid, owner of the Chromis-Cassardes Watch factory in Neuchâtel, moved to Yokohoma and became one of Japan’s top watch merchants. Two decades later Kamekichi Yamasaki founded the Shokosha Watch Research Institute in Tokyo using machinery from Europe and the United States. Ultimately the two would combine to form Citizen Watch Company in 1930, followed in 1932 by acquisition of Star Shokai, another company founded in part by Schmid to import Mido watches to Japan.
In 1959 Citizen launched its first water resistant watch, the Para-Water. In 1963 the company staged a brilliant marketing campaign, attaching 130 self-winding Para-Water Jet automatic wristwatches to buoys and releasing them from a ship into the Pacific Ocean. After floating on ocean currents the buoys were retrieved near the North American coast a year later – all 130 watches were still working. Citizen’s first dive watches stayed mostly in Japan’s domestic market, but in 1969 the 4-740131 Y (later known as Challenge divers) was marketed worldwide, becoming a much loved divers watch. Citizen and Seiko are still making state of the art divers today.
US Special Ops Diver – Benrus Type I & II (1972)
Founded in New York by Benjamin Lazrus and his brothers, Benrus imported Swiss watch movements and cased them in NYC. When the US military upgraded their field watch design in the early 1960s, Benrus was awarded the exclusive contract to produce DTU-2A field watches for Vietnam service. Thus, when the US military upgraded its dive watch Mil-Spec in the early 1970s Benrus was well positioned, selected again to supply divers meeting MIL-W-50717.
The so-called Benrus Type I & II were true purpose-designed divers, with a case measuring 43mm wide and 16mm tall, a recessed crown, and water resistance rating of 1,200 ft (~365m). Two dial styles were offered – Type I, with lumed markers at each hour (a triangle at 12 and rectangles at 3, 6, and 9) and dots at the other hours; and Type II, with a traditional 12/24-hour military dial featuring small lumed triangles at each hour. Both versions were powered by the Benrus GS1D2 self-winding movement (ETA 2620 base).
Both also were produced as Class A or B – Class A with tritium hands and markers, and Class B without lume for use in locations sensitive to even the smallest amounts of tritium (e.g., on nuclear-powered submarines). While not exclusive to a specific branch of the services, Type I was most commonly issued to the US Navy UDT/SEAL teams, EOD and Dive teams, but also saw service in the field and by the CIA.
Heuer 844 Monnin – MRP SA (1979)
Heuer’s first dive watch, the Ref. 844 or “Monnin,” was released in 1979 in response to growing demand for a commercial dive watch; indeed, sales of the new 844 were so strong the model was reputed to have rescued Heuer from the quartz crisis. More accustomed to producing racing-inspired chronographs, Heuer sourced the earliest Ref. 844 divers from Monnin SARL (originally Ets G Monnin, founded in 1946 by Valéry & Gérald Monnin near Besançon). These early French-made variants were powered by the self-winding France Ebauches (FE) 4611A, with date complication and rotor signed “G Monnin.” Later Swiss-made 844 models were powered by ETA 2872
The early French-made 844 divers and later Swiss-produced models all shared a 42mm stainless steel case, larger than the Seamaster and Submariner models of the time. The robust 200m MRP SA case featured beveled lugs, a unidirectional bezel with 60-minute countdown and prominent crown guards for its screw-down crown. These robust, patented cases (brevet 503.305) were used to house divers produced by many well-known brands of the era, ranging from Breitling to Yema (the iconic Yema Superman being just one example, released in 1963 and supplied to the French Airforce). The original French-made Heuer Monnin’s caseback was engraved “844” on the exterior, with the interior signed G Monnin.
By the 1960s wristwatch case design had reached a new level of specialisation. While movement quality remained imperative, the state of the art had progressed and standardised sufficiently that most quality watch brands (and even some “no-name” brands) often employed movements of similar quality. By the latter-half of the 20th Century, case design had become at least as important as movement quality in differentiating the best watch brands, and in distinguishing purpose-designed models for specialised tool uses such as hard-duty military or sporting applications.
Among the most specialised and highly engineered of these tool watch cases were purpose-designed dive watches. Initially designed for exploration and specialised military applications, then seeing increasing popularity with consumers, the dive watch ultimately became ubiquitous for both true dive applications and as a multi-purpose sport watch. Indeed, the diver and sport watch genre more generally has come to be equally at home in the office as in the ocean or field.