Style Essential: The Dive Watch

We examine the history, the utility, and the style necessity of wearing a dive watch
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Mar 4, 2015 | By Zach Piña

ex was safe and diving was dangerous," the divemasters would say, when reflecting on the era when the dive watch was king – but for entirely different reasons than what makes it king now. See, back in the early 70s and 80s, a reliable watch was a diver's lifeline, as it was the primary means of tracking bottom time, calculating safety stops (to avoid a fatal case of the bends) and decompression periods, and ultimately, keeping the diver aware of how much air was remaining in one’s cylinder.

So critical to a diver was a good watch, that Zodiac's introduction of the Sea Wolf as the world's first purpose-built "dive watch" in 1953, set off an arms race with naval and expedition contracts and a flag at the bottom of the sea at stake.

This new watch category quickly proliferated with other watch brands following suit with dive innovations of their own; like DOXA's orange dials and oversized minute hands, Rolex's automatic helium release valve, and Omega's locking safety bezel — all of which, were designed to enable divers to explore deeper and longer than ever before.

  • A dive watch is generally regarded as such at 200 meters of water resistance. This is achieved through extremely tight machining tolerances, specially sealed points in the caseback and crown, and exclusive features tailored towards keeping a diver safe underwater
  • dive watch bezel is designed to act as a "dive timer," and its uni-directional rotation is engineered as an added safety measure — should the bezel get bumped or accidentally rotated, it will show that 'more' dive time has elapsed, thereby alerting the diver to ascend early and within the limits of his air supply
  • The first 15 minutes on a dive bezel usually features extra color or demarcations to more legibly outline a diver's safety stops whilst ascending — usually in 10 or 15 minute intervals
  • Good dive watches usually use some type of luminous paint on the dial and hands for low-light legibility. While modern watches generally use some form of "Superluminova," earlier examples used radioactive tritium paint, whose brown or yellowish decay is evident on dials belonging to vintage dive watches
  • Many "professional grade" dive watches feature helium escape valves as a common fixture — another safety measure designed to protect the watch from damage when going from prolonged periods in helium-saturation to the surface (something very few outside highly specialized commercial diving fields ever experience)
  • The deepest a watch has ever dove, was to 11,000 meters in 2012 when a specially-built Rolex was strapped to the robotic claw of a submersible piloted by James Cameron, and driven to Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. Being the deepest known point on the planet, it's safe to say this is as deep as any dive watch will ever go

But diving is a lot safer now, and much less reliant on a mechanical watch, thanks to dive computers, which are far more accurate, reliable and user-friendly.

Just to give you an idea of how far we've come since Cousteau invented the Aqua-Lung (a self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, later dubbed "SCUBA") in 1943; dive computers are now all-in-one devices that display depth, orientation, and water temperature, and can wirelessly connect to the first stage of a diver's regulator to access air supply data and provide real-time feedback on turnaround times, safety stops, and post-dive decompression times, with compensation for altitude or mixed-gas dives — and those are just the entry-level models. 

But even though the mechanical dive watch is something of an anachronism in the modern age of diving, we still love it. Besides, as the wilderness adage goes, "two is one, and one is none" — or rather, you're only as safe as the reliability of your backup. Which brings us back to the venerable dive watch — a fascinating piece of style history for your wrist that still serves a critical redundancy underwater, while doubling as an exceptional style statement above water.

This is probably best illustrated by the world’s greatest super-spy, who famously strapped a Rolex Submariner to his wrist to complete a perfectly tuxedoed look in Goldfinger, then later wore it while dispatching baddies with extreme prejudice underwater in Thunderball. Later 'Bonds' would eschew Rolex in favor of the Omega Seamaster, but the same spirit of capability and sophistication of the dive watch would live on — a style essential whose allure illustrates the metaphor of Mr. Bond himself.
So why wear a dive watch? The reasons are relatively simple: given the diver's place in sartorial history, these are accessories designed to accompany you no matter where you go — even if it's to the bottom of the sea. Should the watch need to accompany you elsewhere, you can rest assured that it'll perform faithfully and require little maintenance.

Not unlike a Land Rover Defender, there’s an undeniable allure to capability — regardless of whether or not you’re diving Dean’s Blue Hole or tackling the Trans Canadian Trail. So as you look to select your next wrist companion, we've always found that the most important part of the equation is identifying what you'll use it for; which is why we've outlined three main style contexts, and what to look for when selecting your next diver. 

Assuming you've already gotten your PADI certification, or you're needing a wrist companion for your next spearfishing expedition, you'll want a watch that has the following: 

• At least 200m of water resistance
• A highly legible dial with high-contrast illumination
• Uni-directional, rotating count-up bezel
• Domed sapphire crystal with anti-reflective coating for added legibility at all angles in the water
• ISO 6425 an added bonus (confirmation of corrosion and water resistance, and fixed strap strength) 
• Either a durable rubber strap, or a bracelet with a wetsuit extension
• 316L stainless steel case or better (for maximum corrosion resistance)
• Watch the size, some purpose-built divers run upwards of 44mm, which can be tricky to wear topside

If you're more of the land-lubbing type, and just want a capable and reliable sport watch that doesn't look too out-of-place on a dinner date, you'll want: 

• A clean, simple dial — the classic three-hander is best
• Either a bracelet or a smooth leather strap — a NATO is ok, but be mindful of adding too much color
• Contrasting polished angles in the dial, bezel, and on the bracelet. ultimately, it shouldn’t be overly matte
• Applied (raised), not printed indices for added contrast and dial depth
• Not too much color — subtle 'pop' is good, clashing with your brogues is not

The rugged, airtight construction of a good dive watch makes it an excellent companion on your next wilderness trek. If this is what you're after, seek out: 

• Powerful lume (like tritium or Superluminova) for trekking in the dark
• A breathable NATO or Zulu style strap adds security, and can be worn outside a field jacket if needed
• Flat sapphire crystal with anti-reflective coating to minimize glare from the sun or a flashlight 
• A timing bezel — countdown or count-up, and either uni or bi-directional rotation is fine

Remember, at the end of the day, the watch-buying experience should be a pretty fun one — especially if you're looking to own something 'for the long haul,' so take your time, ask plenty of questions, and don't be afraid to drop us a line if you ever get stuck. Happy hunting. [H]

Zach Piña is Huckberry's Managing Editor and resident watch nerd.
In another life, he was a pastry chef on Zissou's Bellefonte. 
Follow him on Instagram here

Composite image: Cousteau Society, Telegraph
All other images: Huckberry