The history of dive watches: Who created the first?

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A subject of fierce contest, as is always the case when the topic of who came up with what first arises. Loyal supporters from different camps substantiate their claims. Who’s telling the truth? All arguments seemed to sound right. Could they all be right? 

Water resistance (and not just in watches) is a trait we easily take for granted these days, what with the technological and industrial improvements we’ve had over the better part of the last half century. 

Dive watches of every shape and form, offered from fine Swiss houses to mass production watch companies are embraced and celebrated by collectors and amateurs for its sporty and versatile designs today. The knowledge of the trials taken to create such an iconic product, however, are somewhat limited.

The allure of the deep blue has captivated men from time immemorial. To quote Don Walsh, an American explorer who has delved into the Marianas Trench – the deepest point in the ocean known to men:

“More men have walked on the moon than have been to the deepest place in the ocean.”

Our fascination with the great unknown has driven men to set out on plucky expeditions to satisfy that desire of providing answers to questions previously left unanswered. That we – as the apex predator of the food chain – know so little about the world we inhabit and reign over, has plagued us like an itch behind the eyeballs. It is this itch that has spurred men to develop the means and devices to explore the regions deemed to be impenetrable. 

The dive watch was one such device.

First attempts at waterproofing watches

In 1926, Hans Wilsdorf, the founder of Rolex, filed a patent for an ‘oyster case’ in Britain. The components of the oyster case include a screw down crown, case back and bezel. When combined, it sealed the watch tight as an oyster preventing water from penetrating into its insides, much like how a shut oyster is able to keep foreign particles out of its shell.

Interestingly, Hans Wilsdorf did not invent  it. The original design was patented by Paul Perregaux (no relation to Girald Perreguax) and Georges Peret a year before. Seeing the patent’s potential, Hans negotiated for its purchase and succeeded.

In 1927, the Rolex Oyster made its debut.

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A 1927 Rolex Oyster. The riveted crown at 3 o clock features a screw down mechanism that could be tightened prior to going into the water

The Rolex Oyster and the patented oyster case design gained public recognition shortly after when Mercedes Gleitze swam across the English Channel wearing one around her neck. The event was monumental on 2 counts – it was the first time a British woman swam across the channel. Also, the Rolex Oyster she swam with remained fully functional while losing none of its timekeeping precision after 10 hours of battering in freezing waters.

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Rolex capitalized on Mercedes Gleitze’s success and launched an advertising campaign. She was the first ambassador of Rolex way before James Bond came along.

At this point, let’s establish fact number 1:

Rolex was the company that created the first water resistant wristwatch.

The topic at hand though is an attempt to trace the origins of the dive watch – a watch meant specifically for diving into depths. However, Rolex’s achievement can hardly be ignored as it marks the first step in a series of many through which the process was improved.

Along came Omega

While the Rolex Oyster does a great job of keeping water and moisture out of its case and inner mechanism, it was considered more as a ‘splash-resistant’ watch rather than one that was capable of surviving prolonged submersion underwater. Neither did Rolex make any claims of it to be.

In the 1930s, as diving was transitioning from a purely commercial/scientific activity to a more leisurely pursuit, Omega introduced the Omega Marine – the first wristwatch designed with diving in mind.

In order to avoid any potential infringement of Rolex’s screwed down design, Omega came up with a simple but ingenious design – a case within a case.

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A 1932 Omega Marine

The design of the Omega Marine allowed its normal watch case – worn on all other occasions as an elegant dress watch – to slip into a second waterproof case equipped with a gasket at the back to seal both cases together before embarking on a dive.

It was quickly put to the test. In 1936, a few pieces of the Omega Marine were sunk into Lake Geneva to a depth of 73 metres for 30 minutes; it emerged unharmed and victorious.

From here, we establish fact number 2:

Omega created the first waterproof, and thus, the first dive watch, defined as one with the capability to remain submerged in a reasonable depth over a period of time.

The Rolex Panerai

Since the turn of the 19th century, Officine Panerai, an Italian company, has been supplying precision marine instruments to the Italian Navy.

In 1935, the Regia Marina, the elite diving unit of the Italian Navy approached Panerai and requested for a dive watch for its combat divers. The Omega Marine, whilst having proven itself as a reliable dive watch was not considered for as it was not designed with the military in mind. The Navy had a stringent list of requirements tailored to meet the operational needs of a combat divers.

Panerai sought the help of Rolex and Rolex helped to make Panerai’s earliest watches. The shipment of watches for the Regia Marina featured the same Rolex Oyster case, but blown up to a whopping 47 mm to improve legibility. The dials were also devoid of any brand marking as these watches were military issue and needed to maintain a covert origin. Visibility in dark depths was of utmost priority for combat divers and so, Panerai applied the indexes and hands with Radium – a radioactive material causing them to glow brightly in total darkness. This association with Radium eventually led to one of Panerai’s model – the Radiomir.

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An early Panerai from the 1930s, equipped with a Rolex Oyster case and movement. ‘Rolex Panerais’ are highly sought after by collectors today.

Fact number 3 can now be established:

Panerai (with the assistance of Rolex) created the first military dive watch.

Blancpain: Perfecting all of it

In 1953, Blancpain introduced the Fifty Fathoms to the world. Prior to its unveiling, they had been working with the French Navy to produce the ultimate dive watch. It certainly did help that Blancpain was, then, helmed by Jean-Jacques Feichter – a man as passionate for diving as he was for watchmaking. As the saying goes, follow your passion and great things will come:

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A 1953 Blancpain Fifty Fathoms

In addition to the water resistance, depth resilience and luminescent markings, the Fifty Fathoms had the world’s first rotatable bezel.

The rotatable bezel is critical for tracking a diver’s oxygen supply and to time his duration in depressurisation before ascending among other tasks. A simple but indispensable component – a diver bearing a tank with 30 minutes of oxygen supply simply turns the bezel such that the diamond marker (originally positioned at 12 o clock) aligns with the minute hand before plunging into the sea. The distance between the minute hand and the ’30’ marker on the bezel tells a diver how much longer he can stay submerged before oxygen ran out.

While the tracking of elapsed time is not new (chronographs were already in existence and used in sporting events), the importance of a dive watch bezel’s was a matter of life and death.

Blancpain’s rotatable bezel would become a mainstay of diving watches henceforth.

Fact number 4 is now established:

Blancpain was the first to create a modern dive watch.

A year later, in 1954, Rolex unveiled the Submariner – arguably the most recognizable watch in the world – and the quest to improve the dive watch has never stopped since.

So, who won?

In short, Rolex created the first waterproof case, forcing Omega to think of a way to come up with their own design, which led to the ‘case on case’ patent, hence, creating the first dive watch in the technical sense.

Panerai did not believe the Omega to be good enough for the Italian Navy, and so, decided to strike a partnership with Rolex, resulting in the first military dive watch.

Blancpain, having observed all of the above, set about improving the original incarnations and came out with the first modern dive watch.

No one company deserves more credit than the other. They were all great watchmakers who were working collectively (though unknowingly) to create that one watch that could go as deep as possible.

Hope that clears the air. The next time you hear a debate raging on among the Rolex, Panerai, Blancpain and Omega loyalists, let them know that they were all first, albeit in different ways.

 

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One comment

  1. I think Rolex actually pushed the sub design out under Tudor brand prior to Rolex brand. So, Blancpain > Tudor > Rolex > everyone else….

    Like

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