Into the deep: The story of history's greatest dive watches

Richard Brown

22 July 2022

From Rolex’s Submariner to Panerai's Submersible, and from Omega's Seamaster to Blancpain's Fifty Fathoms, these are the most iconic dive watches of all time

22 July 2022 | Richard Brown

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ere's the thing, the deepest anyone has ever dived is 701 metres. That record was set by Théo Mavrostomos in 1992. In the 30 years since no one has dived deeper than that legendary Greek-Frenchmen. Which makes the fact that Tag Heuer’s Aquaracer Superdiver 1000 will continue to tick to a depth of 1,000 metres very impressive stuff, but, well, a tad irrelevant. Ditto Rolex’s Deepsea (3,900 metres) and Hublot’s King Power Diver (4,000 metres). Then again, all of this is beside the point, isn’t it?*

Dive watches transcended the niche market or which they were intended almost as soon as they were invented. For decades, dive watches have allowed us to channel our inner James Bond (a Rolex Submariner in the books; an Omega Seamaster since 1995 in the films). They speak to the pioneering adventures of underwater filmmaker Jacques Cousteau (who, along with Submariners, had a fondness for Blancpain Fifty Fathoms and at least one Doxa Sub 300). The robust nature and handsome ruggedness of the dive watch has made it the ultimate, go-anywhere timepiece. Just ask Prince William. He's been photographed wearing his Omega Seamaster on occasions as varied as helicopter rescue missions, hospital visits and his wedding day.  

A brief history. While there had been waterproof watches prior to the 1950s – during the '20s and '30s, Rolex, Cartier, Omega and Panerai had all devised ways of keeping water out of watches through the use of special cases and crowns – the modern dive watch, that is to say, a watch that could withstand the pressures of the sort of deep-sea diving that followed the advent of SCUBA in 1943 (co-created by our friend Cousteau, don’t you know), only materialised in 1953 – when Blancpain, Rolex and a company called Zodiac turned up to the same party all at once. 

 
 

Differing in their approach stylistically, although not all that much, really, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, Rolex Submariner and Zodiac Sea Wolf (I know, great name, right?) took a question of function and answered in near identical form. All three watches were characterised by robust cases, highly-legible indices, innovative crown-locking systems and uni-directional bezels etched with time intervals, which could be used to calculate time elapsed underwater.

Since 1996, to call itself a dive watch, a timepiece must meet criteria laid down by the International Organisation of Standardisation. To wit, a dive watch must be able to function 100 metres below water; allow a diver to measure periods of elapsed times (hence rotating minute bezels); indicate that the watch is running (usually via a sweeping seconds hand); and be visible in the dark from a distance of 25 centimetres (there's other stuff, but it gets a bit techie).     

70 years since the emergence (submergence?) of the modern dive watch, these are the greatest (and latest versions thereof) of horology’s most iconic underwater explorers...

*The record for the deepest a watch has ever dived, by the way, is held by Omega’s Seamaster Planet Ocean Ultra Deep. In 2019, three prototypes descended to 10,935 metres while strapped to the hull of a James Cameron-piloted Deepsea Challenger submersible (pipping, by 19 metres, a record set by Rolex in 1960).

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms

Here’s the story. In the early 1950s, an elite team of French frogmen wanted a watch they could take with them underwater. Unable to find what they were after, their leader, Bob Maloubier, sketched the sort of thing they were looking for. After approaching several larger watchmakers, Blancpain agreed to take on the challenge. Working with Maloubier, Blancpain’s CEO Jean-Jacques Fiechter, a keen diver himself, came up with the Fifty Fathoms – a watch named after the maximum depth to which it was then safely possible to dive (around 91 metres).

Highly legible, tough as nails, and featuring an anti-magnetic inner case and unidirectional bezel, the Fifty Fathoms boasted almost all of the criteria that would inform the IOS when it was coming up with a standardisation for dive watches four decades later.

The Fifty Fathoms may not quite be to Blancpain what the Royal Oak is to Audemars Piguet, or what the Nautilus is to Patek Philippe – it still gets outsold by dressier sister collection, the Villeret – but the dive watch has become, almost by proxy, the brand’s most emblematic timepiece.

£10,700, selfridges.com

Rolex Submariner

The King. The Daddio. The GOAT. Rolex is a supernova and you can consider the Submariner the star from which everything exploded. It's the Converse All Star. The Land Rover Defender. The Apple iPod. You get the gist.  

Launched in 1954 – 28 years after Rolex had unveiled the Oyster, the world’s first waterproof watch – the Submariner was the first wristwatch to be guaranteed to a depth of 100m. We could list the catalogue of presidents, prime ministers, actors, rock stars and rappers that have since rocked a Sub, but, frankly, we can’t be bothered. 

The Submariner received its last major upgrade in 2020, when its case was increased to 41mm (from 40mm), its power reserve upped to 72 hours (from 48 hours) and its reliability improved thanks to patented new escapement parts.  

The Rolex Submariner. Not just the world’s most recognised dive watch, but the world’s most recognised, lusted-after, pined-over, aped, borrowed-from and counterfeited watch, full stop.

£7,150, goldsmiths.co.uk

Panerai Submersible

Fun fact: for most of its existence, Panerai didn’t bother with the civilian market. Up until 1993, it sold watches exclusively to the military. Another fun fact: before it started making watches, Panerai was in the business of torpedo fuses and depth gauges. It was only as the Second World War loomed that the Italian Navy asked Panerai if it could have a crack at waterproof watches for its underwater hit squads. In partnership with Rolex, which supplied the cases and movements, Panerai produced a series of timepieces that employed glow-in-the-dark (and highly-radioactive) Radiomir on their dials (luminosity was another thing that Panerai was big into).

By the 1950s, Panerai had swapped Radiomir for less-deadly Luminor and patented its now signature crown-protecting bridge. The first Submersible watch arrived in 1998, five years after the brand was revived with a little help from Sylvester Stallone (another story for another day). The Submersible was sanctified as a separate, breakaway collection in 2018 – becoming, along with the Rolex Submariner, the archetypal City Boy watch somewhere in between.

£8,500, selfridges.com

Omega Seamaster 300

Like the depths of the ocean itself, the story of the original dive watch can get a little murky. The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, Rolex Submariner and Zodiac Sea Wolf are touted as the earliest ‘modern’ dive watches because they were the first to be designed with specific features to aid deep-sea divers following the advent of SCUBA equipment. But watchmakers had been in the business of ‘water-proof’ watches since the 1920s.

In 1932, Omega debuted the square-faced, two-hand Marine. Employing a cork seal between an inner and outer case, the watch might accurately be described as the first proper ‘dive watch’ in that it was designed to be taken deep underwater. Indeed, in 1936, the Marine survived a 73-metre test dive to the bottom of Lake Geneva. Five years later, it was sunk to 135 metres and, again, emerged good as new. 

Omega’s Seamaster arrived in 1948. A dress watch, stylistically, it employed a rubber gasket to keep out water, yet wasn’t designed as a dive watch per se. Omega’s first, post-SCUBA dive watch was 1957's Seamaster 300. You’ll have seen it on the wrist of every James Bond since Pierce Brosnan in 1995’s Golden Eye.

£4,840, goldsmiths.co.uk

Breitling Superocean II

Breitling? On a list of dive watches? That’s right. While the brand is most closely associated with aviation and pilot’s watches – thanks, largely, to the trailblazing slide rule on the rotating bezel of its 1952 Navitimer – when Breitling’s Superocean landed in 1957 the watch usurped both Omega’s Seamaster (62.5 metres) and the Rolex Submariner (100 metres) with a water resistance of 200 metres.

Paying homage to that forebear on the occasion of its 50th anniversary in 2007, the SuperOcean Heritage sported a braided steel bracelet and the original Breitling logo. The main gripe with that watch was that it came in either 38mm or 46mm format, making it either too small or too big for the average wrist. That issue was solved 10 years later, when, for the watch’s 60th anniversary, Breitling gave us the SuperOcean Heritage II – available in the far more wrist-friendly size of 42mm. It is now one of the company’s best-selling, and arguably best-looking, models.

£4,100, goldsmiths.co.uk

Tudor Pelagos

Tudor is the all-but-forgotten sub-brand that burgeoned into the sleeper hit of the 2010s. In part, that was due to a new generation of watch consumers discovering the company’s formidable backstory (to be fair, signing David Beckham as a brand ambassador didn’t hurt either). Included in that backstory are the facts that Tudor developed as a sister brand to Rolex; came out with its own waterproof ‘Oyster’ watch in 1952 (powered by its own self-winding movement); and launched a bona fide dive watch, the Oyster Prince Submariner (waterproof to 100 metres) in the very same year that Rolex dropped its own Submariner. When the Pelagos was unveiled in 2012 it was equipped with a third-party movement. In 2015 it was upgraded with an in-house calibre. Good to 500 metres and 70 hours, the Pelagos, like most of Tudor's timepieces, punches well above its price point.

£3,090, goldsmiths.co.uk

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