For many years now, dive watches have occupied a vast territory in watch collecting and appreciation. People often choose them for their robust build, the ability to be worn almost anywhere and their history of endeavour which exudes a sense of reliable companionship for adventure.
Plus, that whole James Bond and Jacques Cousteau thing that everybody loves.
The phrase “dive watch” usually brings the Rolex Submariner (or Sea-Dweller) immediately to mind. This icon of the open sea first made its debut in 1954 at the Basel Fair. Its introduction was largely down to Rene P Jeanneret, an enthusiastic diver and coincidentally the director of Rolex at the time who had been encouraging the development of a sports watch waterproof to 100m which was also elegant enough to be worn on dry land.
Rolex had already been showing an interest in the exploration of the ocean by involving itself with Auguste (and latterly Jacques, Auguste’s son) Piccard and his bathyscaphe submarine, the Trieste. They were developing a deep dive-worthy watch called “The Deep Sea Special” which would ultimately end up being attached to the arm of the Trieste II when it went to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in 1960. Unfortunately, due to the huge crystal and enormous build of the Deep Sea Special, it was impractical and unwearable for the time. More information can be found here – https://www.rolex.com/world-of-rolex/exploration-underwater/trieste.html and the original 1953 DSS watch was sold at Christies here – https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/rolex-an-extraordinary-and-rare-historically-interesting-4596644-details.aspx
With the launch of Submariner references 6204 and 6200 it is safe to say that the brief of waterproof yet elegant (and wearable by a human rather than a submarine) was met, and the Submariner would become the icon of dive watches.
Rolex Submariner 6204 (small crown)
Rolex Submariner 6200 (big crown & explorer dial)
The Rolex Submariner has enjoyed a steady evolution from slimline subs with unprotected crowns and 100m water resistance to the models seen today with Cerachrom bezels, sapphire crystals, over-engineered bracelets and movements and 300m depth ratings which will be covered, no doubt, as a later date since the evolution has played an important part in horological history.
Rolex Submariner Date 116610LV aka “The Hulk”
Current model references are 114060 (Submariner), the 116610 (Submariner Date), and the 116610LV (Green Submariner Date) of which can be ordered from Official Watches here –
While the Submariner is often considered to be the quintessential dive watch, and much to the horror of aficionados of the brand, it wasn’t the first…
The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
In 1953, a year before the introduction of the Submariner, Jean Jacques Fiechter, CEO of Blancpain (1950-1980) and one of the first amateur divers got into difficulty when he lost track of time and oxygen during a 50 metre descent which left him disorientated and at risk. Once safe and back at his desk he began to shape his concept for a waterproof watch which could track both time and O2.
Coincidentally during this period, Blancpain received communication from Bob Maloubier and Claude Riffaud, two members of the French Frogmen unit which was a military team of divers created by the Ministry of Defence in 1952. The Frogmen unit wanted to commission “A watch with a black dial, large, bold numerals and clear markings, as well as an outer rotating bezel which is able to align with the large minute hand, in order to easily know remaining oxygen time. And all markers are to clearly glow in the dark.”
Following Maloubier and Riffaud’s specification exactly, Fiechter designed and produced the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms. It was named after the water resistance (50 fathoms = 91.45 metres) that it could achieve, which at the time was considered more than enough for a “one tank” dive.
For the era, the Fathoms was a giant watch at 42mm. Due to its scale, it was considered a proper “tool” and as such was sold in dive and seafaring stores rather than watch shops or jewellers. Following its success, other military forces from America, Spain, and Germany purchased the FF as kit for their dive teams.
Jacques Cousteau wore a Fifty Fathoms while making his Oscar winning film “The Silent World” which documented his explorations of the sea in 1956. It was also used in the Gouffre Berger cave exploration in 1964, so it’s safe to say that it has earned its reputation.
Bob Maloubier wearing his Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
1950’s Fifty Fathoms
The FF as it looks today.
The current Fifty Fathoms is 45mm wide but wears smaller since the lug length has been reduced. Its water resistance has been upgraded to 300 metres and sports a superbly engineered sapphire bezel. It makes an impressive alternative to the Submariner along with its equally capable but smaller counterpart, the Bathyscaphe.
So the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms was the first?
Well, yes and no. Certainly it was the first to utilise a moveable bezel for counting down air time. But…
In 1935, Panerai, a supplier of technical instruments to the Italian navy landed a contract to develop and supply watches suitable for diving. This was as an extension to the depth gauges, compasses, signal equipment and other necessary instruments that they were already contracted to manufacture.
The Italian navy specified that they wanted watches that were waterproof, legible in the dark waters for night dives, and large for optimum visibility.
As Panerai didn’t have any experience with building watches, they turned to another well known manufacturer – Rolex.
Rolex supplied Panerai with both movements and oyster cases from their pocket watches which were 47mm in diameter. The cases were flipped onto their side with wire lugs welded to the body in order to support a leather strap and retained the Rolex movement. A simple solution.
Rolex pocket watch inc movement which was modified for Panerai by removing the chain loop and soldering wire lugs to side.
Panerai Radiomir 2533, the first Panerai watch made its debut in 1936
Using Rolex movement and case with dial and branding by Panerai.
The Radiomir 2533 was a prototype watch, which Panerai built on and continued to produce with reference 3646 from the 1930’s to the 1950’s.
It was given the name “Radiomir” due to the radium (radioactive) paint applied to its hands and markers which gave glow-in-the-dark visibility, as specified, to the Italian divers.
Fortunately nowadays Panerai has ceased using paint that is likely to burn your hand off and now uses Luminova.
Our range of Panerai watches can be viewed and ordered here – https://www.officialwatches.com/our-watches/#q=panerai&hPP=16&idx=products&p=0
It’s very easy to get lost in the history of dive watches and to concern yourself with some of the finer and often argued details. The best buying advice that can be given is that the three brands covered in this article all have solid backgrounds spanning through the decades. All use high grade materials and are at the top of their game with modern manufacturing techniques. The choice of which to wear really boils down to which model appeals to you visually, and what size you feel comfortable wearing. There is no bad decision here if you want a reliable and waterproof Swiss watch from an established brand.
Rolex Submariner 116610 and 114060 = 40mm, Rolex Sea-Dweller 126600 = 43mm, Rolex DeepSea 126660 = 44mm
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe = 43mm, Blancpain Fifty Fathoms = 45mm
Panerai Radiomir = 45-47mm, Panerai Luminor = 44-47mm.
Panerai is also available in 40mm and 42mm but these sizes are not considered to be in line with the “historic” or “base” models. They have been added to the line up to offer choice for buyers who may prefer a smaller style.