Dive watches are so cool even James Bond wears one


It seems fair to me to start this column where the last one left off: the watch auctions. After all, auction season is upon us, and the latest news is that one of the most extreme dive watches ever made will go under the hammer on November 8. The auction house is Christie’s, with the Rare Watches Auction company in Geneva, and the watch in question is the Rolex Deep Sea Special Number 1, the very first of the extreme dives made by the Swiss watchmaker in 1953.

In the early 1950s, Rolex was flying. Building on the hard-earned reputation of its rugged, highly water-resistant watches, Rolex came up with timepieces that would create pretty much what we call sports watches today. As I wrote earlier in this column, these were tool watches, intended for people who liked the outdoors, getting their hands dirty, climbing mountains or diving. In perfect harmony with the increase in disposable income in the West and the concomitant increase in leisure activities such as hiking and diving, watches like the Rolex Explorer, released in 1953, and the Rolex Submariner (also in 1953), would become genres in their own right.

Also read: How James Bond made the Rolex Submariner an icon

The Rolex Deep Sea Special Number 1
(Courtesy of Christie’s)

Rolex has always had a keen eye for publicity and an enthusiasm for pushing the boundaries of technology, especially when it comes to water resistance. A combination of these two factors led the manufacture to manufacture an experimental diver’s watch, the Deep Sea Special, to test the limits. It was strapped to the outside of French explorer Auguste Piccard’s scuba diving bathyscape, the Trieste, which descended to a depth of 3,150 m in the Mediterranean Sea on November 30, 1953.

A third iteration of this glass timepiece with an extraterrestrial allure will accompany, in 1960, the Trieste to the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, at a ridiculous depth of 10,908 m. The latter watch, Number 3, is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. Number 1, from 1953, will be auctioned. It’s a bit of a blow to Christie’s, considering that Phillips will be auctioning off the Rolex Deep Sea Special Number 35 (one of more than 30 commemorative coins made in the 1960s for, well, publicity) when it is sold. auction in Geneva around the same time.

Read also: Rolex, Mount Everest and the rise of GADA watches

The first Rolex Submariner, the Ref. 6204, was produced at the same time as the Deep Sea Special, but for the mass market. With 100m water resistance, it caused massive splash upon release. With its unidirectional rotating bezel (to time dives), luminescent hands and markers, and cool design, the watch was revolutionary. However, the era of the diver’s watch had been here for some time, because in 1953 Blancpain released the Fifty Fathoms (see above), a watch built to military specifications and which was, at the time, sold in dive shops, not jewelry stores. In form and function, it looked a lot like the Submariner, and you could say it was even more handsome. A third diver’s watch was also released that year, the Zodiac Sea Wolf, another sleek and sturdy watch that has come back into fashion in recent years. Of the three, the Submariner has become the most iconic, largely for the Trieste dives (then because of Sean Connery’s James Bond).

These days, no serious diver actually dives with a diver’s watch, except as a backup. There are dive computers attached to the wrist to help you dive. But diving watches, as a genre, have never been so popular, and Rolex is proof of that. The modern Submariner is one of the most expensive and difficult to obtain sports watches. And while hardly any modern Sub owner goes diving, these are more difficult than ever. This improved toughness is true of the large range of diving watches, most of which can be purchased at a fraction of the price of the Submariner.

Read also: A Rolex, a Seiko and watches as a value proposition

A 1960s advertisement for the Zodiac Sea Wolf.

A 1960s advertisement for the Zodiac Sea Wolf.

One watch company that rivals Rolex in terms of the prestige of diving watches is Seiko. The Japanese giant entered the diving watch game relatively late, in 1965, with the iconic 62MAS. But these were two releases in 1968: the Ref. 6159-7001 and Ref. 6105 — which puts Seiko on the dive watch map. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the company released one iconic dive watch after another. These were worn by American soldiers during the Vietnam War, serious divers and the city’s fashionable men in equal measure.

The 6105 became so popular after it appeared on Martin Sheen’s wrist in Apocalypse now, that to this day he is called “Captain Willard” after the character of Sheen. Each of the Seiko divers has acquired popular nicknames – the turtle, the royal turtle, the tuna, the monster – and their modern counterparts and reissues rule the affordable dive watch space. The 62MAS and Captain Willard were both re-released in 2020 with modern upgrades, and the two colorways, the SPB143 (62MAS reissue, see below) and SPB153 (Willard reissue), have become dazzling successes.

Also read: Why do we need mechanical watches in 2021?

Other current 60s reissues that make absolutely brilliant divers are the Doxa SUB300 (see below) and the Oris Diver Sixty-Five. Alongside the Zodiac Sea Wolf, these divers are at the forefront of a return to mid-century designs, with smaller, compact cases and interesting colors. There are also plenty of vintage style boutique brand diving watches out there, and among these, Baltic’s Aquascaphe line is a marvel.

Of course, no roundup of modern divers can be complete without mentioning Omega and its Seamaster range. Rolex’s success in the 1950s forced Omega to transform the Seamaster, a line of dress watches, into a line of diving watches in 1957. Today, one of the Seamaster lines, the Seamaster Planet Ocean, is considered as one of the best diving watches. Pop culture evolves in cycles, so while the Submariner took advantage of Connery’s Bond, Planet Ocean’s popularity owes to the sultry pouts of Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig. One thing is for sure, even if your lifestyle is miles away from that of 007, there is a dive watch for you out there.

Manual winding is a bimonthly chronicle on watches and watchmaking.


About Robert L. Thomas

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