The History of the Dive Watch: how the very first diving watches were made

Living in the XXIth century, It is easy to overlook the many technological breakthroughs the watch industry has experienced over the years. For example, nowadays it would feel completely out of place to order a watch and find out that it doesn’t resist water in the slightest, right? Well, how we actually got there is an extremely interesting story. In this article we’ll explore how one of the most important type of watches was born: the history of the Dive Watches.

Dive watches are perhaps the most popular wristwatch category. There are many reasons for its popularity, like the rugged, masculine look, as well as being featured in iconic media pieces. However, aside from it’s aesthetic, it’s important to remember that Dive watches were first and foremost tools, developed to perform a very important task: being able to reliably measure the passage of time deep underwater.

A Bit of History

During the XXth Century, being able to precisely tell what time it was became an increasingly important endeavor, especially for the most dangerous professions, those in which delays could end up costing a human life. This is why there many armies around the world commissioned watchmaking companies and tasked them to create timekeeping devices for their troops. This led to the creation of the wristwatch, and ultimately transformed horology as a whole.

Innovations in warfare technologies required more precise and specialized timekeeping instruments. And one of the most sought after feature was the ability to resist water, as well as the athmospheric pressures of a deep dive.

Early Dive Watches

Several companies made key innovations towards the Dive Watch. The Rolex Oyster case, released in 1923 was a very important step. It was the first waterproof case, by means of hermetically isolating the core vitals of the watch movement. Another importat innovation came from Panerai. The Italian brand developed the patented Radiomir luminescence, and in 1936 created the “Radiomir Prototype”, with it’s distinctive cushion-shaped case. It had a huge case at 47mm, as it was meant to be used as a tool on top of other diving equipment. Panerai went on to produce many of the Radiomir watches for the Italian Regia Marina.

Fifty Fathoms & Submariner: The first Modern Dive Watches.

The first “modern” dive watches were created in 1953: the Fifty Fathoms by Blancpain and the Submariner by Rolex. Both of them incorporated several key design elements that would be cornerstones of the modern dive watch:

- High contrast dial for improved legibility.
- Good luminescence for underwater reading.
- Rotating bezel for time keeping

The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms

The Fifty Fathoms owes its name to an old English diving measurement; with fifty suggesting it could resist around 90 meters underwater. It was designed by French Captain Robert “Bob” Malubier. Malubier was a French Secret Agent, who worked alongside British intelligence during World War II. After the war was over, he founded the French military’s diving combat corps alongside Liutenant Claude Riffaud. In that role, he proceeded to test watches in the deeps, and was not able to find any that suited his demands. He would then proceed to design one of his own, and approach Blancpain, a small watch manufacturer at the time, in order to produce his watch.

history of dive watches
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"After all, we agreed with a small watch factory, Blancpain, to develop our project: a watch with a black dial, large, bold numerals and clear markings, as well as an outer rotating bezel. We wanted to be able to align this bezel with the large minute hand, in order to easily know our remaining oxygen time. And we wanted all those markers to clearly glow in the dark.”

The Rolex Submariner

Perhaps the most iconic watch ever made, the Submariner was showcased in Baselworld 1954. The first iterations featured the black and white dial and bezel, but employed a different set of hands than the now famous mercedes hands, featured in most Submariner references.

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The idea behind the design was to create a true tool for divers, while still retaining the classic elegance of a wristwatch. The first Submariner prototype was created for a diving escapade. Diver Auguste Piccard and son Jacques tempted a world diving record, and attempted very deep dive, going over 10,000 feat. The prototype succeeded expectations, and returned back to the surface in working conditions.

With this experiment in it's hand, Rolex went ahead and launched the Submariner line, which would soon become one of it's most important products.

It was also very important milestone for Rolex since it paved the way for the company to lead in the sports watch market.

The first Submariner featured a 37mm case and was able to achieve a bit more depth than the Fifty Fathoms (100m vs Blancpain’s 91mm).

Our take on the early Submariner

To homage the very first Submariner model, we created the Sub Fifty Three, a modern interpretation of this classic milestone timepiece. Our version is slightly bigger, at 41mm, and features a Seiko NH35A Movement, as well as a sapphire glass. You can certainly dive with it!

You can get yours through this link