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A History of the Military Dive Watch, Part 2

Monday we began tracking the evolution of the dive watch over the last century. We began with some background information, saw the development of the Oyster case by Rolex, and stopped for the night with the Panerai Radiomir.

During World War II, the Italian special forces put these watches to good use against Great Britain riding the now infamous SLCs, or slow running torpedos (which you see in Panerai’s current marketing). Churchill’s response was to develop a “human torpedo” of his own, and correspondingly, a watch capable of being word by the men who guided them.

It turns out it was a good thing that Britain was known for its world explorers. The timepieces used by those intrepid men became the basis of the first underwater watches used by the Royal frogmen.

These watches – they were pocket watches at that time – had screw down fronts and backs, and a screw down cap which enclosed the winding crown. These three screw features were sealed with well-oiled leather gaskets, which needed frequent attention in order to retain their ability to seal. The watches were simply adapted for wearing on the wrist by use of a strap.

This was pretty much the state of the art through the 1940s. However, the British Navy kept pushing the envelope of their underwater operations, as did the French. Both therefore needed better and better timepieces with which to equip their underwater forces.

The British turned to Rolex while the French worked with Blancpain.

Blancpain beat Rolex by a year. In 1953, they came out with the Fifty Fathoms, the first watch to feature a uni-directional rotating bezel. The uni-directional nature of the bezel kept divers from staying at depth too long, in case the bezel had inadvertently been hit and rotated.

In 1954, Rolex released the first Submariner. This eventually led to the famous MilSubs, an offshoot of the 5513, in the mid 1960s We covered the MilSub in a little more detail a few days ago here.

But the British were also working with Omega, who had overtaken the Rolex 6538 by the early 1960s and was supplying the Royal Navy divers with the Seamaster 300.

This is where the Rolex 5513/5517 comes into the story. The Brits liked some of the features of the Omega 300 well enough to specify them to Rolex as they were developing the MilSub.

Meanwhile, with the advent of the cold war, the United States also realized a need for specialized equipment, including hearty, water resistant watches. One other constraint they were operating under was the mandate to buy American. So they went looking.

Now we need to point out that, by this time, the Russians had gotten very good indeed at producing underwater and beach mines. British and other divers were needed to defuse these explosives and make coastal waters safe for navigation, as well as to deploy their own devices.

Oh, one other thing. The Russians had gotten so good at making mines, and the Brits were equally up to the task of diffusing them, that the Russians began to make tamper-resistant devices. Often the tamper trigger was magnetic in nature. Therefore, a key requirement was that every piece of a diver’s gear had to be amagnetic – no magnetic signature at all – including his watch.

With all these requirements, plus the expected low volume to be supplied, only one American company responded - Allen Tornek, the US importer for the Swiss Rayville Watch Company, which interestingly also made watches for Blancpain.

The watch that was spawned from this contract was the Tornek-Rayville TR-900, a Fifty Fathoms look-alike, although in reality it was quite different. Materials, especially for the case and the movement escapement, were unique and difficult to source.

Tornek-Rayville TR-900 (Image courtesy of James Dowling)[/caption] The best information says that only about 1100 TR-900s were made, and the lume made of Promethium 147 with a half-life of only 2.5 years, was declared low-level atomic waste. Thus, after four or five years of service, the watches became useless due to the lume expiring, and were disposed of along with other radioactive waste.

When the last of the TR-900s gave out in the early 1970s, Tudor with its ref. 7928 got the replacement call.

Helpful tip: Get some Rolex 5513/5517 enthusiasts in a room with some Tudor 7928 enthusiasts and ask them to discuss military divers. Be sure to step out of the way.

As we entered the 1980s, keep in mind the soviets were still the best at making mines. So the German Navy issued a request for watches for their several categories of divers, some of whom were actively working against the Russian mines.

IWC, along with then-parent company, the famed German instrument maker VDO, answered the call. The resulting titanium-cased IWC ref. 3519 AMAG was the world’s first completely amagnetic diver’s watch.

That brings us more or less to the end of the line with mechanical diver’s watches, although some 5517s are said by some to still be in service today.

 

-Ed Estlow

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