Get a bunch of watch nerds together in a room and ask them who made the first dive watch and you’re likely to hear a discordant harmony of “Rolex!” and “Blancpain!”
And those are certainly worthy choices. After all, the Submariner was introduced at the forerunner to Baselworld in 1954 – long before we were all watching a lethal combination of Sea Hunt and Jacques Cousteau. Further, if you look at the Sub’s marketing, not to mention its street cred as “the original tool watch,” you couldn’t be blamed for believing it was the first. And I mean, James Bond! HE wore one, albeit in the early 1960s.
However, a year before the Submariner made its debut, Blancpain introduced the Fifty Fathoms. They’d been working with the French Navy on a custom piece that would satisfy the needs of the underwater combat diver teams. And in fact, the FF (as it became known) was the first watch to feature a uni-directional rotating bezel with minute markings so those Navy frogmen could know the elapsed time of their dives.
And behind the chorus of “Rolex” and “Blancpain,” those believing they’ve won this bar bet are smiling. When the uproar dies down, they quietly murmur, “Panerai.”
And they have a point. Panerai’s Radiomir 2533 saw the light of day in 1936, a product of the collaboration between Panerai, Rolex, and the Regia Marina (the Italian navy's special diving forces). Panerai’s trademark crown guard system, which did much to seal the crown of the watch, came along on ref. 6152-1 in 1943.
But no, we’re still not back to the beginning, although the Rolex side of the room cheered at the mention of the Rolex-Panerai collaboration. And they’ve got more reasons to cheer. Remember from our article last week on the Oyster case, Hans Wilsdorf had patented the Oyster in 1926, after buying the rights to an earlier patent.
And indeed, in 1927, a young lady by the name of Mercedes Gleitze swam the English Channel (for a second time) wearing a Rolex Oyster around her neck. (She actually didn’t make it on her second attempt, but that’s irrelevant to our story.)
What is relevant to our story is that, sadly, Miss Gleitze’s Oyster was not a dive watch. So while critical to the development of the dive watch, that early Rolex doesn’t quite make the mark.
However, the Oyster patent caused other developments by other brands trying to get around it. And so we come to Omega.
You see, by the late 1920s, diving for scientific or military reasons, or for adventure, was becoming more commonplace. And with it, the need for accurate timekeeping underwater. But there was that pesky Rolex patent.
So Omega came up with a new-old system – that of a case within a case. Basically, the entire watch, case and all, was enclosed in a second, water-tight case. Omega’s solution was rectangular (in fact, at a glance it looks like a JLC Reverso, but the two are unrelated).
The Omega Marine, with it’s latching, water resistant slipcase, was released for industrial use in 1932. And in 1939, Omega released the Marine Standard to the public. The Marine Standard was an updated and improved version of the Omega Marine.
Thus, the Omega Marine is considered by the dive watch cognoscenti to be the first real dive watch. There goes another bar bet.