On a recent episode of Hodinkee radio, Jack Forster brought up his interest in dive watch complications. These watches are rooted in simplicity, but they’ve evolved to include modern complications: moon phases, perpetual calendars, alarms, etc. These features don’t always seem appropriate on a dive watch, but they make for some interesting products. At the end of the day, people want capable, versatile timepieces. Dive watches are some of the most practical watches money can buy. Nowadays, you can check the solar calendar 200 meters underwater. . . if that’s something you want to do. We’re going to take a look at some dive watches, simple and complex, and discuss the current market position of the near-century old watch style.
Dive Watch Origins
The original Rolex Oyster and Omega Marine shaped the landscape of dive watches. Over the years, brands iterated upon these models, adding new features and capabilities. Unsurprisingly, dive watches focused on diving-specific features: water resistance, legibility, luminous material, and a dive-time indicator of some sort. These watches were capable underwater, but looked good enough to be someone’s everyday timepiece. In 1954, Rolex released the Submariner: widely accepted as the definitive dive watch at the time. Most modern offerings derive from the Submariner’s design language in some way. It’s a classic silhouette that shaped watch design for decades to come.
Today, we don’t really need watches. We have phones. Similarly, divers don’t need analogue dive watches. For a fraction of the cost, they can buy a dive computer on Amazon that displays depth, no-stop limits, gas levels, and countless other features. People enjoy mechanical dive watches for their history and aesthetics. Today’s dive watches celebrate the heritage of their predecessors while offering modern complications. They’re not the pinnacle of diving technology as they once were, but they’re hard to beat as an everyday timepiece. Well. . . some of them.
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms X Fathoms
One of my favorite dive watches is The Blancpain X Fathoms. It’s far from an everyday timepiece, but it’s one of the most interesting watches on the market. This 55mm behemoth pushes the limits of what a fully mechanical dive watch can be. It has a depth gauge of up to 90 meters, maximum depth memory, and a 5 minute decompression timer. The X Fathoms is a purpose-built timepiece that’s true to its roots. It’s fully mechanical for the sake of being fully mechanical. Blancpain easily (and inexpensively) could have installed an electronic depth sensor, but that’s not the point of the watch. Instead, they engineered an in-house mechanical depth sensor out of zirconium alloy. This watch gives a nod to the tradition of dive watches, but pushes the envelope in ways we’ve never seen. It’s by no means the most capable tool for diving, nor is it the best value at just over $40,000. It’s just a very cool watch with a very cool history.
Tudor Black Bay 41
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the Tudor Black Bay 41. It’s unmistakably a dive watch, but takes a completely different approach than the X Fathoms. The Black Bay 41 is stripped down and refined. No depth gauge, no timers, not even a date. It’s not trying to be a tool for modern divers, it’s just a handsome watch inspired by diving heritage. The design language hasn’t changed much in 70 years, and Tudor intends on keeping it that way. As I mentioned in my article on modern watch sizes, Rolex (and subsequently Tudor) is known for their “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. They’ve been making dive watches longer than anybody – they know what they’re doing. The Black Bay 41 doesn’t offer crazy complications; it’s a spiritual successor to its 1950’s ancestors.
Dive watches have a deep history (no pun intended). The Rolex Submariner, Omega Seamaster, and Tudor Black Bay are some of the most recognizable silhouettes in watchmaking. They’re not as functional as dive computers, but they’re not meant to be. A Tesla Model S Plaid will beat a Ferrari in a drag race; the Ferrari is still cooler. Watchmakers continue to make dive watches because they’re beautiful examples of mechanical engineering. Whether a brand adds crazy complications or just keeps things simple, dive watches are here to stay. If you’re interested in customizing your dive watch, check out our collection of accessories for the Submariner, Black Bay 41, and tons of other options.