Defying the Deep | A Little History of Dive Watches (Part One)

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‘Nothing any good isn’t hard’ – these were the words of one of the most celebrated American writers who ever put pen to paper. His name was F. Scott Fitzgerald and, though his life ended with undeserved disappointment, his earlier works have continued to shake the literary world. It’s not surprising then that his writing still rings true and has helped me to create the substance of this latest blog.

The reason I mention this particular quote is because it aptly applies to the story of modern dive watches and their obstacle-laden origins. Without question these refined feats of delicate ingenuity were the product of many years of collaboration and hard work -wrought by generations of stubborn pioneers who shunned the yoke of consistent failure and remained disciplined and always ready to improve, for the sake of success.

The search for an underwater timepiece began in the 1920’s, at a time when wristwatches were seen as dainty accessories unsuitable for use as workhorse instruments. The very first wristwatches evolved from rudimentary pocket watches, only without the chain and with the lugs soldered to the casing. They were popularised by soldiers in the late 1800’s, as well as those who fought in the First World War. Wristwatches offered a more fluid way to read the time in the midst of combat and so, due in part to this change in usage, the wrist-worn watch was transformed from a supposedly feminine and delicate accessory into a unisex item, notable for its aesthetic appeal and reliability.

With this slight shift in demand watchmakers around the world were hard-pressed to craft more durable timepieces that could be exposed to shocks, changes in temperature and humidity. As it turned out the chief complication was the seepage of water and dust into the movement, through shoddily assembled case elements and interstices around the crown. Once these irritants had entered the watch the inner components would rust, while the lubricants ceased working and froze the gears, pinions and springs. It was evident that a redesign was needed if watches were going to continue being exposed on the wearer’s wrist.

While the first step had been taken to creating water resistant watches, watchmakers were still dealing with oversized cases that were far from comfortable for the civil consumer. A more practical and luxurious solution was needed if waterproofing technology was to be integrated into the watch casing. Such a solution was eventually dreamed-up by Francois Borgel, an inventive Genevan case maker, who filed two patents in 1891 and 1903, for two unique casings with threaded parts on the upside of the design. In this design a threaded ring was wrapped around the movement and bezel, while the caseback was screwed onto the threaded surface of the ring. This negated the awkward external cover and constituted a major step forward for manufacturers like IWC and Longines, both of which adapted the Borgel cases. In this instance the external case was abandoned for a single one with the same protective properties.

 

The Rise of Rolex

Over time teams of diligent engineers revised their previous designs and, by the early 20th century, began to create wristwatches that were unaffected by fine dust or humidity. It wasn’t long until these same engineers were making the first waterproof wristwatches, working under the banners of some of the most influential brands in the history of horology. One of these was Rolex, led by its founder Hans Wilsdorf, who specialised in efficient solutions with a generally pragmatic approach to business. When it came to designing a waterproof wristwatch they decided to develop external cases, hermetically sealed to cover the inner watch casing.

In 1922 Rolex came to the fore with the Hermetic and Submarine timepieces, the latter of which featured a little round-casing and an external case lid that could be screwed shut, like a jar, and thereby sealed for underwater use. The only issue was that the movement had to be rewound by hand and the time needed to be regularly adjusted as well, using grooves on the edges of the brass lid. This also caused the threads on the inside to quickly deteriorate.

Three years later, in 1925, Paul Perregaux and Georges Perret applied for a patent, having drawn the preliminary sketches for a screw down crown that was effectively waterproof. This breakthrough offered a way of unscrewing the crown in the same direction as the winding mainspring. The patented mechanism meant that the watch could be fully wound and the crown set, however it could not be unscrewed again until the mainspring had wound down slightly. The design was made with an extra component which was screwed to the case and used to add pressure to the crown, creating a seal made of durable materials, like leather, cork or felt. Unfortunately the additional component was mounted on the outside of the case, necessitating frequent replacements.

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Nonetheless Hans Wilsdorf saw the potential of Perregaux and Perret’s invention and coupled the screw down crown with a threaded case design to plan their manufacture of the first truly waterproof watch. The next step was to purchase the rights from the Swiss inventors so that Wilsdorf could adapt the design for Rolex. The consequent improvements included the relocation of the seal from outside the case to the inside of the now leaden crown tube. Behind the Rolex curtain a team of engineers was working for the case supplier, C.R. Spillman, inventing a unique way to alter the winding of the movement, so that it would no longer be altered while the crown was being unscrewed. Instead the crown was made to rotate separately from the stem, ensuring that it would only adjust the movement when it had been pulled out to its full extent. The way in which this worked involved two rectangular components that engaged once the crown was extracted, allowing the wearer to set the time regardless of whether the mainspring was wound or not.

It wasn’t long before Rolex began to apply their improved crown and threaded casing to a new watch model, named the Oyster, which set the bar for how a water resistant timepiece should look and run. The general public were being ushered into a new era of waterproof watches and yet still they remained somewhat skeptical – that is until 1927, when Wilsdorf executed a waterborne publicity stunt to prove the capabilities of the latest breakthrough in Rolex design.

As it happened the release of the Oyster coincided with the aspirations of a long distance swimmer and secretary, Mercedes Gleitze, who was scheduled to make her second crossing of the English Channel. Keen to perform a test that the whole world would see, Wilsdorf gave Gleitze an Oyster to wear as a necklace and carry throughout her crossing, thereby instilling concrete proof that watches could indeed be waterproof. In addition Wilsdorf also arranged another slick marketing stunt and asked retailers to place his Oysters in water-filled fish tanks and to display them thus in the windows of their shops. This time the naysayers were left to stomach the dust of innovation and the great wheels of progress rolled quickly on.

 

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By the 1930s, when America was clutched in the squalid grip of the Great Depression, several other leading brands joined Rolex on the front lines of horology. Amongst these various powerhouses were the famous Omega and Cartier boutiques. The latter, Cartier, was a high-end purveyor of timepieces, renowned for their dealings with kings, monarchs and esteemed members of the European intelligentsia. Some historians posit the idea that this reputation was partly created in 1932 when Thami El Glaoui, also known as the ‘Lord of the Atlas,’ placed an order for a Cartier, seeking a watch that he could wear whilst swimming in his pool, surrounded by the snow-capped Atlas Mountains. Regardless, Cartier brought their own refined interpretations of waterproof watches to the table. In Thami El Glaoui’s case they provided a timepiece with a waterproof case and a screw-on cap, dangling from a little chain, to cover the crown. They called this iconic timepiece the ‘Pasha de Cartier.’

During the mid-twenties diving was regarded as a professional activity reserved for science, war or sometimes exploration. It was until the early ’30s that diving eventually began to evolve from a vocational pursuit into a luxury hobby. Then, as demand increased, it became increasingly more and more vital that there be a wristwatch made to meet the unique requirements of this developing sport. This is where big ol’ Omega came into play.

You see, while the Rolex Oyster and ‘Pasha de Cartier’ were designed to keep out sand and water, they were still unsuited for deep-sea diving. This left a gap in the market, owing to those more treacherous forms of diving, and Omega was all too happy to fill it. At first, in 1932, Omega released the square-faced Marine model and defied the mould with a hermetically sealed external case. Finally they had crafted a small timepiece that could survive the crushing depths of the ocean. In doing so they had also laid the foundation for the robust design of modern dive watches.

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There are many reasons why the Marine was so unique. Firstly it had a two-part case with top and bottom pieces that connected to the straps and a clasp that could be securely locked on the case back. It was the first watch to feature a synthetic sapphire front and, finally, it was completed with a seal leather strap that was also resistant to salt water. Inspired by Rolex’s skill in marketing Omega set out to share their efforts and catch the public eye. With this in mind they planned a gauntlet of Herculean challenges, intent on pushing their design to its limits and putting their name to the test as well. This involved holding two Marine watches for several minutes in water of 85°C and then subjecting those same watches to thirty minutes at a depth of seventy metres, in the glacial water of Lake Geneva. Upon completing these tests it was revealed that both watches had emerged in perfect working condition, without so much as a drop of water inside their respective cases.

Three years after these tests, in 1939, Omega hit the market again with a redesigned version of the ’32 Marine, called the Marine Standard. This updated model was kept simple, saving on manufacturing costs and allowing it to be presented to the wider public. It still had the slightly odd rectangular shape of the original, without any threaded case components, and the case was sealed with the modern solution of rubber gaskets. It wasn’t perfect mind you. For the first Marine Standards the sapphire crystal was added from under the bezel via the caseback side, after which the Omega watchmakers could install the dial, movement and crown. This allowed for a small amount of pressure that accumulated and pushed the case onto the caseback, forcing the crystal towards the inside of the watch, whilst also weakening the seals. Ultimately this meant that the Marine Standard’s water resistance was limited to twenty metres. To give you some perspective, twenty metres is about the depth that an Open Water Diver can descend to once they’ve completed the first stage of their PADI training course. It isn’t particularly impressive, in terms of deep-sea diving, is what I’m saying. However this problem was eventually rectified, in the early ’40s, by installing the crystal from above, which greatly improved the model’s depth capacity.

So now we’ve reached the point when everything changes for diving and dive watches. After years of deterioration, outright failure and revision, dive watches had started to represent the very zenith of modern watchmaking. Watches had jumped out from our pockets, shrunk and then wrapped themselves around our wrists. These same little devices had been submerged in fish tanks and one even accompanied a secretary on her swim across the English Channel. Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, it might not seem like such an amazing feat, when we consider that we’ve seen an Omega reach the Moon and other watches that were taken beyond the speed of sound. Yet the challenge to best the immense pressure that strangles the deepest depths of our oceans was undoubtedly immense.

The next stage of our story begins in 1942, with a famous maritime explorer and his iconic, woolen red hat. This man’s name was Jacques-Yves Cousteau and, along with the French engineer Emile Gagnan, he adapted something that redefined diving forever – the open-circuit aqua-lung…

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