Defying The Deep | A Little History of Dive Watches (Part Two)

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“We shall fight on the beaches… we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields… we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air –”

These words, immortalised by Winston Churchill on the eve of war, serve as a reminder of the lengths that soldiers must go to in order to win a war. It’s vital that technology should also be able to follow these soldiers to the brink, informing their every step, so that when they reach the edge they are able to step out over the void and defy the fall, mounted on the wings of their trusty machines.

Now we’ve come to the second part of our little history and war is looming, but with it shall also come a period of rapid and fruitful innovation. Firstly the evolution of dive watches underwent a dramatic shift with the invention and development of the first open circuit breathing apparatus. The ‘aqua lung’ facilitated much deeper and longer dives, allowing divers to plumb murky depths of up to 60 metres and all without any link to the surface. As is often the case with technology, innovation walked hand-in-hand with vagaries of militaristic improvement. Then World War 2 began and this had a significant effect on the subsequent popularisation of diving. It just so happened that aquatic soldiers necessitated the production of more refined and unobtrusive accessories, such as depth metres, wristwatches and compasses. Soon a series of unique waterproof watches had hit the fish tanks, manufactured by leading artisans tasked with crafting devices that would survive against insurmountable odds. Amongst the challenges they faced was the problem of sealing the crown and case, whilst still making the watch readings intelligible underwater, namely preventing mist from covering the dial and rendering the watch unreadable.

It was a little known Swiss watch manufacturer, Officine Panerai, which made the first ripples by supplying the Italian Royal Navy with exclusive underwater equipment. In collaboration with Rolex they produced a reinvented collection of depth meters and watches. These were then worn in combat by the Italian marines and designed for underwater use with cutting-edge legibility. One of the ways in which they achieved this was by using a radium material discovered by Pierre and Marie Curie in 1898. Twenty years later, in 1915, Guido Panerai patented a method of lighting the hands and dials with a luminescent material, comprised of mixed radium bromide, mesothelium and phosphorous zinc sulphide. This mixture was then filtered through glass tubes that emitted a bright glow, illuminating the dial. It seemed like the perfect solution, however decades later it was proven that the use of radium in this way could potentially be very dangerous.

 

‘Nageurs de Combat’

The early Panerais also featured a special design element that secured and sealed the crown with a strong bond. Once sealed the crown could be used to wind the movement underwater, laying the foundation for certain mechanisms now manifest in modern dive watches. The crown-guard system and internally lit dial were trademark features of the Panerai Radiomir and Luminor that came to define the brand. These simple, robust timepieces could be used to relay all kinds of vital information. They became particularly popular amongst the French elite divers unit ‘Nageurs de Combat’, famed for their fearless proficiency in a number of undersea missions. The unit was formed in the 1950s and trained as an expert band of ‘frogmen’ specialising in sabotage and espionage. Soon the extraordinary nature of their work inspired an updated selection of bespoke tools. Remember that this was long before Panerai had the capability of creating digital devices, which meant the compasses, timepieces and depth meters they made were, by today’s standards, quite rudimentary. When it came to being tested by the ‘Nageurs de Combat’ it transpired that none of these devices could survive the demands of their missions.

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Blancpain Fifty Fathoms

In 1953 various different companies continued to define the characteristics of the modern dive watch. Technical solutions soon cropped-up with increasing frequency and wristwatches began to follow divers down into the depths of their undersea adventures. It was during this period that the rotating bezel appeared, designed to measure up to 60 minutes, with notched trackers to indicate the elapse of time. To solve the issue of water resistance a double O-ring seal was implemented to cover the crown. This was paired with a screw-down case back to allow for improved resistance at greater depths.

Robert ‘Bob’ Maloubier was a French secret agent who doubled as a British Special Operations Executive during the Second World War. At the height of his service he became the leader of a team of agents. Interestingly he was also responsible for a series of sketches depicting a watch that might suit the specific requirements of their duty. Once the design was finished he began to search for a company to manufacture what he’d drawn. After amassing a mountain of refusals he finally met with Blancpain, a small Swiss watch company, and together they realised his vision and painstakingly crafted the first Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, which is now widely recognised as the grandfather of the modern dive watch.

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As the name suggests the Fifty Fathoms was the first watch model made to operate at a depth of fifty fathoms, which is around 91 meters. To give you some perspective, this was deeper than the oxygen mixtures of that time would allow divers to go. In addition the Fifty Fathoms was equipped with an automatic movement, which reduced any damage usually caused to the seals by frequent hand-winding. A solid case back was fitted to cover the movement and protect the antimagnetic frame from the strong magnetic fields commonly caused by large military machinery. Due to the utility of these functions, coupled with the simplicity of the design, the Fifty Fathoms reappeared with various new models over the years. In the end it lasted some 27 years before Blancpain finally shutdown, in 1980, only to be revived 3 years later by the entrepreneur Jean-Claude Biver.

In 1954, a year after the release of the Blancpain model, Rolex released their own timepiece, which they called the Submariner. This luxury model has since become synonymous with strong engineering and has thereby prevailed over the last 60 years, with a distinctive, high-contrast dial and bezel, unique styling and triple-link stainless steel bracelet. Rolex typically excelled at refining and revising the countless details and features of this single piece. Then they produced its bolstered big brother, the Deep Sea watch, capable of operating at the deepest depths of our blue planet.

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The Rolex Legacy

In 1960, on January 23rd, oceanographer Jacques Piccard and US Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh took their submersible bathyscaphe, ‘The Trieste’, down into the rugged veins of the Challenger Deep, in the Mariana-trench. Travelling 10,916 metres beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean they managed to where no submersible had ever ventured before. During the dive a Deep Sea Special model, which looked like a retro UFO, was strapped to the hull of the submersible. It was 3.6 centimetres thick and fitted with a spherical Plexiglas crystal to resist the incalculable pressures of the deep.

Similar experiments continued with deep water horology and suddenly Jacques Cousteau’s name resurfaced. This time Cousteau was working with Rolex and Doxa to pioneer new technology that could accompany humans on the ocean floor. Together this holy union was sending divers down to great depths on a supply of mixed oxygen and helium, allowing them to remain underwater for long periods of time without coming up for air. This was one way to steadily avoid the crippling onset of decompression sickness. At the same time they were dealing with the problem that arose when helium found its way into even the most tightly sealed watch cases. What happened was that when the divers made their way up to the surface helium would collect inside the watch and increase the pressure therein. Over time this would cause the watch crystals to eventually shift and pop out, damaging the other components. Cousteau, backed by the might of Rolex and Doxa, rose to the challenge and invented watches equipped with helium release valves. There is still some arguments about which respective model first featured this addition. However we would say that the first commercial wristwatch with a helium release valve was crafted by Doxa in 1969. It was called the Sub 300T Conquistador and it preceded the Sea Dweller by almost two years. The way in which these models worked involved a one-way valve, allowing helium to be slowly released from inside the case. They were completed with the assistance of the US Divers Company, replete with a uni-directional bezel and no-decompression table to allow divers to measure how long they should stay under without resurfacing. This was an essential feature to counter the likelihood of injury through decompression sickness.

Recently, in 2008, the mighty Deepsea Challenge timepiece was released by Rolex. This exploration-orientated timepiece was capable of working under conditions with 1,200 times more pressure than we experience on the surface. It was equipped with 1.5 centimetres thick sapphire crystal attached to a 51.4 millimetre wide and 28.5 millimetre thick casing. It was considered a paragon of ingenuity, leading the charge of deep sea engineering, with the ability to descend to 10,908 metres, as was proven when it was strapped to the robotic arm of the Deepsea Challenger and taken for a three hour drive in the Mariana Trench. Not only did the watch withstand the crushing pressure, but it also returned from the descent intact and was still ticking as though it had just been dipped into the kitchen sink.

Today dive watches are as robust as they are stylish, discarding the shoddy UFO design of the Rolex Deep Sea Special, whilst still retaining its ability to operate at the deepest point on our planet. Most dive watches are made work at depths of at least 100 metres and are commonly legible, even in the dark, from a distance of about 25 centimetres. These prerequisites dictate the general standard and have led to numerous testing requirements, including an over-pressure test, which involves total immersion in water for two hours, at 125% of the models rated pressure, as opposed to 10 minutes for standard water-resistant watches. No intrusion of water or condensation is permitted whatsoever, making the dive watches that pass part of an elite group, just like the aquatic soldiers who first pioneered their usage. In the last decade we’ve seen newly improved oil-filled watches and countless digital devices. Generally speaking great progress has been made in the realm of deep sea horology. However it did take 52 years before another manned descent was made into the blackness of the Mariana Trench – on 26th March, 2012, director James Cameron, who was helmsman behind the Titanic and Avatar (two of the highest-grossing films of all time), followed the vanished wake of The Trieste. In keeping with their dedication to deep sea technology, Rolex joined the adventure 5 weeks prior to the plunge. They were given limited time to design, test and manufacture another, more modern watch, which could accompany Cameron and withstand the most challenging of conditions. To give you some idea of how dangerous was is down there, Cameron said that if a hole was made in the hull of his submersible a jet of water would enter with such force that it would split his body like a lazer fired by a Bond villain. Nevertheless, Rolex continued rising to new challenges and produced the Deepsea D-Blue Dial James Cameron Watch, which you can see here or pictured below. There is no finer example, in our opinion, of how far we’ve come from the days of popping crystals and condensation.

The Deepsea D-Blue Dial James Cameron Watch

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  1. How to choose a watch: the ultimate guide | Samuel Windsor 7 June, 2017 at 16:17 Reply

    […] ‘Technical solutions soon cropped-up with increasing frequency and wristwatches began to follow divers down into the depths of their undersea adventures. It was during this period that the rotating bezel appeared, designed to measure up to 60 minutes, with notched trackers to indicate the elapse of time,’ explains Watch Tag Mag. […]

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