In diving, it used to be that having a reliable watch on you could be the difference between life and death. A device that could track how long you’d been underwater, help you calculate decompression stops to avoid the bends, and keep you aware of how much air you had left in your tank was essential. And during the mid-20th century, when the sport of diving was at its most popular, there were plenty of top-tier tool watches to choose from.
It’s fascinating to see how the watch has evolved from pure time-keeping device to indispensable professional tool to modern style staple. And the dive watch, which had its origins in both commercial and military applications, is now one of the most common watch styles in the world due to its versatile fashion appeal.
We’ve already covered what exactly distinguishes a dive watch before on the blog, but how did it originally come to be?
The Rolex Oyster
It’s almost impossible to talk about any period in horological innovation where Rolex has not made its mark in some way.
The Rolex Oyster had been in development for years before Wilsdorf registered the patent for it in 1926. At a time when wrist watches were becoming far more than glorified pocket watches with straps, the waterproof watch was an impressive novelty. The original Rolex Hermetic, which sealed the movement and winding crown inside a two-piece case much the same way a lid screws onto a jar, protected the watch from liquid but was inconvenient for everyday use. The Rolex Oyster improved upon the design by featuring not only a screw-on front and back, but also a winding crown that screwed down like a hatch on a submarine, making the watch impervious to outside elements without having to be sealed inside an outer casing.
Hans Wilsdorf, the company’s founder, possessed a shrewd marketing mind, so when it came to showcasing the Oyster’s innovative design, he came up with two brilliant ideas. The first was placing the watch in a fish bowl and setting it in the window of his shop to the amusement of passers-by. The second was putting a Rolex Oyster on the neck of Mercedes Glietze when she attempted her vindication swim of the English Channel in 1927.
Mercedes Glietze had already swam the channel eight times before and once successfully, a feat that took her around 15 hours. This particular attempt was prompted by Mercedes’ need to prove herself to skeptics, who had already revealed a fraud by another woman who claimed to have made the swim in 13 hours. Ultimately, she didn’t make it across the ninth time due to near-hypothermia, but the Rolex Oyster around her neck came out of the water in perfect working order.
While the swim made Rolex a household name, does it make the Rolex Oyster the first dive watch? Debatable, but probably not. However, as the first waterproof watch on the market, the Oyster did serve as a blueprint for the dive watches that came after.
The OMEGA Marine
The problem with the Rolex Oyster was that while it was very good at waterproofing the watch, it wasn’t intended to handle much more than that. That’s where the OMEGA Marine came in, reintroducing a concept that Rolex had already abandoned to create the first watch made specifically to take on greater depths.
Introduced in 1932, the Marine’s design was simple: a complete watch inside a hermetic outer casing, sealed by a gasket. It was also a design challenge – a rectangular watch that was able to slide out of a secure casing was OMEGA’s way of getting around Rolex’s patents on the screw-down winding crown. Notably, it was the first watch to use a synthetic sapphire front, adding to its reliability and established the Marine as the preferred watch of submarine explorers. Among the watch’s famous wearers was Yves le Prieur, the inventor of the first scuba device, who leant the watch credibility among the burgeoning diving community.
And when it came time to put the Marine to the test, OMEGA was ready. In 1936, two Marine watches and a sealed Marine casing spent several minutes in hot water (85 degrees Celsius), then were submerged to a depth of 70 meters in Lake Geneva (5 degrees Celsius) for thirty minutes. When they were taken out, both watches worked perfectly, and none of the cases showed any trace of water inside.
So if Rolex and OMEGA were the innovators, how did the dive watch as we know it now develop? The mid-20th century was a period of great social unrest, and the onset of World War II created a need for watches with practical applications in the air, on land, and at sea.
The Panerai Radiomir
Before it became a name in watchmaking, Officine Panerai specialized in making tools and instruments for the Italian Navy. However, in 1935, Panerai began a partnership with Rolex to develop its first wristwatches – and consequently, the first professional dive watches. Based off the design of an old Rolex Oyster pocket watch, the look of these watches has remained largely unchanged, as Panerai had three stipulations: the watch had to be waterproof, it had to be visible underwater, and it had to be big.
The result? The Panerai Radiomir, a 47mm wristwatch with luminous markings, which proved to be essential for the Frogmen of the Italian Navy, the elite diving team who used manned torpedoes as an offensive strategy during World War II. Considered incredibly oversized for the time, the Radiomir’s large cushion shape, minimalist dial, and waterproofed Rolex movement was ideal for the Regia Marina divers who needed a reliable tool for measuring time and distance underwater for extended periods of time.
The Radiomir was named for the Radium paint used on the dial (whose dangers at the time weren’t yet fully understood), and its high luminosity made the watch highly visible during covert night missions, which consisted of two divers in re-breathers guiding a Slow Moving Torpedo (SLC) to their designated targets. In all, the Frogmen were able to significantly damage the British fleet in the Mediterranean during the first years of the war.
As the waterproof watch and the early iterations of the dive watch tested the limits of the technology in the early 20th century, they paved the way for the tool watches that came after and helped establish diving as a versatile pursuit for knowledge, for war, and for sport.The Radiomir was named for the Radium paint used on the dial (whose dangers at the time weren’t yet fully understood), and its high luminosity made the watch highly visible during covert night missions, which consisted of two divers in re-breathers guiding a Slow Moving Torpedo (SLC) to their designated targets. In all, the Frogmen were able to significantly damage the British fleet in the Mediterranean during the first years of the war.