No fully rounded watch collection is complete without at least one diver. Still the most popular subcategory of timepiece, the genre really came to the fore in the 1950s with the emergence of recreational Scuba diving. That decade saw the release of several iconic models that are still around, in one form or another, in the present day. However, they have since been joined by others which have enhanced and improved on their forerunners, models that have broken boundaries and gone deeper than it was ever thought possible.
Of course, making a watch robust enough to survive a plunge to the depths is one thing. The real trick is to ensure it can also work as an everyday companion on dry land, and it is this pair of challenges which have created some of horology’s true legends.
Below, we will take a look at our all time top five dive watches.
The Rolex Submariner ref. 116610
If we’re going to start anywhere, it may as well be with the latest and greatest. Although not the first dive watch ever made (we’ll get into that in a minute), the Submariner has undoubtedly been the most influential. First unveiled in 1954, it has gone through an almost constant series of developments during its 60+ years, all designed to keep it at the top of the food chain. The Rolex Submariner 116610 released in 2010 is the culmination of all that effort, the product of several generations of perfectionism, but still recognizably of the same DNA as the debut model.
The clear-as-day layout, the high contrast white on black detailing, the formidable performance; enduring features of the Sub since the beginning. The shoulders may be a little brawnier these days, and the hands and indexes have put on some weight, but there is still nothing else out there can touch it for sheer legacy. The Cerachrom bezel is tougher, and blacker, than ever. The Cal. 3135 is the same movement used for the last 30 years. Why? Because this is Rolex and if something works faultlessly, why bother changing it?
With its timeless looks and all round versatility, the Rolex Submariner ref. 116610 will always be the dive watch against which all others are judged. It is no wonder that this watch is out of stock from Authorized Dealers.
The Blancpain Fifty-Fathoms Tribute to MIL-SPEC
While the Sub may be the one to win most of the plaudits, it was the Fifty-Fathoms from Blancpain that can confidently claim to being the first modern dive watch, even if it only beat Rolex to the punch by a matter of months. Created in 1953 for the French Navy’s newly-formed regiment of combat swimmers, it pioneered the use of a unidirectional bezel to measure elapsed dive time, a feature now compulsory for any timepiece that wants to formally qualify as a diver.
Unlike the Submariner however, the Fifty-Fathoms has been subject to myriad different versions over the years. For collectors, the most sought after remain the incredibly rare military-issued MIL-SPEC 1 models, the majority of which were destroyed in the 70s over safety concerns with the radioactive Promethium 147 lume used on the hands and markers.
With only around 30 still surviving, the brand last year released the limited edition Blancpain Fifty-Fathoms Tribute to MIL-SPEC (yes, that is the official name), an unashamed homage to that highly coveted veteran. An almost identical aesthetic copy, the Tribute even includes the original’s humidity indicator; a small disc above the six o’clock which changes color if any moisture seeps inside the case. At $14,000 for each of the 500-piece run, you hope it is never needed. The Fifty-Fathoms is a milestone in horology history. It might lose out in the universal recognition stakes compared to the Submariner, but it is still the genesis of the dive watch as we know it today.
The Omega Seamaster 300M
Omega introduced their first Seamaster 300 in 1957, one of a trio of new watches the brand released at the same time, alongside the never-before-seen Railmaster and Speedmaster. Keeping the name but little else from the original, dressier Seamaster from 1948, the 300 was built to compete for the affections of professional divers and to try and break the spell cast by Rolex. To a certain degree it worked. The Seamaster and the Sub ran pretty much neck and neck for years in the popularity stakes. But where Rolex chose to subtly evolve their offering over the subsequent decades, Omega, like Blancpain, went a different way and endlessly experimented with ambitious redesigns and offbeat shapes.
All the diversity damaged the reputation of both watch and brand, and it wasn’t until 1995 that repairs got underway. That was the year Pierce Brosnan stepped into the role of 007 in Goldeneye, with the recently released Seamaster 300M on his wrist. The ref. 2541.80, with its eye-catching blue dial and bezel, refocused the world’s attention on Omega’s diving watches and brought the Seamaster back to the table. No one even seemed that bothered that Bond, James Bond was wearing a quartz.
Learning their lesson, the 300M series has been intelligently developed on from that debut, with the design basics left in place and progressive technology added. So the latest 2018 models, all 14 of them, retain the attractive wave pattern dial of the first piece, but it, as well as the bezel, are now constructed from zirconium dioxide (ZrO2), a particular type of super strong ceramic.
The caliber is Omega’s own Master Co-Axial 8800, a METAS-certified formidable timekeeper with massive antimagnetic properties. With its classic looks and attractive price point, the Omega Seamaster 300M comes about the closest to taking the dive watch crown worn for generations by the Submariner. And praise doesn’t really come much bigger than that.
The Panerai Luminor
Panerai, a brand which has existed, virtually in secret, for over a hundred years only released its first range of watches for civilians in 1993. Before that, they produced timepieces and other precision instruments for the underwater commandoes of the Royal Italian Navy. Collaborating with Rolex in the 1930s, Panerai is another firm which could lay claim to developing the world’s first dive watch. Using the famed Oyster case from their Swiss partners and then modifying them with larger bezels and high-visibility dials, the resulting creation, dubbed the Radiomir, became the staple model in the brand’s arsenal and remains virtually unchanged today.
But it is the Luminor range, based on a piece originally built for the Egyptian Navy in the 1950s, which was to give Panerai their most iconic visual. The square, cushion-shaped case with its short lugs lend the Luminor a no-nonsense tool watch aesthetic, topped off by the emblematic crown protecting bridge. The unique feature was enough to catch the attention of one Sylvester Stallone, without whom we may never have heard of Panerai at all.
Spotting one in a Florence shop window while filming the movie Daylight, the star fell for the Luminor hard and ordered a bulk shipment to give away as gifts. The rest is history, with the series diversifying into countless different varieties and the brand itself becoming the darling of horology fans and Hollywood A-listers alike.
Devotees, known as Paneristi, are a fiercely loyal community and there are signs the manufacture is becoming more all-inclusive of late, with smaller versions of the famously oversized output starting to emerge. A 42mm model of the effortlessly cool Luminor Submersible 1950 surfaced last year to sit alongside the previous 44mm and 47mm variants.
An outlier in the world of dive watches, the Panerai Luminor represents a vital chapter in the story.
The Rolex Sea-Dweller ref. 126600
Neatly bookending with its little brother, the Submariner, the latest reference of the Sea-Dweller is a massive departure from the established norm. A name that started life in 1967 and developed in conjunction with COMEX, the world’s leading commercial saturation diving outfit, the Sea-Dweller has always been the much more serious alternative to the Sub. That means not only has it never ventured down the route of precious metal overcoats or diamond-studded indexes like its status symbol sibling, it has also been in a league of its own when it comes to performance.
The original depth rating of 2,000ft was quickly doubled to 4,000ft in the 70s, and it was the first watch in the world to be fitted with a Helium Escape Valve, a safety feature that allows expanding gas bubbles to flow out of the case before they cause any damage. Last year on the Sea-Dweller’s 50th anniversary, Rolex replaced the much-loved ref. 116600 with the updated Sea-Dweller reference 126600, a model which, to many followers, gave with one hand and took away with the other.
On the plus side, the birthday boy had finally grown up some. Modern dive watch fans had been grumbling for some time about Rolex’s refusal to add any extra millimeters to their underwater offerings, with the classic 40mm dimensions just starting to seem a little on the small side for a contemporary piece. When the 2017 Sea-Dweller was unveiled, its new 43mm body was a cause for delight, as was the vintage inspired red text on the dial, a telling nod to the original ref. 1665, better known as the Double Red.
But, horror of horrors, there at the three o’clock was a Cyclops lens, a divisive innovation since it first appeared in the 1950s, and one never before seen on the Sea-Dweller. Controversy and personal preferences aside, the ref. 126600 is an incredibly impressive timepiece. Able to handle punishment far beyond any it is likely to be subjected to, it is also handsome enough to match just about any occasion, even with its extra bulk. Inside is Rolex’s latest Cal. 3235, with the revolutionary Chronergy escapement, the first movement to be awarded the brand’s updated Superlative Chronometer certificate. Tougher than the Sub and easier to wear than the Deepsea (the even bigger big brother) it is hard to think of anything else out there that can compete with the Sea-Dweller and its multitalented abilities.
Written by Paul Altieri
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