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Rolex to Omega — a century of deep sea diving watches

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Diving watches have come a long, long way over the years – or, 10,928 metres to be exact, writes WatchPro contributor Dakota Murphey.

Following on from Omega’s recent bettering of Rolex’s 59-year deep dive record, there’s no better time to revisit exactly how deep-sea diving watches first came about, looking at the major milestones witnessed throughout history.

While the fundamental aim of a dive watch has always been to tell the time accurately at a great depth, the technological advances brought about over the years have since enabled them to do so much more – descending to the furthest reaches of the ocean.

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From Longine’s Skin Diver timepiece to Visconti’s Abysuss Sport Dive, we take you through some of the major milestones that have taken place throughout the history of deep-sea diving watches, looking in particular at how their design and functionality have evolved over the years.

1926: Where there’s a Wilsdorf, there’s a way.

While the water remains relatively muddy as to who invented the ‘first dive watch’, many people give that mantle to Hans Wilsdorf (the founder of Rolex), who invented the Rolex Oyster all the way back in 1926.

Featuring a screw down crown, bezels and a case back, he was tasked with creating a watch that was both ‘water proof’ and ‘dust proof’. He succeeded and, a year later, gave a version of the watch to Mercedes Gleize during her attempt to become the first woman to cross the English Channel.

While she failed, the watch didn’t, and was found to still be ticking after her quest had finished. This set a new precedent for diving watches to follow, and many elements of Wilsdorf’s design remain in diving watches to this day.

1932: Omega take advantage.

While Rolex had created the first dust and water-resistant watch, the brand hadn’t made them commercially available just yet. This allowed Omega SA to dive right in and take on the challenge themselves, creating the first commercially available diving watch back in 1932 called the Marine Watch (the first Seamasters were made in 1948).

1935: Military precision.

Three years later, the Italian royal navy commissioned watchmaker Officine Panerai with the task of designing and developing diving watches for them. This, in turn, gave birth to what is renowned as the first military divers watch – a model now known as the ‘Radiomir’ – named after the radium that lets their dials be legible in even the murkiest water.

1953: The name’s Rolex, Rolex Submariner.

Fast-forwarding a couple of decades saw the release of the first diving watch water resistant up to 100 metres. Rolex’s Submariner model represented a real turn of the tide, and was even later found to be water resistant up to depths of 200 and 300 metres. It also hit the headlines on the Hollywood screen, featuring in many James Bond films at the time.

1960: Rolex reach record remoteness.

Rolex’s watch adventures only continued from then on, reaching perhaps their biggest milestone in the year 1960. During this iconic year, Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh piloted the US Navy bathyscaphe Trieste to the deepest point on earth – the Challenger Deep – with a Rolex Oyster Perpetual Deep-Sea Special watch strapped to the outside of the vessel.

Travelling down to the bottom of the ocean, to the southern end of the Mariana Trench, the duo found that the Rolex worked as effectively at 10,916 metres deep as it did on the water’s surface. As a result, they set the world record for the deepest dive watch ever.

1967: Hello helium valve.

Seven years later, Rolex introduced the Sea-Dweller – a deeper-diving version of the Submariner – and a combined effort with deep-diving specialists COMEX (Compagnie Maritime d’Expertise). The watch was water resistant to 610 metres and incorporated one distinguishing feature in particular – a helium escape valve. This addition allowed any helium that entered the watch during a diver’s time in a diving chamber to be easily released.

The watches became publicly available four years later but, before then, were awarded to underwater exploration pioneers like Robert Palmer Bradley. Following their release, the timepieces are said to have set the standard for dive watches.

1978 – 1992: COMEX Dweller diver hits record.

It wasn’t until 11 years later before Rolex upgraded the design of their Sea Dweller model, releasing the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Sea-Dweller 4000 in 1978. This watch was water proof to a depth of 1220 metres – more than double the amount of its predecessor.

The watch has also been commissioned to COMEX divers since 1992 and, later that same year, COMEX diver Theo Mavrostomos set a dive record of 701 metres in a hyperbaric chamber.

1996: ISO set the standard.

In 1996, the International Organisation for Standardization (ISO) issued the 6425 standard for watches, defining the features that a watch must have in order for it to be designated a ‘dive watch’. This included particular requirements in terms of resistance to thermal shocks, the ability to measure elapsed time, and the watch’s legibility under water. It also standardised the criteria for water resistance, stating that the watch must be 25 per cent more water-resistant than it claims to be on the dial.

2008 – 2009: Rolex vs. CX Swiss Military.

The year 2008 saw the release of Rolex’s latest upgrade to the Sea Dweller range – the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date Sea Dweller DEEP SEA. With an official depth rating of 3,900 metres, the watch represented the most water-resistant mechanical watch in serial production during its launch year.

That record didn’t last too long though, with the CX Swiss Military 20000 stealing its thunder only a year later. The introduction of this watch saw the record for water resistance reach 6,100 metres – a Guinness World Record at the time.

2012: A Titanic challenge.

While the hit disaster film Titanic may have been a story about a sinking boat, the year 2012 saw the film’s director, James Cameron, sinking to the bottom of the ocean himself. Fortunately, he was safely contained in a vessel at the time, accompanied only by a Rolex Oyster Perpetual Date Sea-Dweller DEEPSEA CHALLENGE dive watch strapped to its manipulator arm.

The Hollywood director reached a depth of 10,928 metres as part of Rolex’s Deep Sea Challenge, which again dove to the deepest point of the ocean in the Mariana Trench. This depth was just shy of the 1960 record set by Jacques Piccard, but made James Cameron only the third person ever to reach the bottom of the deepest part of the ocean.

2019: Omega become Seamasters.

Earlier this year, Omega’s Seamaster Planet Ocean Ultra Deep Professional overtook Rolex, setting an unbeatable world record for the deepest dive watch ever.

Back in May 2019, undersea explorer Victor Vescovo piloted his vessel Limiting Factor to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, overtaking Rolex’s previous record by just 12 metres. Currently holding a record dive depth of 10,928 metres, it’s safe to say the Seamaster dive watch definitely lives up to its name.

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