Table of Contents
In this 3-post series we’ll cover:
Part 1: A brief history of dive watches, and the features that define them
Part 2: Types of dive watches and an overview of brands and models
Part 3: Our picks for the best dive watches based on type and price range
Skin Diving Watches
Don’t rely on a watch for SCUBA diving unless it is ISO 6425 certified, or similar. Even watches rated to a depth of 660 feet should only be used to snorkel or swim — or do the dishes.
SCUBA Diver’s Watches
If it doesn’t function at least 100 meters underwater it’s not a “true” diver’s watch.
In order to bear the word “DIVER’S” a watch must be certified by the International Organization for Standardization.
The more significant requirements of ISO 6425 are:
- Water resistance tested by extreme methods to at least 125% of its rating (with a minimum rating of 100 meters)
- Has a unidirectional bezel (or other device) that shows preselected elapsed time with marks at least every 5 minutes
- Clearly distinguishable minute markings on the dial
- Legibility at 25cm, in the dark, of:
- Elapsed measured time
- Indicator that time is running (such as lume on a moving second hand)
- Dying-battery indicator for quartz watches
- Shock resistance (struck by a 3kg pendulum-mounted hammer on two sides)
- Magnetic resistance to 4800 A/m
- Salt water corrosion resistance
- Resistance to thermal shock (submerged for 10 minutes each in 40°C water, then 5°C, then 40°C)
- Condensation test (heated to 40°C then placed in contact with water)
- Strap/bracelet resistance to 45lbs. of force on each springbar
Needless to say, if it meets those requirements, it’s a tough watch that’s built to last. But Rolex isn’t ISO certified. They use universally accepted internal testing. Sinn divers are certified by DNV GL, a German organization. SCUBA diving watches require rigorous testing to back up claims of toughness and water resistance.
You might thinking it’s overkill, but no, there’s still a category for that . . .
Deep Sea Diving Watches
Deep sea diving watches, often with the previously discussed helium release valve, function more than 1,000 meters deep.
Most watchmakers use brute force to beat back the multiple atmospheres of water pressure. O-rings, combined with a screw-down crown and caseback, as originated in the Rolex Oyster, serve as template for most. But they kick it up a notch for deep sea diving.
The current Rolex Deepsea uses a 5.5mm-thick sapphire crystal along with proprietary 904L steel. It’ll work down to 3,900 meters (12,800 feet).
An experimental Rolex Deep Sea Special with a 3.6cm-thick (360mm) plexiglass crystal was strapped to the arm of a submarine in 1960 on its way to the deepest place on Earth. It reached Challenger Deep, a point in in the Mariana Trench, at a depth of 10,916 meters (35,800 feet). Fifty-two years later, a Rolex Deepsea Challenge returned to the spot with a 1.5cm-thick (150mm) sapphire crystal. This one rode the robotic arm of a submarine piloted solo by Hollywood director James Cameron.
That whole watch is 28.5mm thick with a case diameter of 51.4mm. Massive. The crystal is more than half its thickness.
But there are other, more subtle, methods of waterproofing watches. Sinn and Bell & Ross figured out another way to balance the internal and external pressure in dive watches.
The Italians, Bell & Ross, collaborated with the German watch company, Sinn, to develop a watch case entirely filled with with oil that seals out every trace of air. A mechanical movement would not operate in fluid, so a specialized quartz movement is submerged inside.
The oil prevents glare and fogging of the crystal, but it’s also virtually incompressible, which makes the internal pressure of the case always equal to the external pressure.
The Bell & Ross Hydromax broke the depth record in 1997 reaching 11,000 meters. Sinn — and DVN GL — says their Sinn UX is pressure resistant to any reachable depth on the planet.
Digital Dive Watches
Casio G-Shock watches probably see the most underwater wrist time of all digital watches. Super tough and reliable, the ISO-certified 200M multi-function watches do a lot more than keep time. Depending on the model, the multi-sensors measure water depth, altitude, barometric pressure, temperature, compass direction, and track the tides and moon. The Frogman is the closest thing to a true dive computer, which is what SCUBA divers actually rely on.
Everyone from police officers to sports enthusiasts to the general public wears these burly tough watches. But this article is primarily about classic dive watches inspired by the veritable—and mechanical—Blancpain Fifty Fathoms.
Established Dive Watch Brands
Rolex, Omega, and Blancpain make the dive watch cream of the crop. Most everyone with even a casual interest in watches has heard of them. James Bond wore Rolex Submariners until Pierce Brosnan strapped the first Omega Seamaster to his wrist in Goldeneye.
Blancpain, the first registered watchmaker in the world, created the first modern dive watch, the Fifty Fathoms, and set the revolution in motion.
Every version of FF, Sub, Seamaster, or Sea-Dweller is a desirable work of fine craftsmanship, if not art.
Japanese behemoths Seiko, Casio, and Citizen, nearly destroyed the established Swiss watchmaking industry after Seiko mastered the super-accurate, battery-powered quartz watch movement in 1969 with the release of the Seiko Astron.
Seiko has a long history with diving, starting with their first diver, the Seiko ref. 6217, released in 1965. Descended from it is by far their best selling dive watch ever, the SKX series of watches, but their big brothers, best known by their nicknames, have cult-like following as well, like the: Seiko Turtle (most famously worn by Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, but the most common Seiko diver seen in film), Seiko Tuna, Seiko Monster, Seiko Samurai, Seiko Sumo, Seiko Shogun, Seiko Bullhead—that’s a few of the ones with better specs than the SKX.
Casio owns the digital watch market with the nearly indestructible G-Shock series and its derivatives. The G-Shock Frogman has the closest capabilities in this article to the dive computers that are actually used in diving. Other digital watches are mere imitations of the G-Shock.
Citizen made batteries obsolete with the invention of the Eco Drive light-powered quartz movement in 1973, but they continue making advancements with the automatic and quartz Miyota movements they produce for other watchmakers worldwide. Yes, all those Miyota movements you see in watch specs are made by Citizen.
DOXA, established 1889, was at the forefront of diver’s watch technology in the 1960s. They produced the first orange dial on a dive watch, which is the most visible color down to 30 feet, according to their tests. The same watch included the first rotating bezel designed to calculate no-decompression times. It uses the US Navy’s dive table in conjunction with the standard bezel.
Jacques Cousteau, as the rumor goes, worked closely with both DOXA and Rolex to develop the helium release valve (HRV) and was consulted during the watch’s development while he served as chairman of U.S. Divers. The organization purchased bulk quantities of their first dive watch, DOXA Sub300T in 1967. DOXA released the first HRV to the general public as a feature of the DOXA Sub300T Conquistador in 1969.
Breitling dove deep and beat the competition to a depth rating of 200 meters with the commercial release of the Breitling Superocean in 1957. Not bad for a company best known for their magnificent aviation watches.
Jaeger-LeCoultre is one of the most luxurious makers of sports watches over the years. The Polaris Automatic, released in 2018, is based on the 1968 Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox Polaris model. It was assembled in the original “Super Compressor” case, which was produced exclusively by EPSA from the 50s through the 70s. The gorgeous, extremely rare watch features an internal bezel operated by a second crown. If you see one at a garage sale, grab it and don’t haggle.
Hamilton, founded in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1892, had a long-running relationship with the U.S. military. They produced millions of field and pilot’s watches for soldiers starting in WWI. Now it’s a Swiss company, part of the Swatch Group conglomerate, but they still make great watches and much more affordably than most well-known Swiss brands.
The current release of the Hamilton Khaki Navy SCUBA has a vintage look reminiscent of the the first Hamilton watch seen on the screen in The Frogmen, a 1951 film about a mission of U.S. Navy Frogmen.
New and Trendy Dive Watch Brands
“New and Trendy” is relative. Compared to Blancpain, which was founded in Switzerland in 1735, automobiles could be considered new and trendy. Here at Twisted Bezel, “new and trendy” means “younger than me.” You’ll have to trust me on that, but Orient and Squale are now Lesser Known Brands.
Christopher Ward is a small British watchmaker founded by three friends in 2004 “to put premium watches within the reach of everyone.” Their Trident series of dive watches packs Swiss-made components in with high-end finishing for astounding watches at a fraction of the cost of premium established brands.
Sinn is a darling of the watch community, and for good reason. Sinn’s dive watches push the bounds of every technical specification, from hardening of steel to anti-magnetism to depth rating. Almost every watch enthusiast has one of this German company’s outstanding tool watches on their I-want list. I do.
Deep Blue has been making a huge array of extremely capable and colorful dive watches since they began in 2007. The American watch company uses the latest technologies, including HRVs, Superluminova lume, Tritium tubes, even depth meters, in extremely value-laden watches. Sign up for their mailing list and they’ll email enormous discounts to you.
Two brothers with a love of flying started Bremont after a plane crash killed their father and almost killed the brother flying with him. They started in Britain in 2002 making aviation-themed luxury watches. Expanding beyond their love of flying, Bremont now produces gorgeous watches for diving, sailing, motorsports, and travel.
Bell & Ross
Bell & Ross began in 1992 when two Swiss guys started making high-precision watches for astronauts, bomb disposal experts, pilots, and divers (in that order, according to their milestone releases). They’re best known for square pilot’s watches that look like they’re ripped from the instrument panel of a WWII bomber, first released in 2005 as the Bell & Ross BR01.
As for diving, they broke the world record in 1997. Their oil-filled Bell & Ross Hydromax Challenger reached a depth of 11,000 meters.
Bell & Ross’s first square diver came out in 2017, the stunning Bell & Ross BR03-92. Holy smokes, the round dial of sumptuous blue POPS against the satin and polished stainless steel slab. It’s not the the usual black-grey of an airplane dashboard, but the stainless steel of a ship’s fittings. And on most wrists, the large square case is remarkably comfortable.
Helson makes original-design dive watches using premium movements and supplies from ETA, Miyota, and Super Luminova. Their designs keep the watch community on the edge of their collective seat.
Their bronze-cased dive watches have an almost cult-like following. The Hong Kong-based company was founded by dive-enthusiasts from Europe and Asia.
These models are so tightly designed they’ve merely had to reissue variations on the two themes since 2009. The Vancouver, Canada, based company was founding in 2009 by a self-proclaimed watch-aholic, fueled by his immersion in online watch forums.
Benarus was founded in Germany in 2008 and is focused on producing high-quality dive watches in small batches. They manufacture, ship, and operate the company from Hong Kong (which almost seems a necessity for new watchmakers).
They mix modern and vintage aesthetics with more unusual case materials, like bronze, brass, and titanium, and power them with ETA, Miyota and Seiko movements, mostly automatic.
Lesser Known Dive Watch Brands
Officine Panerai basically invented diver’s watches. They created the Panerai Radiomir in the mid-1930s at the request of the Royal Italian Navy. This was long before Blancpain shipped the Fifty Fathoms to the French Navy.
However, Officine Panerai didn’t put a bezel on them and didn’t start selling them to the general public until 1993. By then the collective dive-watch conscience had gone in a different direction. (So much so that in my early ignorance, I once left a comment on an article questioning why the author included Panerai on a list of dive watches at all. Ah, youthful arrogance.)
The Iconic Panerai Bridge
Panerai introduced their most iconic feature on their seminal watch, the Luminor, in 1950. The crown was protected by a “bridge” that kept the crown firmly pressed against its o-ring. It sealed out seawater and still allowed the crown to be turned to wind the watch, even while underwater. More traditional screw-down crowns cannot.
Zodiac introduced the Zodiac Sea Wolf in 1953. That’s right, the same year as the Fifty Fathoms and one year before the Submariner. Doesn’t that blow your mind? That’s why Zodiac is in our Lesser Known Brands section.
They released the 750-meter Super Sea Wolf during the 70s, which so impressed the Navy Seals, they ordered a batch. Generals and Admirals might have worn Rolex, but regular soldiers wore the Sea Wolf.
The 2017 Zodiac Sea Wolf reissue provides impeccable Swiss craftsmanship, once again at prices the pack can afford.
Alpina’s “Dial of the Four”
Alpina released the Alpina 10 Seastrong in 1969 that echoed the look of the highly sought after Alpina 4 sports watch released in 1936. The 4 represents Alpina’s “four essential qualities of a sports watch”: water resistance, shock resistance, anti-magnetism, and “inoxydable” — French for “stainless,” which I take to mean “corrosion resistance,” a necessity in saltwater. The Seastrong used a “Super Compressor” case with an internal bezel operated by a second crown. It used rotating 5-minute marks in place of the numbered hour markers on the dial of the 4.
Super Compressor 2017 Reissue
A 2017 reissue of the Seastrong has sportsmen and sportswomen salivating once again over one of the few super-compressor style watches made today.
The anchor logo of Ulysse Nardin illustrates the company’s naval heritage since its inception in 1846. The Swiss company has made high-precision marine and pocket chronometers for militaries across the globe.
While other watchmakers focused on depth ratings, Ulysse Nardin pursued technological advancements and received many awards and achievements for accuracy through the years.
Squale, French for “shark,” started manufacturing cases and other watch parts in Switzerland in 1946. In the 50s, they started making dive watches and sold and marketed them only in dive shops, not jewelry stores.
The advent of quartz watches put Squale, like so many others, out of business. Family friends resurrected the brand in Italy in 2010, where they continue making watches professional divers and watch enthusiasts drool over.
The Orient Watch Company has made high-quality, no-frills watches with in-house movements in Japan since 1950. Watch lovers the world over recommend the Orient Mako and Orient Ray series to watch seekers more interested in craftsmanship, precision, and an in-house movement, at an accessible cost-point than having a recognizable name brand. Orient watches offer unrivaled finish, accuracy and ruggedness for the price. Unrivaled.
The founder of Rolex started Tudor in 1926. Early on it acted as a sort of independent subsidiary to produce experimental Rolex designs.
Coming into more of their own identity and style in recent decades, their Tudor Black Bay series regularly piques the interest of desk divers looking for Rolex quality, more avant garde styling, and less rarefied prices. Black Bay fans are more excited than ever about the 2018 offerings.
Oris has diligently produced practical underwater tool watches since their Swiss founding in 1904. They were one of the 10 biggest Swiss watchmakers during the 1960s. At the height of their popularity Oris released their first dive watch — in 1965.
They re-released it 50 years later. You can configure the Oris Diver Sixty Five at least 40 different way on their website. Options include black, blue, green, or silver dials, cases 35mm to 43.5mm across, and leather, rubber, stainless, or textile straps. Oris has the exact watch you want, whether you know it or not.
Rado released their only dive watch, the Captain Cook, in 1962 to not much fanfare. The small century-old Swiss watchmaker is better known for making thin, modern cases and dials. Sensing a sea-change in the market, they re-released the Captain Cook last year — and it’s a hit!
An unmistakable, vintage-inspired, warm brown dial on the Limited Edition is matched to a bezel made of their signature material, ceramic. It comes in a perfectly sized in an understated 37mm case that focuses the eye on the bezel and dial.
When it comes to brown, I stop and look twice. The Rado HyperChrome Captain Cook Limited Edition merits a third and fourth look. And due to their lesser known brand status, they’re relatively affordable.
Get all our best picks for dive watches in Part 3 of Twisted Bezel’s Ultimate Dive Watch Guide.