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My brother and I spend a lot of time discussing dive watches. We geek out over the minutia of designs from brands that have been around for a hundred years and talk about the latest pieces from micro-brands they discuss on Reddit.
We love dive watches — like a whole lot of people. To me, it’s like jazz or bluegrass. Sometimes you binge, other times you pick and choose. But dive watches are always tough, versatile, and look great, so you really can’t go wrong. But you could go very, very right.
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 style and price range
Whether you’re shopping for a watch or just want to learn a bit more about them, we’ve got a lot of info to share with you. Which watches are best looking and best performing? Which dive watches offer the coolest features, and which will hold their value best? And which of those will fit your budget, from inexpensive to mid-range to luxury?
Read on — we’ve got you covered.
Classic, Rugged, Reliable
The charm of the classic diver’s watch is that it looks great on anyone’s wrist. The style fits practically any occasion — except maybe dinner with an emperor (though some are appropriate for that).
Dive watches range in size and cost to fit the wrist size and budget of nearly anyone interested in watches. Small dive watches look classic on large wrists and bulky dive watches can make lean wrists more rugged.
Women recognized it years ago, and those with a hankering for the outdoors proudly strapped thick, oversized dive watches to their wrists as part of their everyday wear.
If you want a watch, but not some boring old watch you think of your grandpa wearing, you should probably be thinking: dive watch.
A dive watch must be able to withstand 10 atmospheres of water pressure, and function at least 330 feet underwater, to officially qualify as a “Diver’s” watch. Few other watch styles, by their most essential nature, must be so incredibly tough and reliable.
But Other Outdoor Watches are Tough Too, Right?
Pilot’s watches and field watches and other niche tool watches are cool too. Some have even stolen the dive watch’s most notable characteristic — the rotating timing bezel.
A pilot’s watch needs to be water-resistant enough to take a parachute landing at sea and a few days of bobbing around in the water. And a field watch needs to, what, handle a creek?
Features of a Dive Watch
The most obvious and visible feature of a dive watch is the bezel. It’s the dial on top that you absent-mindedly twist while stuck in a boring meeting or your daughter plays with while sitting in your lap. Its real purpose is to let divers know at a glance how long they’ve been underwater.
The bezels are unidirectional, meaning they rotate in only one direction. Any accidental bumps will only shorten the trip underwater and not leave you gasping for air.
The bezel is the number one visible and functional differentiator between dive watches and every other style of watch.
While nothing is technically waterproof, in order to be a “true” diver’s watch, it must be able to withstand 10 atmospheres of pressure. That’s equivalent to 100 meters (330 feet) underwater.
More serious dive watches are rated from 200 to 300 meters. And while most scuba divers swim nowhere near 300 feet deep, you can buy a watch at the mall today that will function more than 12,000 feet underwater.
It’s pretty dark 12,000 feet down — almost no light makes it to 200 meters. Luminescent paint, know as “lume,” is applied to the hands, hour markers, and at least the zero mark of the bezel. After all, it’s helpful to know how long you’ve been underwater in the deepest and darkest ocean waters.
Some formulas of lume glow brightly through the night, but the intensity and duration decreases over the years. Lesser quality lumes might barely last the length of a dive, even when new.
Generally speaking, the more serious the dive watch, the more intense and long-lasting the lume.
The lume has to meet certain standards to be ISO certified. The lume’s design on the hands, bezel, and dial is a big point of comparison among watch enthusiasts. Dive watch junkies go crazy for lume.
Dive Watches vs. Dive Computers
OK, in reality, few divers actually rely on dive watches for scuba diving anymore. Wrist-mounted dive computers have replaced traditional diver’s watches. Dive computers offer a lot more functionality to divers, but that shouldn’t effect your choice of dive watch. Damn near every dive watch sold today is used for desktop diving, not scuba diving. And that’s OK.
Timing important events in your life with your diving bezel – like how long a steak has cooked on one side – will become an essential feature of your wrist.
Have a Go if You Think You’re Hard Enough
The final overarching feature of dive watches is their toughness. Watches that carry the ISO 6425 certification are subjected to shock resistance, magnetic resistance, and chemical resistance tests. Watches must be ISO 6425 certified to have “DIVER’S” printed on the dial.
But, like organic food, there’s a cost to the certification. As a result there are many non-certified watches that are every bit as rugged, including Rolex watches.
A Quick Dive Watch History
Experimental Early Models
Early water-resistant timepieces were produced for militaries and also for industrial and experimental purposes. One example is the famed Rolex Oyster. The Oyster withstood 10 hours of submersion while crossing the English Channel dangling from the neck of a swimmer in 1927.
In 1935, Officine Panerai delivered their Radiomir underwater watches to the Royal Italian Navy. The Radiomir was made in collaboration with Rolex, who provided the movements and cases.
Radium and That Not-So-Healthy Glow
The Radiomir got its name and the glow of its luminous paint from radioactive radium. (The health “benefits” caused by this glow weren’t understood until years later.) It also looks nothing like a what you’d consider a dive watch today.
Dive Watches Become Available to General Public
The first archetypical dive watch was released to the general public in 1953 by Blancpain, the Fifty Fathoms. Jacques Cousteau wore the watch in his famed film, “Le Monde du Silence,” and so did French and US Navy combat divers.
It was the watch that first combined these features:
- A timing bezel with 5-minute marks
- A tough waterproof case
- Luminescent hands and hour markers set against a black dial for maximum contrast and visibility underwater
This is the dive watch that started them all.
Rolex Oyster: An Icon Is Born
But the legacy was stolen a year later by the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner, easily the most imitated dive watch and possibly the most recognizable watch in history.
Those circular hour markers — combined with bars at 3, 6, 9, and a triangle at 12 – are the hallmark design of the Submariner. Most dive watches have imitated this iconic design, in some variation or another, ever since.
It’s so recognizable that many people may not even associate it with Rolex at all. It’s practically one of Plato’s Forms.
And for that reason, the “quick history” could stop right here.
Sure, there have been additional developments, such as the helium release valve, but none of them change the essential look and feel of the dive watch.
(But since I brought it up, I won’t leave you hanging… The helium release valve (HRV) was patented by Doxa and released on the iconic Doxa Sub 300T Conquistador in 1969. Helium molecules are so small they can enter a waterproof case if you’re deep enough long enough. During the ascent after some long and deep dives, these molecules would expand and blow the crystal off the front of the watch. The HRV solves this by allowing helium molecules to escape as a diver ascends. The HRV basically keeps a watch from getting the bends when it comes up after being down too long.)
Why Wear a Diver’s Watch?
The main reason to buy any watch is because you like how it looks and feels on your wrist. In the case of dive watches, these attributes make them even more compelling:
- Appropriate style for many occasions
- Ability to easily time activities
- Water resistant and tough to handle most situations
You’ve likely heard that a Rolex Submariner or an Omega Seamaster are as at home in the boardroom as they are on a Navy ship, a golf course, or fly-fishing stream. As a result, other dive watches are too, at least to some degree.
The Seiko SKX007, sporting its highly polished stainless steel bracelet, looks as good as divers costing more than 10 times as much. I frequently wear mine when I dress up but don’t want to wear a dress watch, it looks that good.
Maybe dress watches and big digital sports watches aren’t your thing. Or you’re looking for a versatile style fit for many occasions and activities? Then a dive watch fits the bill.
Other classic watch styles — like pilot’s watches or field watches — can be tough and water-resistant too. But I like to be near the sea. The ocean speaks to me. Plus, I don’t have an airplane — I have a kayak, fishing poles, a surfboard, and dammit, someday I’ll go scuba diving. Not likely to buy an airplane . . . And a dive watch is every bit tough enough to take in the field.