It seems only right for me to start this column where the last one left off: watch auctions. After all, auction season is upon us, and the latest hot news is that one of the most extreme dive watches ever made will go under the hammer on 8 November. The auction house is Christie’s, with the firm’s Rare Watches Auction in Geneva, and the watch in question is the Rolex Deep Sea Special Number 1, the very first of the extreme divers that was made by the Swiss watchmaker, back in 1953.
In the early 1950s, Rolex was flying. Building on the hard-earned reputation of its watches being robust and very water resistant, Rolex was coming out with timepieces that would pretty much create what we call sports watches today. As I’ve written earlier in this column, these were tool watches, meant for people who liked the outdoors, liked to get their hands dirty, scale mountains or go diving. Perfectly dovetailing with the rise of disposable income in the West, and the attendant rise in leisure activities such as hiking and diving, watches like the Rolex Explorer, released in 1953, and the Rolex Submariner (also 1953), would become genres in themselves.
Rolex has always had a keen eye for publicity, and an enthusiasm to push the technological envelope, especially with regards to water resistance. A combination of both these factors resulted in the manufacture making an experimental dive watch—the Deep Sea Special—to test the limits. It was attached to the outside of French explorer Auguste Piccard’s deep sea diving bathyscape, the Trieste, which went down to a depth of 3,150m in the Mediterranean Sea on 30 November 1953.
A third iteration of this high-glass, alien-looking timepiece, would, in 1960, accompany the Trieste down to the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, to a ridiculous depth of 10,908m. This latter watch, the Number 3, is displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. Number 1, from 1953, will be up for auction. It’s a bit of a coup for Christie’s, considering that Phillips will be auctioning the Rolex Deep Sea Special Number 35 (one of over 30 commemorative pieces made in the 1960s for, well, publicity) at its Geneva auction at around the same time.
The first Rolex Submariner, the Ref. 6204, was being produced at the same time as the Deep Sea Special, but for the mass market. With a water resistance of 100m, it caused a massive splash upon release. With its unidirectional rotating timing bezel (for people to time their dives), luminescent hands and markers, and its cool design, the watch was revolutionary. However, the era of the dive watch had been coming for a while, because in 1953, Blancpain released the Fifty Fathoms (see above), a watch built to military specifications and which was, at the time, sold at dive shops, not jewellers. In form and function, it was much like the Submariner, and one could say that it was even better looking. A third dive watch was also released that year, the Zodiac Sea Wolf, another handsome and rugged timepiece that has come back in vogue in recent years. Of the three, the Submariner became the most iconic, in no small measure to the Trieste dives (and then due to Sean Connery’s James Bond).
These days, no serious diver actually dives with a dive watch, except as a backup. There’re wrist-strapped dive computers to aid with the actual diving. But dive watches, as a genre, have never been more popular, and Rolex is proof of that. The modern Submariner is one of the most expensive and hard-to-get sports watches. And although nearly no modern Sub owner will ever go diving, these are tougher than ever before. This improved toughness holds true for the great gamut of dive watches out there, most of which can be had at a fraction of the Submariner’s price.
One watch company that rivals Rolex in terms of dive watch prestige is Seiko. The Japanese giant stepped into the dive watch game relatively late, in 1965, with the iconic 62MAS. But it was two releases in 1968—the Ref. 6159-7001 and the Ref. 6105—that put Seiko on the dive watch map. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the company released one iconic dive watch after another. These were worn by US soldiers in the Vietnam War, serious divers and fashionable men about town in equal measure.
The 6105 became so popular after it appeared on the wrist of Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, that to this day it’s called the 'Captain Willard’ after Sheen’s character. Each of the Seiko divers acquired popular nicknames—the Turtle, the King Turtle, the Tuna, the Monster—and their modern counterparts and re-issues rule the affordable dive watch space. Both the 62MAS and the Captain Willard were re-issued in 2020 with modern upgrades, and the two of the colourways, the SPB143 (62MAS re-issue, see below) and the SPB153 (Willard re-issue), have become runaway successes.
Other current 60s re-issues which make for absolutely brilliant divers are the Doxa SUB300 (see below) and the Oris Diver Sixty-Five. Alongside the Zodiac Sea Wolf, these divers are on the forefront of a return to mid-century designs, with smaller, compact cases and interesting colours. There are plenty of vintage-style dive watches from boutique brands as well, and of these, Baltic’s Aquascaphe line is a total stunner.
Of course, no roundup of modern divers can be complete without mentioning Omega, and its Seamaster line. Rolex’s success in the 50s forced Omega to turn the Seamaster, a dress watch line into a dive watch line in 1957. Today, one of the Seamaster lines, the Seamaster Planet Ocean, is considered one of the best dive watches out there. Pop culture moves in cycles, so if the Submariner profited by Connery’s Bond, the Planet Ocean’s popularity owes to Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig’s sultry pouts. One thing is for certain, even if your lifestyle is miles removed from that of 007, there’s a dive watch for you, out there somewhere.
Handwound is a fortnightly column on watches and watchmaking.