The best diver’s watches (even if you don’t dive)
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
What is a diving watch? It is a question that presents itself every May as summer looms. Even those of us who get scared when we can no longer see the sea bed will probably be wearing a watch that has some sort of calibrated bezel and is waterproof to more hundreds of metres than we could comfortably run, let alone dive.
Take the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Deepsea Challenge, which was launched last year: it is the ultimate diving watch, equipped to function at 11km under water, a depth to which as few people have been as have orbited the Moon. But given that you would be long dead if you were trying to max it out in a diving suit, is it philosophically and conceptually a diver’s watch? I neither know nor care because it looks great and, for all its massive solidity, isn’t so cumbersome that it interferes with my chief maritime activities of eating charcoal-grilled sardines, playing backgammon and smoking the occasional cigar.
It was made with titanium, RLX titanium to be precise: a first for a production-model Rolex. This year’s hottest beach watch, the new Yacht-Master 42, also in RLX titanium, is arguably the most important Rolex launch this year. Is it a proper diver’s watch? It doesn’t really matter, because you’re probably not going to be able to get your hands on one anyway, though it’s waterproof to 100 metres, which would suffice for most of us.
Technical pedants would define a diver’s watch by its adherence to the “ISO 6425:2018 Horology – Divers’ watches” standard, which means the watch has been tested to 125 per cent of the depth stated, and is legible at a distance of 25cm after 180 minutes in the dark, among other things. The standard is now in its fourth incarnation since 1982, which makes you wonder how divers managed before it was introduced.
It is a question that arises this year not least because Panerai has relaunched its entire Radiomir collection, which is inspired by the watches worn by Italian underwater commandos during the second world war. Tudor, meanwhile, keeps on finding new incarnations and interpretations of its archivally inspired hero model the Black Bay, which traces its lineage back to 1954.
The 1950s was the decade in which the diving (as opposed to merely waterproof) watch as we know it today emerged. This year will be the 70th anniversary of both the Rolex Submariner (which was comprehensively overhauled in 2020) and the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms. Both watches made their debut at around the same time as scuba diving took off, and both Rolex’s then marketing director René-Paul Jeanneret and Blancpain’s CEO Jean-Jacques Fiechter were early adopters of the aqualung.
Blancpain’s 21st-century CEO Marc Hayek is also a fanatical diver, and as far as the Fifty Fathoms is concerned he sees the 70th anniversary as a “reboot of its birth”. The beginning of the year saw the launch of the classic-look 42.3mm version. Now has come the Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa, which features an innovative three-hour scale on the bezel in conjunction with a fourth hand that completes one circuit of the dial in three hours to accommodate longer dive times. It is a clever development that reconnects the dive watch with its technical beginnings, basically making sure that the diver does not run out of air and can time his or her decompression stops.
Even though the electronic wristworn dive computer has taken on much of the work these days, a mechanical diver’s watch is a sensible (and stylish) backup: so, it is reassuring to know that the Fifty Fathoms Tech Gombessa was worked on by both Hayek and submarine biologist Laurent Ballesta.
Seiko has also reinforced its partnership with Padi – the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. The Japanese watchmaker is bringing out not one, not two, but three new Prospex Diver Scuba Padi Special Editions. My favourite is the Great Blue Samurai because, as well as having a name that makes me wonder what a samurai diving suit would look like, it features Seiko’s great gift to the diver’s watch, the silicone accordion strap. Moreover, Seiko is particularly proud that its LumiBrite glow duration exceeds the ISO required minimum.
Seiko is also offering three new models for what one might call the lifestyle diver inside all of us. Tallest Peaks is a dive watch named after Seiko-wearing mountaineer Naomi Uemura. The Glacier Blue is a dive watch with GMT, not exactly a need for a diver, but I suppose it is entertaining to tell the time in Tahiti while diving in the Bahamas; and Grand Seiko brings us the Ushio Blue, ushio being Japanese for tide.
Di(v)e-hard Omega fans have been waiting to see what the brand will do to mark the 75th anniversary of its Seamaster line, which now sprawls from the non-diver Aqua Terra to the does-what-it-says-on-the-label 6,000m Ultra Deep. Full details are to be announced at the end of June on an as-yet undisclosed Aegean island. Let’s hope they choose somewhere that offers a balance between opportunities for scuba diving in turquoise seas and the equally strenuous marine activity of lying around on the beach, building up strength for another night out under skies of midnight blue.