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Panerai Daylight PAM 196 Chronograph Panerai Daylight PAM 196 Chronograph US 9 $4,550

Diving Watches: Watertight at All Costs

While diving watches are painstakingly designed to be waterproof, they aren't just suitable for underwater use. Watch lovers of all kinds love them for their sturdy designs and sporty looks. You don't need to be a diver to appreciate these watches.

Features of diving watches according to ISO 6425/DIN 8306

  • At least waterproof to 100 m (10 bar) (usually: 200 m/20 bar)
  • Uni-directional bezel with minute and five-minute markers
  • Luminous hands and indices
  • Indicator that the watch is running in total darkness (e.g. luminous second hand)
  • Closed strap can withstand weight of 40 kg for one minute

Water: Watches' Greatest Enemy

At first, diving watches were special instruments made specifically for divers. Since their development, however, they've earned an established place in everyday life. Their functionality, technology, and robustness are all strong arguments for buying this kind of watch. Their water resistance is more than just a luxurious extra; water may well be the source of life, but it can mean complete destruction for watches.
If moisture finds its way into a watch case, then it almost always causes damage, regardless of the type of watch. Water washes away the lubrication and causes corrosion in mechanical watches. Quartz watches are just as sensitive; they require energy from a battery or solar cells which will likely stop working if they come into contact with water.
If a watch is going to be used underwater, then perfect waterproofing becomes both a problem and challenge. The crown, case back, and watch glass are all sensitive areas, as they create apertures in the case. Chronographs are even more delicate, as they have additional push-pieces and thus, additional apertures.
Diving watches have screw-down case backs and crowns. Chronographs, watches with a stopwatch function, also feature screw-down push-pieces. Together with rubber O-rings, these screw-down pieces ensure that the watch is hermetically sealed. Most watches have a simple pressure fit case back, which only protects against splashes of water. Otherwise, the watch seal is rather rudimentary.
A watch waterproof to just 30 m should be removed when you're washing your hands or in rain. The watch's waterproofness is deceptive: It is waterproof to 30 m, but that equates to a pressure of just 3 bar. The water pressure under a running faucet or while swimming could be greater than 3 bar. You don't need to actually dive to justify wearing a diving watch, though: Waterskiing, surfing, and rafting are all activities that require a sturdy, waterproof watch.
How do you define a diving watch? It has to follow the standards set forth by ISO 6425 or DIN 8306. These two sets of standards lay down an extensive list of test criteria which watches must meet in order to be considered a diving watch. The watches must be waterproof to at least 100 m (10 bar), although 200 m (20 bar) has become the market standard.
An essential part of any complete, modern diving watch is a uni-directional bezel with minute and five-minute markers. A diving watch isn't just used for telling time; it's also meant to keep track of your dive time. To time your dive, you align the bezel's zero marker with the minute hand right before beginning the dive. Then, with the help of the bezel's minute scale, you can see how long you've been underwater. The bezel should only rotate in a counterclockwise direction. That way, if you accidentally move the bezel while diving, you'll only shorten your dive time. If you were able to accidentally move the bezel clockwise, you would run the risk of lengthening your dive time. However, the amount of oxygen left in your tank would remain the same, and thus you could run out of air.
Safety is an incredibly important factor in the design of these watches. They have to be legible underwater and in the dark. Therefore, the watches feature luminous hands and indices. A common solution for making sure the wearer knows their watch is functioning in the dark is to outfit the watch with a luminous second hand.
Standards for diving watches also include high levels of shock resistance as well as protection against magnetic fields and temperature deviations. Altogether, diving watches have around 20 different criteria to meet.

Buying Advice

The most difficult part of buying a diving watch is choosing which one you want. Nearly every high-quality manufacturer offers this type of watch. Diving watches are available in many different price ranges and come in many different materials. If a watch strictly adheres to the standards, the design is somewhat predetermined. If you're not a fan of sporty watches with a rotatable bezel, then you should take a look elsewhere.
Fans of other brands may not like to hear it, but the most famous diving watch is Rolex's Submariner. The watch is one of the most copied watches in the world, ranging from high-quality watches with looks similar to the Submariner to crude fakes. When purchasing a pre-owned Submariner, you should be careful to ensure you aren't buying a fake. A competent watch dealer with a good reputation would never sell a fake Rolex. A new stainless steel Submariner costs around 6,000 euros, while a new gold version costs 25,000 euros.
Similar to the Submariner, Blancpain's Fifty Fathoms has had a legendary reputation for decades. However, it's not as well known outside the watch scene. Omega's Seamaster and Breitling's Superocean have also had established spots in the diving watch world for some 60 years. If you prefer a less round design, then take a look at Audemars Piguet's Royal Oak Offshore.
There are also diving watches available in lower price ranges. You can buy a new Sinn U1, for example, for around 1,800 euros. A new, automatic Longines Hydroconquest costs around 1,000 euros. Models from Japanese brands are even more affordable. Seiko and Citizen both offer a large selection of diving watches with great price/performance ratios.
Some watches place emphasis on design rather than strictly fulfilling all of the criteria laid out by the ISO 6425 or DIN 8306 standards. A perfect example of this is the Nomos Ahoi. Unlike most diving watches, it doesn't have a rotatable bezel or many other characteristics of the typical diving watch. However, the markedly simple and flat Ahoi is waterproof to 200 m (20 bar). The Panerai Luminor is another luxury diving watch, although it, like the Ahoi, doesn't have a rotatable bezel to keep track of the dive time.
When searching for a diving watch, you'll occasionally find some a with helium escape valve. Few wearers will actually require this; if you're a professional diver, for example, and regularly construct pipelines 200 m under the sea, it may be a necessary feature. For these cases, the diver requires a special breathing mixture containing helium. While breathing this gas in a diving chamber, the helium atoms can enter the watch through small openings. When the diver undergoes decompression, pressure will build up inside the watch. This could cause the watch glass to pop out. A helium escape valve prevents this from happening by equalizing the pressure. Since only professional divers require such watches, helium escape valves are usually only found on watches meant for depths of 500 m or deeper. Examples of such watches are Rolex's Sea-Dweller models, Omega's Planet Ocean and Ploprof, and Breitling's Avenger II Seawolf.
The waterproofness of a diving watch should be checked regularly. This especially applies to pre-owned watches which aren't guaranteed to still be waterproof. Now that diving computers exist, most divers use waterproof watches as a backup. However, it's still essential that the watch is in good condition for diving.

The History of Diving Watches

Which watch was the first diving watch? There are many answers to this tricky question. Rolex patented their idea for a watch with a screw-down crown and case back and sealed gaskets in 1926. When Mercedes Glietze attempted to swim the English Channel in October 1927, she had a Rolex Oyster on her wrist. Rolex's advertising stunt worked, as the watch withstood multiple hours underwater.
The first watch that was specially developed for use underwater was the Omega Marine. Its rectangular case was made of two differently sized parts which were fit together. This design improved water resistance. In 1937, the Omega Marine became the first watch to receive an official certificate of water resistance. It was confirmed to be waterproof to 135 m.
Diving watch technology improved in the 1950s and increased the water resistance limit to 200 m. In 1953, the Rolex Submariner and the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms premiered. Their designs and looks still determine the characteristics of diving watches to this day. The original versions of both watches featured a rotatable bezel so that divers could keep track of their dive time. It's still disputed today whether the Submariner or the Fifty Fathoms should be considered the first "real" diving watch. In 1957, these two watches gained some competition, however, when the Superocean from Breitling and the Seamaster 300 from Omega were introduced.
The demand for diving watches increased with the rise of offshore construction of things such as pipelines and offshore platforms. The military also requested waterproof watches for their maritime forces. Later, that demand increased due to recreational diving, a sport now enjoyed by millions. Diving watches have found a new use as solid sport watches and status symbols, which could make them desirable collector's pieces in the future.

Series with Roots in the 1950s

  • Rolex Submariner, first model released in 1953
  • Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, first model released in 1953
  • Omega Seamaster 300, first model released in 1957
  • Breitling Superocean, first model released in 1957