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What is a Dive Watch?
What is a Dive Watch?

Many watch enthusiasts have at least one dive watch in their collection. After all, a dive watch is a great sports watch to wear regularly–whether or not you ever take it underwater! But have you ever asked yourself, what is a dive watch? While you may be able to identify one if you saw one, do you know what features are necessary to qualify a timepiece as a dive watch? Read the latest installment of our Back to Basics series to familiarize yourself with what makes a timepiece a dive watch and check out some of the best luxury dive watches available at Gray & Sons right now. Let’s dive in!

What’s a Dive Watch and How Does it Work? 

The International Organization for Standardization published the ISO 6425 concerning the standards for divers’ watches (originally written in the 1980s but recently updated in 2018). To be ISO 6452 compliant, ISO stipulates that a diver’s watch must (among other things):

  • Have a minimum water-resistance rating of 100 meters (330 feet)
  • Be equipped with a secured measuring system to indicate the diving time (e.g. a 60-minute unidirectional rotating bezel with markers every five minutes or a visible digital display)
  • The time, bezel, and indication that the watch is running (e.g. seconds hand) are legible at a distance of 25 cm in the dark
  • Be antimagnetic
  • Be shock resistant
  • Be saltwater resistant
  • Be reliable underwater
What makes a dive watch a dive watch?
What is a dive watch? They must offer a way to track immersion times.

Some watch brands explicitly publicize that their dive watches are ISO 6425 compliant, such as Calibre de Cartier Diver. On the other hand, some watches, such as the Rolex Submariner, do not state that they are ISO compliant, yet include many of the features laid out by ISO.

ISO Compliant Dive Watch
The Calibre de Cartier Diver is ISO Compliant

For instance, while ISO states that a dive watch must have a minimum depth rating of 100 meters, many modern luxury dive watches go well beyond this threshold. It is not uncommon to find diving watches rated to plunge down 300 meters, 500 meters, 1,000 meters, and even deeper. Some even include helium escape valves for saturation dives. These valves allow built-up gasses to release from the watch in order to prevent the crystal from popping off during decompression.

What is a Diving Watch?
Many modern dive watches are rated to dive deeper than 100 meters

Furthermore, all contemporary diving watches from top-tier timepiece brands offer a way to track immersion times. Commonly this is done with a unidirectional rotating bezel sitting on top of the watch case, marked to 60 minutes. Undirectional is an important fail-safe component. If the bezel gets accidentally knocked underwater, the bezel would only overestimate the dive time and not underestimate (which could be fatal). Sometimes, luxury dive watches will include inner bezels or digital displays rather than the exterior bezel.

The next requirement of a dive watch is excellent legibility in low light. The deeper you plunge underwater, the less light there is–so strong luminescence and a clear dial make it easier to read the watch in murky waters. Hands, hour markers, and bezels all have to be coated in lume so that the wearer can read the watch underwater.

Strong lume is very important on a dive watch
What is a dive watch? Strong lume is very important on a dive watch.

And finally, dive watches should be constructed from anti-corrosive materials that can withstand saltwater. Stainless steel or even gold are good options. and if taken underwater, it should be equipped with a waterproof bracelet. Some popular bracelet material choices include metal, rubber, and nylon.

Brief History of the Modern Dive Watch

In the early-20th century, men still wore pocket watches but during World War I, military men took to wearing pocket watches on their wrists for practicality during combat. The trend eventually spread to the civilian popular post-WWI.

Rolex launched the groundbreaking Oyster watch in 1926, which sported a case that was waterproof thanks to its screw-down crown, bezel, and caseback. While the Oyster was waterproof, it was not water-pressure tested. So, in 1932, Omega unveiled the pressure-resistant Marine watch, which was officially certified to a depth of 135 meters a few years later.

Rolex Oyster watch from 1926 (Image: Rolex)

Just before World War II broke out, Floritined-based Officine Panerai presented a batch of prototype dive watches to the Royal Italian Navy. With large cushion-shaped cases, oversized winding crowns, wire lugs, and a stark dial with highly luminous details, these mil-spec dive watches serve as the blueprint for today’s Panerai Radiomir watches. Although Panerai developed watches for military divers, these wouldn’t be classified as dive watches by today’s standards since they’re missing a timing bezel.

Following Jacques Cousteau’s invention of the Aqua-Lung self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) post-war, recreational and commercial diving took off in the 1950s.

Captain Robert “Bob” Maloubier wearing a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
Captain Robert “Bob” Maloubier wearing a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms (image: Blancpain)

In 1953, Blancpain presented the Fifty Fathoms at the Basel Fair — now considered the very first modern dive watch. The Fifty Fathoms watch featured a large 42mm case, a luminous rotating bezel, and a black dial with luminous hands and indexes. The watch takes its name from its water depth rating of fifty fathoms, which is equivalent to 91.45 meters.

That same year, Rolex also developed a purpose-built dive watch and the Submariner made its public entrance at the 1954 Basel Fair. Waterproof to 100 meters, the Rolex Submariner beat the Fifty Fathoms by a few meters to become the deepest rated watch of the time.

Seamaster 300 60th Anniversary Limited Edition OMEGA Watches Baselworld 2017
Tribute to the 1957 Omega Seamaster (Image: Omega)

Not to be outdone, Omega released the Seamaster 300 dive watch in 1957, water-resistant to 200 meters. That very same year, Breitling launched its offering with the Superocean collection.

The 1950s set the dive watch genre well on its way and watchmakers have continued to develop models with deeper water-resistance ratings, more robust designs, and a slew of material improvements. Although supercomputers have essentially replaced the need for mechanical watches, the dive watch style remains as popular as ever. Here are some popular dive watches made by some of the best brands in the market.

Rolex Submariner 116610

By far the most famous aspirational dive watch is the iconic Rolex Submariner. Graduating from its once-utilitarian construction to a fully-fledge luxury sports watch, Rolex has made a fantastic assortment of Submariner watches over the last six decades. There are steel Subs, gold Subs, two-tone Subs, Subs with date windows, and Subs without date windows.

The Submariner Hulk is one of Rolex’s most popular watch models

One of our favorites models right now is the current-production Submariner 116610LV, aka “The Hulk.” Released in 2010, the watch includes a green ceramic unidirectional bezel on its 40mm steel Oyster case and a matching green dial with a date window at 3 o’clock. The vibrant shade is a great change of pace from the typical black or blue Submariners. Powering the Submariner 116610 is the ever-dependable Rolex Caliber 3135 automatic movement.

Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean

Introduced in 2005, the Seamster Planet Ocean is a relatively new collection from Omega but takes its design inspiration from the original 1957 Seamaster Professional. Positioned as the brand’s professional dive watch, the Planet Ocean watches are robust timepieces that can plunge down to 600 meters (2,000 feet).

The newest Planet Ocean version in steel and ceramic

In 2016, Omega revamped the Planet Ocean collection not only with design and material upgrades but also by furnishing the watches with the new-generation METAS-certified Master Chronometer movements. A fantastic version from the new lineup is the Seamster Planet Ocean 215.33.44.21.01.001, featuring a 43.5 mm stainless steel case, a black ceramic bezel, a black ceramic dial with orange accents, and a leather strap with rubber lining.

Panerai Luminor Submersible

The Radiomir may not be considered a dive watch by today’s standards but Panerai does indeed make modern divers in the form of the Submersible models–originally part of the Luminor collection but as of 2019, the Submersible stands as its own lineup.

Panerai has been making watches for diving since the 1930s

The Panerai Luminor Submersible PAM 24 features the signature silhouette of the Luminor model (cushion-style case, lever-operated crown guard bridge, and thick lugs) but furnished with a rotating bezel to transform it into a dive watch. In addition to the characteristic oversized and luminous hands and hour markers, the dial also includes a running seconds indicator and date window.

Breitling Superoean Chronograph Steelfish

A pioneer in both diving watches and chronographs, Breitling often pairs its dive watches with the chronograph complication. Case in point is this ultra-sporty Breitling Superocean Steelfish Chronograph diver.

The Steelfish pairs a chronograph with dive watch functionality

Able to swim down to 500 meters deep, this Breitling Steelfish includes a 44mm steel case, a steel rotating bezel with rubber-filled markings, and a steel link bracelet. Along with the trio of chronograph subdials, the blue dial is also home to a day and date window for added practicality whilst on land. Beneath the solid steel caseback of the Superocean Steelfish is the COSC-certified Breitling Caliber 13 automatic movement.

While we handpicked some of our favorite luxury dive watches right now, we have plenty of other options to choose from. Browse our collection to find the perfect dive watch to fit your style, budget, and lifestyle–scuba gear optional.

Written by

Celine Simon

Celine is a freelance luxury watch writer who has enjoyed working in the horology industry for over ten years. Like many of the high-end timepieces she writes about, she comes from Switzerland—the heart of fine watchmaking. From Singapore to Montreal to Geneva to Dubai, Celine has lived all over the world but now calls Southern California home.