The A-Z of Watches: D is for... Diving Watches

By Sotheby's

M any diving watches display the characteristics associated with diving requirements – superluminova (glow-in-the-dark) indices, uni-directional rotating bezels (for measuring dive time), chunky steel mono-block cases (to prevent water, particularly under pressure to seep inside), and water resistance to at least 100 metres. But true diving watches, or to be precise dive watches, must conform to a weighty list of requirements issued by the International Organisation for Standardization – the ISO 6425; without that stamp of approval they are but mere imitators.

Blancpain, Fifty Fathoms Milspec 1, A Stainless Steel Automatic Center Seconds Wristwatch with Humidity Indicator, circa 1965. Sold for $30,000.

The history of diving watches is littered with attempts to conquer the seemingly impossible - to achieve water resistant at increasingly extreme depths. The battle has been hard-fought by several giants of the watch world, including Blancpain (with their iconic Fifty-Fathoms) and Panerai (with their supplying of watches to the Italian navy).

Rolex, Ref 6205 'Small Crown' Submariner, A Stainless-Steel Automatic Wristwatch with Center Seconds, circa 1955. Estimate $20,000–30,000.

Arguably the first notable moment came in 1926 when Rolex introduced the Rolex Oyster, a revolutionary design with its screwed down case-back and screwed down crown – the latter the most common area that water can penetrate into a watch’s movement. A year later founder Hans Wilsdorf gave the watch to Mercedes Gleitze as she attempted to become the first British woman to swim the English Channel; she succeeded - and the watch worn around her neck kept on ticking.

Rolex, Stainless Steel Wristwatch with Date and Bracelet, Made to Celebrate James Cameron's Deepsea Challenge Ref 116660 Case 9U264548 Deepsea Sea-Dweller, circa 2015. Sold for HK$106,250.

And it’s Rolex who neatly book-end this story – in 2012 the Rolex Deepsea Challenge, an experimental divers’ watch, descended to 10,908 metres on the arm of a robotic submersible, and didn’t miss a beat. As the record for freediving is just over 200 metres the actual need for this watch is limited. But as a feat of human engineering? It’s not to be sniffed at.

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