By TLex Below are the first few installments of a fantastic series of articles on high-end dive watches by Haute Horlogerie Magazine's editor Christophe Roulet. Many thanks to him for allowing me to post them here. I think he might just be a bit of dive watch fan himself. Anyway, they're a great read and I'm sure you'll enjoy them as much as I did.
Dive Watches In A Class Of Their Own
By Christophe Roulet While not wishing to labor the point, diving watches are rarely confronted with the hostile underwater environment for which they are designed. Yet they have a no less important place in brands’ collections as the best expression of what it is possible to achieve with a sports watch: robust, reliable and able to resist pressure, shocks, magnetic fields and, of course, water infiltration.
Armed with the facts, brands were quick to see how a reputation forged by decades of producing watches for the ocean’s depths could become a springboard for a whole array of models that would outshine even Jacques Cousteau in his own "The Silent World."
Hence this anthology of diving "instruments" replete with tourbillons, intended to compensate the Earth’s gravitational pull, GMT functions, useful for synchronising dives in the Galapagos and the Seychelles, flyback chronographs, essential for timing moray eels as they swim by, and even power reserves in case divers should have the presumption to forget that an automatic watch winds itself when worn.
You can never be too careful, some may say, particularly when the technology behind these little gems serves mainly to protect us from the dangers of splashing around in the shallows. With guaranteed water-resistance of 1,000 metres, if not more, this is clearly the proof that a brand can always do more than it can.
Deep down though, this is all beside the point, as watchmakers would be first to admit. While diving watches have earned their stripes in the ocean’s abyss, strapped to the wrists of combat divers and professional underwater explorers, they have also become horological symbols in their own right, admired more for the smooth, powerful image they project than for the sporting exploits they allow.
If wearing these watches is enough to convince their owner they can brave both time and tide – and what if such thoughts beset them only when showering – that’s half the battle won
How often does a mechanical diving watch get to do what it was designed for? Knowing that the most advanced models are built to explore the depths of the Mariana Trench, but more often than not indulge in nothing more than a little light snorkeling or such high-risk activities as washing dishes or a bracing shower, one can legitimately wonder. Particularly as no deep-sea enthusiast worth their salt ventures onto the ocean floor without a custom-designed dive computer strapped to their wrist. At best, they will wear a diving watch as a back-up.
What, then, is the point of all these notched bezels, helium escape valves, depth gauges, fluorescent markings, alarms and decompression stop indicators if the most these watches have to brave is the formidable pressure of your bathwater? The answer is short and to the point: diving watches are an opportunity for watchmakers to demonstrate their expertise and mastery of mechanical timepieces. And these watches are taking on a more and more extravagant allure as manufactures vie to seduce an audience won over to their sporting design with unbridled feats of technology.
OMEGA Ploprof 1200
An "old, old story"
To qualify as a diving watch, these models must comply with NIHS 91-11 (ISO 6425) standard. This stipulates basic criteria including luminosity, magnetic and shock resistance and the sturdiness of the strap. In addition to having a unidirectional rotating bezel for calculating dive times, a robust crystal and fluorescent markings, diving watches must withstand immersion in water to a depth of at least 100 metres (10 bar/atm or 10 kg/cm2) for free-diving.
Nothing that will impress the many watch firms which decades ago forged a reputation in underwater exploration, with models that now rank as icons. Think Rolex (Oyster 1926; Submariner 1953; Sea-Dweller 1971), Panerai (Luminor 1950), Blancpain (Fifty Fathoms 1953), Breitling (Superocean 1957), Jaeger-LeCoultre (Memovox Deep Sea 1959; Polaris 1963), Girard-Perregaux (Sea Hawk Deep Diver 1965), IWC (Aquatimer 1967), Omega (PloProf 1971) and Tag Heuer (Aquaracer, 1985).
For watchmakers, the only way is up, or rather down, to more extreme conditions and unfathomed depths. Last year, Rolex unveiled its Oyster Perpetual Sea-Dweller Deepsea whose redesigned case architecture takes it to a colossal depth of 3,900 metres. This year it’s Omega’s turn to adorn divers’ wrists with a new version of its legendary Ploprof (short for plongeur professionnel or professional diver).
It brings guaranteed water-resistance to 1,200 metres and a bezel that can be locked with a pusher for maximum security. The Ploprof, with its resolutely vintage style, just beats the 1,000 metres’ descent of the Alpina Extreme Divers, launched a few months ago, and the Oris ProDiver Chronograph, unveiled at this year’s Baselworld. Needless to say, all these watches are equipped with a helium escape valve that prevents them from popping open like oysters during decompression stops.
Favre-Leuba Bathy V2.
Gauging the depths
The latest application to gain currency among makers of mechanical diving watches is the depth gauge. This is a vital feature for divers, who must respect decompression stops when resurfacing. After experimenting with this kind of system forty years ago, Favre-Leuba has brought it up to speed in its Bathy V2.
JLC MC Diving Geographic Navy SEALs
Water enters the double case back through four openings on the side, where it comes into contact with a beryllium copper membrane. The pressure causes this membrane to contract just a few tenths of a millimetre and, through a complex mechanism, this contraction moves the depth gauge hand. Favre-Leuba promises less than 0.18% deviation at 45 metres’ depth.
IWC Aquatimer Deep Two
Jaeger-LeCoultre also made a splash, so to speak, when it launched its Master Compressor Diving collection two years ago. The Geographic model features a patented mechanical depth gauge housed in the side of the case that measures depths down to 80 metres. IWC’s solution, incorporated into its Aquatimer Deep Two, is intended as a vital back-up should the dive computer fail. It features a semi-circular depth indicator on the left side of the dial. Two hand tips, one blue and one red, indicate actual dive depth and maximum depth.
The pressure measurement system is contained inside a second crown, with a cover, also on the left of the case. Water is allowed to enter via micro-perforations in the crown cover and exerts pressure on a mechanically-guided elastic membrane to force a pin into the case. This movement, which is totally independent of the calibre, triggers a lever mechanism which, via a gear train, moves the two hands. Sunday divers and swimming-pool snorkellers rest assured: your safety is in watchmakers’ good hands.
TAG Aquaracer 500m Cal. 5
Complications Take The Plunge
Richard Mille RM025
© Richard Mille
By Christophe Roulet Diving watches are in demand not only for their subaquatic virtues, as watchmakers are well aware. For the man on the beach, their sporting style and robust design are more convincing arguments. Exactly the motivation firms need to go on "loading" models which, stripped to the bare essentials, would resemble nothing more than, well, a diving watch. And when it comes to pulling out all the stops, watchmakers can be trusted to put their expertise to good use with all manner of complications.
Ulysse Nardin Diver Perpetual
© Ulysse Nardin
Here are just a few examples from the latest crop of models: following on from the Fifty Fathoms reissue in 2007, driven by the new automatic 1315 calibre, Blancpain has equipped its legendary model first with a flyback chronograph, then a flying tourbillon and 8-day power reserve, and now a GMT function. Never one to skimp on exceptional movements, Richard Mille is proposing its first diving watch, the RM 025 Tourbillon Chronograph Diver’s Watch with 300-metre water resistance and a carbon nanofibre plate.
Vulcain Cricket Diver X-Treme
True to its underwater tradition, Jaeger-LeCoultre has launched a new Master Compressor Diving Navy SEALs collection, named after the United States maritime elite force, in three versions: Alarm, Chronograph GMT and Pro Geographic with world time, power reserve and depth gauge. Meanwhile, Vulcain has housed its renowned Cricket V-10 calibre with alarm function inside its Diver X-Treme watch.
IWC Aquatimer Chrono RG
Why go on, except to say that many of these timepieces, originally destined for the ocean’s abyss, are now made from titanium (Ulysse Nardin Diver Perpetual, Panerai Radiomir Egiziano) and even gold (IWC Aquatimer Chronograph), just to ensure they stay permanently this side of the barrier reef. At the end of the day, it’s not only a question of "how low can you go?"
Panerai Radiomir Egiziano PAM00341