In 1953, the Swiss brand Blancpain launched the first diving watch built for this purpose. Built according to the specifications set by the French Navy’s Combat Swimmer Unit, it was dubbed Fifty Fathoms, a reference to the depth believed to be the deepest that a diver could safely use, about 300 feet. A few years ago, Blancpain, still in business, released a new version, the 500 Fathoms, rated to an abyssal depth of 91.4 meters.
This is approximately three times lower than the surface of the sea than the deepest autonomous dive recorded. And Blancpain is hardly an outlier: all other notable dive watch manufacturers now push models that can withstand the pressure of water that no human being can ever tolerate without a submarine. Because? The complete answer invites you to look at the origins of the dive itself.
In the early years of underwater exploration, divers wore brass helmets, surviving in the air being pumped from the surface through a gurgling hose. With the invention of aqua-lung, the world’s first diving system in the 1940s, divers were free to swim without tying, but they also had to keep track of how long they breathed compressed air to avoid bends.
Initially, diving watches were simple tools – sturdy steel watches with large dials and swivel rings. Its water resistance was due to various rubber joints, thick glass, and threaded crowns. They were tested 100 meters deep, although this was soon duplicated for a healthy measure of safety, even though no one dared to fall below 30 meters.
The 200-meter depth remained the industry standard in the early 1960s, with almost every major brand in Switzerland and Japan launching a diving watch. The Bulova had a little more capacity, assessing their diving clocks up to 203 meters and giving them the nickname “Devil Divers”
But by the middle of the decade, a new generation of military and commercial adventurers had reached several hundred meters and the brands responded with 600-meter clocks. In 1968, the Swiss brand Jenny presented the first 1000-meter clock, calling it “Caribbean”. Its thick, large frame, glass dome, and decompression ladder had a bold look that defied its cheerful name. This was the height of the dive – Jacques Cousteau’s Underwater World was on television and recreational diving was growing. Thick clocks had become symbols of clutter and day-to-day life that could diminish, say something about his character, even though only a small percentage of elite professionals have dropped below 30 meters.
That attitude persists today, stimulating luxury brands to develop watches like Blancpain’s 500 Fathoms, 3,000-meter Breitling Avenger Seawolf, and Rolex Sea Dweller, which ranks 3,900 meters. No matter what the new drivers are certified to a depth of 18 meters, the most advanced divers are closer to 40 meters and the deepest dive recorded is 332 meters. Apparently, we need clocks that exceed the depths of modern nuclear submarines, which implode below 400 meters.
On James Cameron’s trip in 2012 to the deepest point on Earth, the Marianas Trench, 10 thousand meters, a prototype Rolex watch was moored on the outside of its submersible. Seiko works with the Japan Marine Science and Technology Agency to test its dive watches in remotely operated vehicles, proudly announcing its operation at almost double its nominal depth before the glass is deformed enough to press the hand’s clock.
The truth is that a rating of 100 meters is still perfectly suited for a dive watch, exactly as it was for over 60 years. That is why it is an international standard. So why do brands continue to develop extreme models? And why do we keep buying? Marketing and bragging rights. These are the same reasons why SUVs are popular in the suburbs and Arctic-ready parkas are plentiful on the streets of Manhattan. They are symbols of ability and readiness, providing a sense of security and robustness in an age of so obsolete planned. Even if you never go deeper than a reef snorkel, it’s good to know that your watch can, as a precaution.