Watches Under Water

An abbreviated history of the evolution of the water resistant wristwatch

By Michael Friedberg


As the wristwatch evolved in the 20th century from the pocketwatch, its public acceptance  in large part may be attributed to  improvements in its durability. The early enemies of the wristwatch included water, dust, shocks and magnetism. It was primarily during the 1920s and ‘30s that engineering advances  occurred in the fight against these forces. The wristwatches that we know and wear today are products of this evolution.

During the 1930s, shock-proof mechanisms were developed, including the Incabloc and Kif systems. Also during this decade various approaches were developed to combat magnetism, including encapsulating  movements in a soft-iron inner case or the use of amagnetic movement parts, sometimes even including gold. But perhaps the most noteworthy advance was improving the wristwatch case so that it would sealed. By doing so, the watch’s internal mechanism would not be affected by either water or dust.

Rolex and Omega, which today are leaders  in the Swiss watch industry, pioneered the fight against water. While some cases were "well sealed" even before 1920, it was Hans Wilsdorf of Rolex who perceived an opportunity and,  with astute marketing, made Rolex a world famous brand.

In the early 1920s, a famous Swiss casemaker, Francis Baumgartner, made cases based on a patent by Borgel. The idea involved  sealing the case by taking the middle part and threading it on both sides, rotating in opposite directions.  The movement and dial then were fited within a ring that screwed into the caseframe. Several companies then used Baumgartner-made cases in the 1920s, including Omega and Longines.  However, the Borgel-based cases did not seal well at the stem opening. To solve that, two Swiss watchmakers in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Paul Perregaux and Georges Peret, applied for a Swiss patent in 1925 for a screwed stem system. 

Wilsdorf  grasped that a hermetically sealed case, together with careful fitting of the crystal and a special stem mechanism, would produce a better wristwatch.  He quickly negotiated to have the Perregaux and Peret patent assigned to him. Wilsdorf then obtained a British patent on October 18, 1926.  Drawings from the patent are shown on the left side.

The Rolex Oyster became a commercial success..  In 1927, a stenographer, Mercedes Gleitze, swam the English Channel with the unheard of accompaniment of a wristwatch –the Rolex Oyster— on her wrist for the entire 15 hour, 15 minute, swim.

The ensuing publicity catapulted Rolex to a prominent place in the world of watches. The battle against dust and water had been won. Wilsdorf proclaimed "With this invention, originally made to increase the precision of the Rolex watch, at the same time the first waterproof wristwatch of the world was created. Like an oyster, it could remain in the water a indeterminate time before being damaged."

In 1932, Cartier made a waterproof wristwatch, using a specially screwed crown. The Pasha of Marrakesh said to Louis Cartier " I would like to know the exact time while swimming in my swimming pool." The Pasha achieved his wish and Cartier may have created the first luxury sports watch in the process.

Omega took a radically different approach. In 1932, it debuted the Omega Marine, a watch that basically had one case inside another. In 1936, an underwater researcher, Charles William Beebe, dove to the depth of 14 meters with an Omega Marine strapped to his diving suit. Before the age of scuba gear, Beebe succeeded wearing a huge helmet, weighted boots and tubes leading up to the surface, as well as his Omega Marine.

Other companies in the late 1930s tried simpler approaches. A well-sealed case, including the use of gaskets, would be sufficient to provide some reasonable water resistance for everyday use. The "over-engineering" of greater water resistance made little difference in normal use – at 5 meters submersion, a watch rated to 10 meters should work equally as well as one rated to 50 meters, all other factors –including deterioration in seals—being equal. 

Pictured here is an advertisement for Cyma watches by Tavannes from the late 1930s, clearly promoting their water resistant qualities. The style of these cases is typical of the era and  not what we consider today  as "dive watches". Also depicted, below right, is a page from a 1930s watchmaker's manual, showing the "waterproof" construction of a Wyler case. It is probable that these Tavannes and Wyler cases were actually made by Baumgartner, who incidentally  also made the original case for the original  Patek Philipe Calatrava "96" model.

In contrast to these "regular" watches utilizing well made cases, especially water resistant watches were considered as "tool watches" – designed for a special purpose and meant to be used in a particular way. Although Rolex certainly perceived a broad market for its Oyster models, it often concentrated on the military market, where a particularly "strong" watch would have utility. Military operations required precise timing, which in turn required a dependable watch. Such watches needed  to consistently withstand water and dust.

During World War II, the world’s militaries in practice  distinguished between special diving watches and those having some water resistance. Divers needed heavily sealed cases and the idea of watches like the Omega Marine did not succeed. Instead, the idea was to have a large watch  with a system to seal the crown and stem  --the  parts of a watch that were especially vulnerable to water. Pictured left is a World War II U.S. Navy "Sea Bees" diving watch made by Hamilton, with a special double crown mechanism to make the watch impermeable to water. These models allowed frogmen to descend to a depth of 50 meters and monitor the time remaining on their air supply. Similar models produced in Russia are frequently found.

World War II Italian and  German Navy divers adopted a different approach, using a well sealed watch that later had a special guard to keep the crown (and stem) flush against the case. Depicted right is an assortment of Panerai dive watches, together with an underwater depth gauge and compass. The watch at left used a Rolex movement while the one at right used an Angelus eight-day movement and has a special crown guard. Originally, the Panerai watches had unprotected crowns that used the Rolex screw-down mechanism. However, constant winding of these watches caused deterioration of water resistance. Officine Panerai solved the problem by a pressure-lever on the crown; those watches worked at a depth of 30 meters. While historically interesting,  these watches had little utility for the general military, let alone civilian use, due to their size.

Instead, most World War II forces –armies, navies and air forces—used watches that simply had well-sealed cases. The famous "WWW" --wristwatch, waterproof-- of the British forces really just used high quality cases that were well sealed. Many of these even had snap-on backs, rather than  tighter screwed backs, like the IWC Mark X "WWW" depicted at left. There wasn’t a perceived need for great water resistance. Even the legendary Mark XI, which debuted shortly after the war with a screwed back, had British military specifications requiring it to be water resistant to 10 meters.

The ultimate evolution of more water resistant wristwatches may have resulted from clever marketing and a change in civilian lifestyles. In 1954, Rolex debuted its Ref. 6204 Submariner model at the Basel Fair: a dive watch for civilian use. The design was based on Rolex's Ref. 6202 Turn-O-Graph model and over the following decade evolved to look like the watch we know today.  The Submariner  became an instant success and an instant classic. 

The original Submariner, Ref. 6204, did not have Mercedes hands and had many other small differences from the current model. Two years later, in 1956, it was replaced with the Ref. 6538 --the "James Bond" Submariner (above right), which was the first watch rated to a depth of 660 feet.  It looked much more like the current model except that it did not have crown guards. Various other evolutionary changes occurred in the Submariner's design over the ensuing decades. This time,  the military market adopted the civilian model, as the illustration at right  of a Ref. 5513 Submariner from the late 1960s depicts. That model was issued to Royal Navy frogmen and had fixed lugs, as well as T in a circle on the dial which denoted tritium.

There is some debate regarding whether Rolex produced the first civilian "dive watch" with its Submariner model. Certainly, it debuted a long time after the Omega Marine, but that model was not a great success and perhaps with hindsight can be regarded as a historical anomaly. But in the early 1950s the Submariner had a profound effect on the market. While not unique, the idea of a bezel that could be turned unidirectionally to tell elapsed time became identified with the "dive watch".

There are claims that Blancpain, with its 50 Fathoms model, preceded the Submariner by a few months and was first used in a film made in late 1953.  Blancpain successfully marketed its watch with Jacques Cousteau, the famous undersea diver, and later came out with its Aqualung and Bathyscaphe models as well. Blancpain also sold its 50 Fathoms watches for military use, as the German Navy model at right reflects.  

The success of these models can be attributed to being right for their times. Professor Picard in September 1953 descended to a depth of 3,150 meters in a bathyscaphe with a watch made by Rolex strapped to the outside of the capsule. Scuba diving was developed and rocketed in popularity in the 1950s. The explorations of Cousteau and even Lloyd Bridges in  television's "Sea Hunt" program  reinforced the public interest in diving.

Following in the wake of Rolex and Blancpain’s introductions, many other companies then produced, and perhaps more importantly successfully marketed, diving watches. Virtually all of the famous Swiss marques, except perhaps Patek Phillipe and Audemars Piguet, followed in the 1950s and 1960s.  At the 1955 Basel Fair, Eterna  launched its Kon-Tiki model.  Subsequently,  Longines produced a diving watch and Girard Perregaux also produced one with a 36,000 bph fast beat movement.  International Watch Company  introduced its first diving watch  around 1964 with its Aquatimer (depicted right).  Jaeger LeCoultre produced a special diving  watch with  alarm, the Polaris, as did Vulcain with its Cricket-Nautical model that also had a pressure indicator. In 1971, Rolex introduced its Sea Dweller model that had a gas escape valve to equalize pressure from helium.

Omega embraced the burgeoning market with enthusiasm. Although it originally  produced a Seamaster model in 1948, that model was not a diving watch. Omega debuted its first dive model Seamaster, the  300 (which had a water resistance to 200 meters), in 1957 and which used Omega's  20 jewel Cal. 28 SC-501 movement.  It redesigned the Seamaster 300 in 1965 (depicted right) and, following that model's success, then introduced many new models -- the Seamaster 120 in 1966, the Seamaster 600 in 1970 and the Seamaster 1000 (with a corresponding 1000 meter water resistance) in 1971.  At one time, Omega even introduced a rectangular Marine Chronometer with a 300 Hz electronic movement --a model that stylistically was inspired by its original Marine model.  The evolution of Omega's models continued throughout the 1970s and '80s, reflecting both Omega's emphasis on the market and the public demand for sports watches with high degrees of water resistance.

Even the luxury companies eventually followed suit, at least in their own  way. In 1972, Audemars Piguet introduced its Royal Oak model, a luxury sports watch with a nautical theme and porthole design, shown at right.  Patek Philipe soon followed with its Nautilus: again a watch with a nautically-related theme,  but certainly not a true dive watch.  Far from being tool watches, the Royal Oak and Nautilus models reflected that watches were marketed for what they evoked, both through their names and their designs.

Today, water resistance is both taken for granted and perhaps exaggerated in importance. Extraordinary water resistance often is a badge of durability, but in a sense over-engineering arguably may be  used as a marketing vehicle. Beginning in the 1970s, some wristwatches  had water resistance ratings of 1000 or 2000 meters, yet it is impractical for any human to descend to anything close to such depths. Even the famous IWC Porsche Design Ocean 2000 –with a huge water resistance of 2000 meters—was scaled back to "only" 300 meters in its "3H" version made for German Navy divers. IWC’s Deep One model, the first mechanical watch was a mechanical depth gauge and a model made expressly for diving, only has a water resistance of 100 meters. IWC claims that such a depth is the  maximum safe one for amateur divers.

Dive watches continue to enjoy immense popularity. They are practical, sporty and fun watches. Matching contemporary lifestyles, their popularity is well deserved. Even out of the water, they subtly --perhaps subconsciously-- reinforce  the idea of a casual lifestyle. And more than being reflective of the times, these watches also reflect a historical tradition.




Copyright 2000

Michael Friedberg


All rights reserved


Special thanks to Z. Wesolowski who provided the images of the Hamilton, Panerai and Rolex Military Submariner watches from his book A Concise Guide to Military Timepieces, 1880-1990. The image of the Bond Submariner is courtesy of Clemens von Halem; the vintage IWC Aquatimer and Porsche Design Ocean 2000 models are courtesy of R. Kammer.


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