In 1954 National Geographic published an article about French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau’s exploration of Grand Congloue island off Marseilles, unexpectedly sending demand for his newly perfected Aqua-Lung diving apparatus through the roof. So it was no coincidence that the same year Rolex produced one of the world’s first purpose-built dive watches in the form of The Submariner, which – together with Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms – established a rising tide for functional underwater wristwear. Such pieces, made between the 1950s and the late ’80s – before the arrival of electronic dive computers – are now eminently collectable, with the best fetching six-figure sums at auction houses.
In December last year, Bonhams sold a military-issue version of a 1972 Reference 5513 Submariner for £112,500, and Rolex rarities currently top the vintage dive watch league table. Pre-1976 examples of the Fifty Fathoms are also on the rise, the best examples commanding upwards of £30,000, several times more than a decade ago. Especially iconic are the models marked “No Radiation”, which indicates the use of tritium to create luminosity rather than the previously used radioactive radium.
But according to Toby Sutton, co-founder of auction house Watches of Knightsbridge, the high prices of familiar Rolex and Blancpain models have made collectors consider less recognised marques. “Much of the appeal lies in the way they look, with their rotating bezels, large hands and luminous dials, which can have a lovely, mellow patina,” he says.
Sutton’s sale on June 30 includes a military-specification Omega Seamaster 300 from 1967 that still carries its W10 government issue number on an “original, unpolished case with some battle scars”. It has a £20,000-£30,000 estimate, but around £2,500-£3,500 should buy an Eterna-Matic Super KonTiki from the same era. “[The Eterna-Matics] are becoming recognised by collectors because of their quality and typical 1960s features, such as gloss black dials and large tritium markers,” says Sutton. He also cites the Favre Leuba Bathy 160, Lanco Barracuda, Seiko 300, Doxa 300 and Aquastar Deepstar – worn by Cousteau on research ship Calypso – as being “ones to watch” in the £1,000-£6,000 price range.
Sought-after models include Omega’s angular Ploprof of the early 1970s; the Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox Polaris of 1968, featuring a mechanical alarm to signalthe time to return to the surface; and the Panerai 3646, made for the Italian navy during the second world war – an example of which sold in January at Birmingham auction house Fellows for £52,316.
The Submariner models from Tudor, the more accessible sister brand of Rolex, are also in the ascendant. London-based specialist David Duggan recently sold a 1967 military version for £25,000 (10 times the price it would have fetched 10 years ago), while nearby dealer The Watch Club is offering a 1962 civilian model with “pointed” crown guards for £12,250.
Alex Barter, co-owner of homewares and vintage watch boutique Black Bough in Ludlow, Shropshire, has seen demand for dive models soar in the past five years. “They are very visual as well as practical, with their tough cases and simple ‘workhorse’ movements,” says Barter, who is offering an immaculate 1973 Tissot Navigator for a modest £650. “The fear of buying a well-recognised piece that is ‘wrong’ has led many people to research more unusual makes that are less likely to have been altered,” he adds. “Military-issue Submariners, for example, often had parts changed after decommissioning, but this usually devalues them.”
Justin Yates, who works in finance in Cheshire, is typical of those who have taken the road less travelled to build his collection of 25 dive watches, which includes a Yema “Superman”, Dodane HGP and Camif 1000m. “People become obsessed with certain brands, but I enjoy looking for the weird and wonderful makes that operated during the 1960s and ’70s,” says Yates, who has a penchant for French examples, trawls eBay France and Italy for bargains, and uses Scubawatch.org as a resource. “Although many once under-the-radar makes have now been discovered, there are still plenty to be found. One of my favourite pieces is a Citizen SuperJet from the late 1960s. The quality is superb,” he says.
Another collector, FinTech investor Jonathan Hughes, started out buying key pieces such as the so-called “James Bond” Reference 6538 Submariner and military versions of the Submariner and Omega Seamaster 300M, but has since moved towards the less obvious. “Something I love about vintage dive watches is that nothing is there by accident,” he says. “Everything has a function, and although they must have seemed enormous back in the 1960s and ’70s, the larger case sizes are in keeping with those of today. I wear my watches regularly – apart from one of my most recent acquisitions, a 1967 Seiko Diver I picked up in Tokyo. It’s in mint, as new condition and I’d hate to damage it.”
London solicitor Haroon Sarwar also eschews the idea of keeping his prize possessions locked away in a safe. “I buy to wear, and dive models lend themselves to this because they are true ‘tool’ watches,” says Sarwar, whose eclectic collection includes a Waltham Bathyscaphe, a Titus Calypsomatic, a Monvis and a 1960s chronograph made by US Divers. “They are all fully functional and waterproof, but I never get them wet,” he admits. “You could say I’m just a desk diver.”