Diving watches

New diving watches evoke the elegance of their 1950s and 1960s forebears, while exploiting the latest high-tech advances. For the best, no ocean is too deep, no beach too chic, says Nick Foulkes

Jaeger-LeCoultre ceramic Deep Sea Chronograph Cermet, £12,500
Jaeger-LeCoultre ceramic Deep Sea Chronograph Cermet, £12,500 | Image: www.jaeger-lecoultre.com

As dive sites go, it lacks the drama of the Great Blue Hole of Belize or the excitement of getting within biting distance of sharks off the South African coast. It cannot even boast the sun-kissed sands of resorts in the Maldives and the Red Sea. However, Hermance, the very last Swiss town on the shores of Lake Geneva before the border with France, has something that these other, more-celebrated underwater playgrounds cannot offer: proximity to the watch industry.

Forget shoals of brightly coloured fish and exotic outcrops of coral: you might bump into a perch or two now that pollution levels have dropped from their high in the 1980s, but visibility is not always that good because of the mud… which made the waters off Hermance ideal for Philippe Peverelli.

Rolex titanium Deepsea Challenge, an experimental watch not produced for
general sale
Rolex titanium Deepsea Challenge, an experimental watch not produced for general sale | Image: © Rolex/Jean-Daniel Meyer

Peverelli is not a diver; but he is CEO of Tudor, the sibling brand of Rolex that is due to be relaunched in the UK later this year. When Peverelli developed the marque’s new diving watch, he consulted the diving club of Hermance and gave them prototypes to test – which, if nothing else, gives a new dimension to the denomination Swiss Made.

Tudor has been taking the watch world by storm with its recreations of past classics, and in 2012 it brought out what was perhaps its best retread yet, the Black Bay, an evocation of a 1950s classic diving watch with historically inspired features such as gilt lettering on the dial and the original “snowflake” hands – in short, the sort of details that send collectors crazy.

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All in all, the brouhaha around the Black Bay obscured the arguably more interesting piece, the Pelagos (£2,840). Where the Black Bay is an attractive period piece, Pelagos is a proper, modern functional bit of equipment. And this two-sided – classic and contemporary – approach is characteristic of the new generation of diving watches that, like the Roman deity Janus, look back to the early years of diving timepieces in the 1950s and 1960s – and forward to technical feats made possible by advanced materials and new construction methods.

Even though most of today’s divers rely on electronic wrist-worn dive computers, the mechanical diving watch is worn by many as a back-up – and the rotating bezel, with its luminous markers, is still the most familiar way of timing a dive. Moreover, the diving watch has been a horological classic for almost 70 years. But as Peverelli is at pains to point out, the Pelagos is as functional as it is sleek.

Blancpain steel Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe, £7,290
Blancpain steel Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe, £7,290

“For us, the Pelagos is much more than a diving watch – it is a diving tool,” he explains. “The waters of Lake Geneva are quite muddy and that obliged us to push the visibility and the mechanics further.” Accordingly, this is Tudor’s first diving watch to boast a ceramic bezel, which has the benefit of enhanced luminosity, thanks to the inclusion of the luminous material within the bezel rather than printed on it. While not unique in the industry, there are only one or two brands that adopt this approach and the luminosity was developed in-house.

However, the most interesting thing about the watch is actually the bracelet. Thanks to an innovative clasp, the fixed-metal bracelet transforms into an elasticated strap that automatically adjusts to the wearer’s arm whether at sea level or at the greater pressures below. Apparently, many of the older divers consulted by Tudor, who had learnt to dive before the era of electronic wrist-worn dive computers, had either lost, or had the feeling that they were about to lose, their watch because of the contraction in the arm’s circumference at depth.

IWC bronze Aquatimer Expedition Charles Darwin chronograph, £8,250
IWC bronze Aquatimer Expedition Charles Darwin chronograph, £8,250 | Image: PHOTOPRESS

Clever features aside, the Pelagos is comfortable to wear, being made of light, temperature-resistant titanium, a material that is becoming increasingly popular with the makers of modern diving watches.

Titanium was, of course, a key element in the most spectacular diving watch of recent years: the Rolex Deepsea Challenge, an experimental divers’ timepiece (not produced for general sale). The Challenge is the Godfather II of diving watches, in that it is more impressive than its predecessor, the Deepsea of 2008, which, with a functioning depth of 3,900m, can be said to have inaugurated a new era of diving watch. However impressive this may have been, it was but an amuse-bouche to the Deepsea Challenge for which there is, as yet, no ocean that is too deep; in 2012 a Rolex Deepsea Challenge was strapped to the outside of the submarine that director and filmmaker James Cameron took to the bottom of the Marianas trench, which, at a whisker over 10,900m beneath the waves, is, I believe, a little deeper than the waters off Hermance.

Tudor titanium Pelagos, £2,840
Tudor titanium Pelagos, £2,840

This journey to the deepest point on the planet was something of a trip down memory lane as the brand had been here before, in 1960, when a Rolex was strapped to the outside of a submersible called the Trieste; the difference was that the Rolex of that time featured a huge domed sapphire that made it about as wearable as a medium-sized egg.

The Deepsea Challenge was not merely up to the test of immense pressures, it was also wearable – no bigger than many less-seaworthy timepieces of recent years. It was almost a decade in planning, dating back to 2004 when Rolex had acquired a special hyperbaric tank that enabled the watchmaker to test out its timepieces to an unbelievable 1,500 bars, or a depth of 15,000m – or as Rolex prefers to put it, 12,000m with a 25 per cent safety margin (a requirement of the International Organization for Standardization, more on which later). The secret of this watch’s impregnable architecture is Rolex’s Ringlock System, the core of which, as the name suggests, is a central ring, made of nitrogen-alloyed steel with a slightly domed sapphire that is capable of withstanding a weight of 17 tonnes, while the fortified back is constructed from grade-five titanium.

Cartier pink-gold Calibre de Cartier Diver, £19,400
Cartier pink-gold Calibre de Cartier Diver, £19,400

As well as being light, stable and strong, grade-five titanium has aesthetic benefits that IWC has made the most of, with its reworked range of Aquatimer watches, which showcase the fact that this material can now be brought to the same sort of highly polished finish as steel. But if a dazzling mirror-like finish is not to your taste, then you might prefer the patina of bronze. Bronze has become something of a niche trend in diving watches, the most notable launch being by Panerai in 2011 (Luminor Submersible, model discontinued), followed this year, by IWC (Aquatimer Expedition Charles Darwin chronograph, £8,250).

“It is our first bronze watch and we put some effort into finding the right alloy, known as Ampco-18,” says IWC’s technical director Stefan Ihnen. “It is a little bit harder than the normal bronze alloys and the patina effect takes a bit longer to develop but, importantly, it’s certified for tooling for pharmaceuticals and food, so there will be no problems with allergies.”

Hublot titanium Oceanographic 4000 Cheval Blanc Randheli, about £12,795
Hublot titanium Oceanographic 4000 Cheval Blanc Randheli, about £12,795

But the innovation that Ihnen is most proud of is the IWC SafeDive System: a cunning mechanism that makes use of two crown-wheel trains and a clutch system to transmit the anti-clockwise motion of the external bezel to an internal bezel. However, when the external bezel is turned clockwise, the drive pinion does not engage with the drive disc and the internal bezel remains unmoved; so even if knocked, the remaining dive time indicated can only be lower than initially set. The internal bezel also guards against saltwater, dust and so forth, with the added the easy manipulation of an external bezel that advances in clearly defined clicks of one minute. “The bezel took four years, but we now have the perfect system – and for the next 20 years I do not expect to have to look at the bezel mechanism again,” says Ihnen.

A unique bezel is also behind the successful relaunch of a classic, the Seamaster Ploprof from Omega (£6,150). It first appeared in 1970 and is immediately distinguishable by an orange button jutting out of the case, at about two o’clock, acting as a sort of clutch, which, when pressed, enables the bezel to be turned either way before being locked into position.

Omega steel Seamaster Ploprof, £6,150
Omega steel Seamaster Ploprof, £6,150

A similar sort of brand identity fixed into a technical feature is also behind one of the underwater icons of the 1960s, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Memovox Deep Sea, which used an audible alarm to signal the end of a dive – apparently sound conductivity underwater is such that this was a viable solution to the problem of dive timing in the early days of Scuba. Newer models of the Jaeger underwater range have been making use of the latest technology from Swiss company Del West, a good example of which is last year’s launch: the Deep Sea Chronograph Cermet (£12,500). Cermet is an intelligent admixture of aluminium and ceramic in which the latter element “migrates” to the exterior surface of the case, further coated with a generous 50-micron ceramic layer, to make it superbly scratch-resistant and hardwearing, while having the lightness of aluminium.

One of the requirements of ISO is that time should be readable in the dark at a minimum of 25cm. However, Stanislas de Quercize, CEO of Cartier, wanted to exceed the ISO requirements, especially when Cartier’s brand-new diving watch is out of the water. He elected to illuminate the signature Roman numerals of the Calibre de Cartier Diver (£19,400) with a larger-than-strictly-speaking-necessary luminous XII. So, as well as being supremely visible underwater, it is also readily identifiable across the beach in St Tropez, Porto Cervo, Marbella or whatever other Mediterranean pleasure port one is found in this summer. “With these Roman numerals, you recognise it from 20m away and will say, ‘That’s a Cartier watch.’” It is certainly a very prominent way of distinguishing a new entrant into a crowded sector.

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Indeed, in the undersea world, each brand has to work hard to distinguish itself, as the longstanding efficacy of the contrasting light indices against a dark dial and the unidirectional ratcheted rotating bezel tend to mean that many diving watches stick to aesthetic parameters that were first laid down in 1953, the year in which Blancpain launched its landmark Fifty Fathoms.

There are now more than 40 different iterations of this classic diving watch, a fact perhaps not unconnected with CEO Marc Hayek’s fondness for diving. But whether it is the fully loaded X Fathoms of 2011, with its depth-measuring capability, depth memory and retrograde five-minute indicator for decompression stops, or last year’s minimalist retro-look in satin-brushed titanium to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the model (the Bathyscaphe, £7,290), the familiar rotating bezel, high-contrast dial and screwed crown remain constant.

However, what has changed dramatically over the past 61 years is the number of places that diving watches are worn. In the early days, they were seen on special forces and sub-aquatic professionals such as Jacques Cousteau; now they are part of the holiday wardrobe of the well-dressed man, who, even if the wettest thing he encounters on holiday is a dry martini, would not venture onto the beach without a diving watch.

Hublot’s CEO Jean-Claude Biver, who is always alive to the latest ways in which the watch is worn, has realised that as well as needing to function as a diving tool (there is a Hublot that works 4,000m beneath the waves), it can also function as a wearable holiday souvenir. This is why he has created a special-edition Hublot diving watch, the Oceanographic 4000 Cheval Blanc Randheli (SFr18,900, about £12,795), that is offered for sale only in the Cheval Blanc resort in the Maldives. I can only comment as a non-diver, but I have to say that the idea of roughing it at an Indian Ocean resort named after a Bordeaux château might just have the edge over the chilly, muddy Lake Geneva waters off Hermance.

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