Diver's watches have been popular ever since the mid 1950's, when the French explorer and oceanographer, Jacques Cousteau, introduced both the aqualung and the diver's watch to the general public. Cousteau's undersea odyssey made quite a splash in people's imaginations.
Inspired by that intrepid Frenchman, suddenly everyone wanted to explore the strange new world under the oceans. When National Geographic ran an article celebrating the achievements of the famous explorer in 1954, dive watches were immediately in demand, and they have been ever since.
Watchmakers were shrewd to spot the opportunity – adventurous divers needed their trusty, water-resistant dive watches, and Rolex was quick to respond with the (now legendary) Submariner. In this article I've selected the three most important, and most eminently collectible vintage diver's watches: The Sub, the Fifty Fathoms, and of course, the Seamaster.
Rolex Submariner 5513, 1980s
For vintage Rolex enthusiasts like me, the Submariner Ref 5513 is the Submariner to have. It may not be the rarest vintage Diver – in fact it is actually one of the longest-running series in Rolex’s history, (1962 - 1989) – however it is considered by many collectors to be the epitome of the classic dive watch, and it's one of the most recognizable watches in the world.
Some of these Subs have performed particularly well on auction. Steve McQueen's 5513 from 1967 was set to break all records (estimated well over $15 million) before it was removed from the listings at Phillips.
The robust 40mm case, the overall design, especially the crown-guards, provide protection against impacts and accidental unscrewing while underwater. It is more than a tool watch, though – it's a collector's dream come true. The models from the mid 1980's are a particular favorite of mine.
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
We return to France again for the next diver's classic: the Fifty Fathoms. Blancpain teamed up with the French Navy in the 1950's to create a watch that could withstand the rigors of the “Nageurs de Combat” (French combat swimmers). They wanted a watch that was legible, tough, and could keep track of oxygen usage, all at a depth of 300 feet, or fifty fathoms – hence the name of the iconic watch.
The result was a remarkable tool watch. The luminescent dial was clean and uncomplicated, and easy to read, even when visibility was poor. It had a tough case with a screw-down caseback, a big uni-directional bezel that could be handled with gloves on, together with a strap design that could accommodate the bulky diving suits. These were world-first innovations, and the design ideas are still used today.
The French Navy was impressed, and the Blancpain Fifty-Fathoms has become highly collectible over the years since then.
Omega Seamaster Professional (James bond), 1980s
Omega initially intended the Seamaster to be little more than a sporty dress watch. That was in 1948, just before Cousteau appeared on National Geographic covers – but things changed during the 70's when Omega collaborated with the French explorer on some deep sea experiments, to improve the depth rating of their watch. When the Seamaster "Ploprof" 600m(2000ft) appeared, Omega became established as a serious diver's watch.
We had to wait about twenty more years for the Seamaster Professional 2531.80, which was introduced in 1993.
When the watch appeared on the wrist of Pierce Brosnan, "007" in the movie GoldenEye it didn't take long for people to start calling it "the Bond watch."
The Seamaster 300m professional chronometer appeared on Bond's wrist again in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), in The World Is Not Enough (1999) and eventually in Die Another Day (2002). Many bond movie watches had built-in gadgets. In Die Another Day the Seamaster had a detonator pin and a laser in the crown. Bond's boss, Q, tells him dryly at headquarters: "This is your 20th watch, I believe”
The Bond-Seamaster partnership has lasted through a number of subsequent movies, and has forever associated the image of the suave secret agent with the blue dial, so characteristic of the Seamaster. It remains a classic, and it remains one of my all-time favorites, even without the secret agent gadgets.