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Clear Your Mask

A look at diving watches—the legends, the new ones and the affordable

It’s not that dive watches get wet that often, because they don’t. But if you had one—images of Jacques Cousteau and James Bond come to mind—you’d be ready when they call, and how cool is that? Until then, a lot of dive watches look just as great on the Little League field, golf course and in the corporate boardroom. 
   Men like dive watches, for diving or not, because they are overbuilt, durable and have lots of gadgets, says Mark Kim, North American director of Seiko-owned Orient Watch Co. Ltd.    “A dive watch is more than a timepiece—it’s a statement,” he says. “A watch is really the only piece of jewelry a man owns. It’s the only way he can show his sensibilities.” 
   Dive watches are designed with an array of nifty features, the most useful being their ability to survive under water. Do not, however, take to heart any claim that this piece or that one is waterproof. There’s no such thing, and the Federal Trade Commission prohibits use of that term. The correct nomenclature is “water resistant.” Watches are made water resistant to a particular depth.  
   Another thing to know is that while all dive watches are water resistant, not all water resistant watches are suitable for scuba diving. Only those marked “diver’s watch” have met the requirements set by the International Organization for Standardization in Geneva, Switzerland. Among them, they must be water resistant to a minimum depth of 100 meters (328 feet). They have to function underwater and withstand the pressures.   
   “The depth rating has to be deep enough for the type of diving you’re going to do,” says Dave Walls, educational consultant for Professional Association of Diving Instructors Americas in Rancho Santa Margarita, California. “The average diver rarely sees 100 feet. Most dive watches on the market are rated well beyond that.”   
   Still, your watch can be damaged by fast ascents or strong temperature changes. Most dive pros recommend a minimum water resistance of 100 meters for swimming and snorkeling. Serious divers should look at water resistance between 200 and 1,000 meters.  
   “They go to some outrageous depths,” says Walls. “But at 3,000 feet, you’re probably not going to survive anyway.”   
   Only a handful of scuba divers ever have gone below 250 meters. The scuba diving depth record was set in 2005 by South African Nuno Gomes, who descended to 318 meters (1,044 feet) into the Red Sea.   
   Assuming you actually dive, the next function you’ll need tells how long you’ve been beneath the surface. It’s typically done like an egg-timer: turn the bezel to a certain number and when it reaches zero, you’re done. You’ll also find luminescent hands, backlit faces, depth gages, chronographs, helium release valves for withstanding decompression and logbooks that upload to your computer. Pay attention to the wristband. You’ll wear a wetsuit, at least part of the time, so you want a band that easily adjusts.   
   Dive watches were developed in the 1930s for military purposes by legendary watchmakers Omega and Panerai—and in limited numbers. The self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, “scuba” is the acronym, came along in the 1950s, and the proliferation of dive watches soon followed. One of the first, the Rolex Submariner, an early favorite of Agent 007 and water resistant to 1000 meters, is widely lusted after today.   
   Rolex’s Sea-Dweller Deepsea version is more daring. It includes a helium release valve and is water resistant to 3,900 meters (12,800 feet). That’s how far the Titanic sank to the bottom of the ocean. Not that you’d want to go there—or wear your Rolex if you did.    The Rolexes range in price, depending on metals (stainless steel, 18k gold or combo) and jewels (diamonds and sapphires), but start about $6,000 and go into five figures. A souped-up Sub easily runs higher than a Sea-Dweller.   
   Another member of the luxury class is the sporty Swiss-made JeanRichard Diverscope JR1000, whose namesake and reputation date to the 1600s. Its geometric shapes and acidic color accents are reminiscent of the 1960s, and the steel case and bezel are wrapped in vulcanized black rubber. It comes with two straps, one rubber and one fabric with a Velcro fastener. Water resistant to 300 meters, it’s priced at $8,310, but can be customized with additional functions.  
   A recent newcomer to the American marketplace is the classically styled Orient collection, hailing from Tokyo. The Professional Saturation Diver is water resistant to 300 meters and has a case design that prevents helium penetration. Stainless steel with black or orange face, it’s priced at $1,800 at orientwatchusa.com.     Perhaps you’re not ready to take a dive. There’s a time and watch for other water fun. The Timex Expedition Dive Style Series bears up at 200 meters, priced from $70 to $170. The Holeshot collection by active lifestyle retailer Oakley is loud and robust, with outsized buttons and bold faces. Waterfast to 100 meters, Holeshots are priced from $550 to $725. Will you need a mask and fins with that?

Published: August 09, 2009
Issue: Fall 2009 Water Issue