A Brief History Of The Dive Watch - How The Military Helped To Shape History’s Greatest Tool Watch (Part Two)

A Brief History Of The Dive Watch - How The Military Helped To Shape History’s Greatest Tool Watch (Part Two)

by Benjamin Lowry

If you’re new here, you’ll want to go back and read part one (HERE) of this two-part series where we detail the history of the earliest diving-specific watches and their crucial links to military organizations including Italy’s Decima Flottiglia MAS, the US Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT), and the British Royal Navy’s Clearance Diving Branch. If you’re all caught up, the year is 1953, and it’s time to talk about Rolex. 

The Rolex Submariner - From Submersible Tool To Modern Day Asset Class

Rolex Submariner CIA Watches of Espionage
(Photo Credit: James Rupley)

Despite being finalized in 1953, the Rolex Submariner was not in full-scale production until 1954, dates that represent a generally understood timeline whose veracity depends on who you ask or choose to trust. The intersection of watches and espionage is nothing new, after all. If anyone has anything substantive confirming or denying the release date of the Rolex Submariner or any of the other historically influential dive watches mentioned here, we’d love to see it and would happily amend this text. But that’s not really why we’re here. 

A far younger brand than either Blancpain or Zodiac, which were founded in 1735 and 1882, respectively, Rolex was famously conceived by Hans Wilsdorf starting in 1905. By 1926, Rolex created its Oyster case, an early water-resistant case concept sealed by way of a screw-down crown. Of course, the earliest Oyster case models were intended for general durability as opposed to actual underwater use by divers, but the innovation would come into its own with the Submariner, the brand’s first diving-specific design. Initially measuring only 37mm in diameter, the earliest Submariners followed the Blancpain and Zodiac with rotating elapsed time bezels and legible luminescent indices and hands. 

Rolex reference A/6538
The extremely rare Rolex reference A/6538 is among the earliest Submariner models to be designed in response to the Royal Navy's input. (Source: Antiquorum)

Not yet the cultural phenomenon we think of today, the Submariner quickly grew a loyal following among recreational and especially military divers, with Rolex even creating specially modified versions of the Submariner for the British Ministry of Defense (MOD) starting with the A/6538 in 1957. As a specific request from Britain’s Royal Marines and the Special Boat Squadron (which would become the storied Special Boat Service or SBS), Rolex modified its basic Submariner design with a bezel produced from a more durable alloy complete with more prominent ridges for easier manipulation with gloves. While the A/6538 was issued in extremely limited numbers, with the initial order only amounting to 21 units, Rolex would cement its military dive watch legend starting in 1971 with a watch that would come to be known simply as the “MilSub”.

Rolex Milsub Rolex reference 5513/5517
 A Rolex reference 5513/5517 produced for the British Royal Navy in 1977. Source: Christie's

In an effort to equip its growing Clearance Diving Branch, the SBS, and more pedestrian diving units, the MOD approached Rolex with a specific set of parameters for a new military-specific Submariner based on the existing civilian reference 5513. With fixed lug bars that required a nylon pull-through strap, a fully graduated bezel insert, larger Sword-style hands borrowed from OMEGA, and a fully-brushed case for lower reflectivity, the modifications were enough for Rolex to grant the Military Submariner its own reference, christening the Military Submariner reference 5517. Today representing the most collectible military dive watch in history, the MilSub has its own dedicated following of ardent enthusiasts keen to argue over the finer points of servicing history or dial modifications made by the MOD itself or shadowy collectors looking to capitalize on the MilSub’s incredible secondary market prices. 

Rolex Military Submariner or "MilSub"
A Rolex Military Submariner or "MilSub" on the wrist of a Royal Navy Clearance Diver who happens to be holding some unexploded ordnance. Source: Diving-Watch.net

Provided to the MOD in several batches during the 1970s to Royal Navy Divers, Royal Army Engineer Divers, and a few select helicopter pilots, fewer than 1,500 total MilSubs are believed to have been issued. A testament to the design’s durability and utility, many MilSubs were still in military circulation well into the early 2000s, with even more having been “lost” by the operators to whom they were supplied. With one MilSub example hammering at Bonham’s for $240,000 in 2023, I probably would have also lost mine. 

Rolex Military Submariner MilSub
This is what a quarter of a million dollars worth of Rolex Military Submariner looks like in 2023. Source: Bonham's

Starting in 1980, with Rolex already becoming a more precious option, the MOD looked to another manufacturer for its military dive watches, with Cabot Watch Company or CWC creating the Royal Navy Diver in an attempt to fill the void left by the Crown. Surprisingly, CWC still provides dive watches, including the blacked-out SBS Diver Issue to specialist diving units within the MOD, juxtaposed against a sea of digital tool watches (D.T.W.) from brands like G-Shock, Garmin, and Suunto. 

CWC's SBS Diver Issue
CWC's SBS Diver Issue is one of the modern replacements for the Rolex Military Submariner. Source: Benjamin Lowry

The “Other” Submariner - Tudors of Espionage (T.O.E.) 

South African issued Tudor MilSub
South African issued Tudor MilSub, W.O.E.'s personal collection (photo credit: Rupley)

As is well established on the Dispatch "Tudor's of Espionage", Tudor, which is of course owned by Rolex, is another legendary brand for its significance among the military and national security communities. Serving as a less expensive entry-point into the Crown’s royal empire, Tudor was established in 1926 and unveiled its version of the Submariner shortly after Rolex in 1954 with the reference 7922 that was almost identical to the Rolex Submariner of the day beyond its use of a third-party caliber. 

UDT Frogman Bob Coggins
UDT Frogman Bob Coggins casually leans on the Apollo 8 Command Module with a Tudor 7928 on the wrist in 1968.

Many military organizations opted for Tudor’s Submariner as opposed to the Rolex because the Tudor offered identical functionality at a reduced price, the kind of thing any groveling supply officer can get behind. Closely associated with the US Navy, Tudor’s reference 7928 Submariner was issued to SEAL Teams for decades starting in the 1960s, with many Tudor Subs seeing action in Vietnam and beyond. For an incredible true story of how a more modern US Navy SEAL came into possession of a Vietnam-era Tudor, check out our profile of the legendary Dave Hall

US Air Force Pararescuemen
US Air Force Pararescuemen preparing to recover the Gemini VIII module in 1966 with a Tudor Submariner 7928 in clear view on the PJ to the right.

Also issued to US Air Force Pararescuemen or “PJs”, Tudor’s most impactful military collaboration was with the French Navy’s combat divers who would once again play a role in shaping one of history’s iconic tool watches. Having aided in developing the Blancpain, the Marine Nationale apparently liked to keep its options open, ordering a batch of Tudor Submariner 7922 as early as the mid-1950s. Again demonstrating the influence military divers offered even on a major Swiss watchmaking brand, the French commandos quickly called for larger crowns on their dive watches, with Tudor responding with a special batch of 7922 models with larger prototype crowns before officially releasing the 7924 “Big Crown” Submariner in 1958. 

Tudor's reference 7924
French commandos may have even played a role in making the Submariner's crown larger, resulting in Tudor's reference 7924.

It would be a stretch to say these underwater warfighters are responsible for larger crowns on Tudor Submariners or the Submariner family in general, but it’s reasonable to assume their opinion was valued as highly as any. Issued to the French Navy from the mid-50s through the 80s, MN Tudor Submariners are another highly valued collector item offering incredible provenance at a price point that continues to ascend but still undercuts Britain’s Rolex MilSubs by a wide margin.

Tudor FXD
(Photo Credit: Rupley)

Legend also has it that one of the Tudor Sub’s most recognizable design elements, the “Snowflake” handset, also stems from the Commandos Marine, with the unit having supposedly requested larger hands for the Submariner that would also crucially allow more real estate for luminescent material. Initially provided with Tudor’s reference 7016 in 1969, the Snowflake Sub for many represents the Submariner from the Shield. Given that the British MOD also wanted more legible hands for its Rolex Submariner, the rumored MN request for larger hands might even be true. Today, Snowflake hands are at the core of Tudor’s heritage-inspired Black Bay collection as well as the more modern Pelagos series of professional dive watches. 

Tudor FXD
(Photo Credit: Rupley)

Where the majority of the brands we’ve mentioned no longer support or endorse any form of military associations, Tudor continues to work with the Marine Nationale, unveiling the Pelagos FXD in 2021 after developing the distinctive fixed lug design in collaboration with the very combat divers whose forefathers long trusted the Tudor Submariner for their own cigarette and red wine-fueled undersea endeavors. While it wasn’t presented in direct association with or caseback engravings identifying any particular unit, the recently announced black variant of the Pelagos FXD was marketed with prominent reference to the US Navy diving and SEAL communities. In addition, Tudor continues to quietly produce special versions of some of its core models for military units around the world, very refreshingly not utilizing these associations for marketing purposes as much as you might expect. For a lot more about what we like to call Tudors Of Espionage (T.O.E.), head over here

Tudor FXD Navy SEAL

OMEGA’s Seamaster - From The Royal Navy To James Bond 

OMEGA Seamaster Issued

While it arrived on the scene a bit later, the OMEGA Seamaster is no doubt one of history's most important dive watches, especially from a military context.

With the name having been utilized by the brand since 1948, OMEGA’s first Seamaster that was actually intended for diving hit the market in 1957, a few years after the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, Zodiac Sea Wolf, and Rolex Submariner made their respective splashes. Announced alongside the also-legendary Speedmaster and somewhat lesser-loved Railmaster, the Seamaster 300 immediately established its position among the diving elite. Designed as a direct response to the Rolex Submariner, the Seamaster 300 even managed to turn the Royal Navy’s attention away from Rolex for the better part of the 1960s. Having utilized the earliest Submariner references in the late 1950s, the Royal Navy approached OMEGA, a brand with whom the MOD had a considerable history, looking for a modified version of the Seamaster 300 for its divers. 

OMEGA's Military Seamaster
OMEGA's Military Seamaster offered a host of subtle updates that amounted to one of the most utilitarian diving designs of its day. Source: Bonham's

Differing from the civilian models with fixed lug bars, a specific larger “Sword” handset, screw-down crowns, and special case back engravings, the MOD versions of the OMEGA Seamaster were supplied to both the British Army and Navy in several batches between 1967 and 1971, when the MOD again looked to Rolex and its new MilSub. Like Tudor, OMEGA has also been known to do special editions of the Seamaster for specialist units including the SBS, but that practice seems to be either extremely rare or altogether defunct in 2023. 

James Bond Omega

Despite its laurels beneath the waves, the greatest source of modern-day acclaim for the Seamaster is the world of cinema, with the Seamster laying claim to the most important watch cameo in history on the wrist of none other than James freakin’ Bond. 

Though Ian Fleming’s character and early cinematic portrayals correctly identify Bond as a Rolex guy, an extremely clever marketing maneuver saw Bond become a Seamaster man with Goldeneye in 1995. Serving as perhaps the most important milestone in OMEGA’s modern history, the modernized Seamaster Diver 300 that was actually released in 1993 was massively impactful for the brand, ushering in an unprecedented level of awareness for a model family that often sulked in the shadows beneath the Rolex Submariner. When it comes to James Bond’s watch of choice, Rolex and OMEGA nerds have some pretty significant beef which we have addressed in detail. Remaining at the core of OMEGA’s modern collection to this day, the Diver 300 is as 1990s as it gets, with a polarizing manual helium escape valve at ten and one of the funkiest (albeit extremely well-made) bracelets on the market. 

Omega Seamaster Bond
(Photo Credit: Rupley)

It may not have been developed specifically for the military like the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, but the OMEGA Seamaster’s proud amphibious service history and on-screen action of the wrist of James Bond, who was of course a Commander in the Royal Navy, are both key aspects of how the design became what it is today. 

A Brief Overview Designed To Inspire Deeper Dives

Canadian Clearance Diver
A Canadian Clearance Diver wearing either a Rolex or Tudor Submariner in the 1950s.

While it feels in many ways totally separate today, the impact of military divers and special operations forces on the design and development of the dive watch as we know it today played an important role in the category’s incredible ascent to the top of the sports watch genre. There are, of course, myriad other reasons for the dive watch’s appeal, including its general durability, the peace of mind that comes with water resistance, nighttime legibility, and its versatile but casual aesthetics. However, the dive watch couldn’t be where it is in 2023 without the cool guy associations and emotional and historical resonance that come with active military service on some of the baddest wrists in the game. 

Watches of Espionage Tudor

(Photo Credit: Rupley)

We’ve seen this play out in other genres, including the OMEGA Speedmaster’s incredible relationship with NASA or the Breitling Navitimer’s history of aeronautical service, but no other watch captures the imagination of the mass market and the enthusiast community alike the way the humble submersible dive timer has managed to do. Whether you’re a desk diver, working commercial or military diver, or even an elite military commando, the dive watch serves as one of the most capable formats in watchmaking backed by impressive history, military associations, and the kind of utility that amounts to history’s most perfect tool watch. 

As a note before the keyboard commandos attack, this piece is intended as only the most abbreviated overview of some of the most prominent and impactful instances of the military’s role in shaping the dive watch as we know it today. There are numerous other important military dive watches we simply couldn’t cover in this piece including brands like IWC and Benrus that you will hopefully be inspired to discover. If you’re interested in additional coverage of other important military diving watches and their unique histories, you know where to find us. 

Read Next:  Special Boat Service OMEGA Seamaster

Special Boat Service OMEGA Seamaster


About The Author: Benjamin Lowry is a US Coast Guard veteran and commercial diver turned watch writer. These days, Ben splits his time between writing and video production in the watch industry and managing @SubmersibleWrist, a watch spotting account dedicated to military and commercial divers as well as the life aquatic. 

11 comments

Why do some omega dive watches have an hour gand terminating in a arrow?
Shouldn’t the arrow be on the minute hand?

Joe D Twyman

What are your thoughts on newer watch companies such as MTM. May not be a Rolex, Tudor, or Bremont but everyone started somewhere. Thank you for my weekly indulgence. Love the stories.

Dan A.

Thank you four an excellent and most enjoyable article. Mr. Lowry’s articles are always a welcome feature of WOE. Please keep them coming!

J Burgs

Great two-parter. WOE continues to bring some of the best watch content on the internet. The picture of that CWC on the Chelsea deck clock is a work of art!

Greg L.

Try reading Beyond Enkription. It is an enthralling unadulterated fact based autobiographical spy thriller and a super read as long as you don’t expect John le Carré’s delicate diction, sophisticated syntax and placid plots.

What is interesting is that this book is apparently mandatory reading in some countries’ intelligence agencies’ induction programs. Why? Maybe because the book has been heralded by those who should know as “being up there with My Silent War by Kim Philby and No Other Choice by George Blake”. Maybe because Bill Fairclough (the author) deviously dissects unusual topics, for example, by using real situations relating to how much agents are kept in the dark by their spy-masters and (surprisingly) vice versa.

The action is set in 1974 about a real British accountant who worked in Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC) in London, Nassau, Miami and Port au Prince. Simultaneously he unwittingly worked for MI6. In later books (when employed by Citicorp and Barclays) he knowingly worked for not only British Intelligence but also the CIA.

It’s a must read for espionage cognoscenti but do read some of the recent news articles in TheBurlingtonFiles website before plunging into Beyond Enkription. You’ll soon be immersed in a whole new world which you won’t want to exit.

Harry Sinclair

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