by Benjamin Lowry
On a moonless night, gently rolling waves reflect only the faintest shimmer of starlight. Fully submerged well up the beach by way of a spring tide, a team of commandos peer down at their synchronized mechanical dive watches, counting down the seconds before their waterside assault will begin in earnest. Eight pairs of eyes, hidden behind rubber diving masks, are just able to discern the time thanks to luminescent material applied to the dial and hands of their watches. Rotating bezels manage the elapsed time from when the combat swimmers emerged unseen from the torpedo tubes of a specially outfitted submarine further offshore. Mission time is elapsing, and the action is just about to start. Each operator’s head, mask, muzzle, and watch slowly break the surface on a pitch-black beach in a faraway land. It’s zero hour; time to put in the work.
W.O.E. Personal US Navy Issued Tudor 7928 (Photo Credit: James Rupley)
While we’re all familiar with the imagery so often celebrated in watch campaigns and marketing materials, few understand the extent to which the dive watch owes its very existence to amphibious military organizations. Despite the lack of popularity of scuba diving and the pervasive use of diving computers that has rendered the traditional mechanical watch all but unnecessary, the dive watch remains the most popular watch today. In other words, many SCUBA divers wear a wristwatch, but very few people who wear a dive watch actually SCUBA dive.
As a category, the dive watch boasts an impressive array of executions and designs that rose in status to become culturally relevant, including the Rolex Submariner, Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, and OMEGA Seamaster, to name a few. But how can this be the case? If no one cares about diving in 2023 and no one really wears a dive watch for diving, why are watches like the Submariner and Seamaster some of the most iconic luxury watches on the market?
Tudor's recent Pelagos FXD was one of the more recent collaborations between a military organization and a major watchmaker, but far from the first. (Photo Credit: Tudor Marketing)
The truth is that these legendary names could never have ascended to their premium luxury positions without first descending on the wrists of a select few military divers and elite special operations units. Units like the US Navy SEALs and French Commandos Marine are as relevant to the dive watch as we understand it today as any Swiss executive chain smoking cigarettes in a leather-bound boardroom. To understand how yesterday’s diving tool, intended for wear alongside a mask, fins, and oversized dive knife, transformed into today’s luxury jewel, often sported by hypebeasts with Gucci slides and a Supreme hoodie, we’ll shine an underwater flashlight on the military’s role in shaping what has become history’s most impactful sports watch. Like pasta and fashion, the history of the dive watch starts with Italy.
An Entirely New Form Of Warfare & The Need For Water-Resistant Timekeeping
Early operators from the Decima Flottiglia MAS utilized the Siluro a Lenta Corsa or "slow-running torpedo" along with Panerai dive watches.
Starting in 1935, the Royal Italian Navy or Reggia Marina established one of the first dedicated undersea warfare units. Known as the Decima Flottiglia MAS, the unit was tasked with infiltrating Allied harbors and sinking ships by attaching explosive charges to their hulls. Given the complexity of these burgeoning maritime missions and the importance of careful coordination in any situation where things blow up, the need for a capable water-resistant watch emerged. Already a respected supplier of instruments to the Italian military, G. Panerai & Figlio of Florence stepped up, developing the reference 2533 around 1936 and later the reference 3646 with no small amount of help from Rolex SA across the border in neutral Switzerland.
Panerai's pioneering Radiomir reference 2533 from 1936.
With a massive 47mm case, multi-layered “sandwich” dial construction, and hand-winding pocket watch calibers, the “Radiomir”, as it came to be known for its radium-based luminescent material, finds its place in history as the first watch developed specifically for underwater use by divers.
The earliest watches intended for underwater use by divers were from Panerai, with the tender in this legendary image wearing one of the earliest Radiomir references.
Equipped with water-resistant luminescent watches and rudimentary pure oxygen rebreathers, as well as submersible “human torpedoes” to cover greater distances, the Royal Italian Navy’s novel diving commando unit was incredibly successful for its size and age, sinking or disabling some 200,000 tons of Allied war and merchant ships while establishing new modalities in naval warfare that would influence virtually all maritime special operations units to follow. And so their success would influence the use and design of watches as well. Seen as more of an outsider with their simple, rotating bezel-free format, Panerai’s WWII-Era creations are perhaps less impactful for the dive watch genre compared to some of the icons we’ll cover but do garner a place in history both for demonstrating the value of luminescence for underwater legibility as well as the need for direct feedback from military operators in influencing the development of diving-specific watches.
(Photo Credit: Navy SEAL Museum)
Across the pond, the United States Military was developing its own amphibious warfighters, initially known as the Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDU) and later the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT). These early United States maritime units gained notoriety for successful beach reconnaissance and explosive clearance operations in both the European and Pacific theaters of World War II. One of the earliest watches created for these maritime units was the Hamilton “Buships”, short for Bureau of Ships. Nicknamed the “Canteen”, Hamilton’s Buships secured its water resistance by way of a cap that was attached to the watch by a short chain and screwed over an inner push-pull crown for a watertight seal. Looking more like a field watch adapted to the sea than a true diver’s watch, the Hamilton is also a bit of an outlier but did help to bolster the case for submersible timers for amphibious military units.
Hamilton's earliest military dive watches were designed for Underwater Demolition Teams and utilized a screw-down cap to create a watertight seal over the top of the standard crown. underneath. (Watch Image Source: Craft & Tailored)
The Mid-Century - The Dive Watch Comes Into Its Own
Without the advent of scuba diving and especially Jacques Cousteau's influence in popularizing recreational diving, the dive watch could never have become what it is today.
However impactful, Panerai and Hamilton’s World War II and early post-war efforts in watch design didn’t make their way into watches designed for public consumption, and recreational scuba diving didn’t really take off until Jacques Cousteau and Émile Gagnan’s Aqualung became more widely available starting around 1950. As scuba diving as a recreational pursuit grew, so too did the military’s adoption of scuba as opposed to the much older “deep sea” mode of diving undertaken by way of a brass helmet, rubberized canvas drysuit, and virtually unlimited breathing gas supplied through an umbilical. Given the limited gas supply inherent in diving with a tank on your back, as well as the life-and-death gravity of managing decompression-related issues, simply knowing the time of day underwater was no longer as important as tracking elapsed time. Starting in 1953, the dive watch as we know it today was born.
Omega Seamaster- The transition from primarily hard hat diving to scuba required a closer watch on elapsed time in order for a diver to track their breathing and avoid decompression-related issues.
The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms - Created For Combat Divers
Blancpain's Fifty Fathoms was designed in direct response to a request from the French Navy's nascent combat diving corps, changing the history of dive watches forever. (Source: French Government Archives)
The conversation about which dive watches were developed and actually released to the public first is nuanced, spicy, and not really why we’re here. That said, two important names officially hit the market in 1953, the Zodiac Sea Wolf and the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, with the latter having been developed in direct response to a request from the French Military. Of course there’s also the Rolex Submariner, first released in ‘54. There’s even an ongoing discussion around when the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms hit the scene–whether it was ‘53 or ‘54. The truth is, it doesn’t really matter who was first; it matters more how they all came to be. Modern tribalism is far less interesting than the genesis story of these legendary watches.
The story of the Fifty Fathoms goes that Captain Robert ‘Bob’ Maloubier, a wartime espionage legend, and Lieutenant Claude Riff were charged with creating a French Navy commando diving unit modeled after Britain’s Special Operations Executive which was itself in part inspired by the aforementioned Italian frogmen of World War II. Disappointed by then-commercially available water-resistant watches, none of which were actually designed for underwater operations, Maloubier and Riff set out to find a manufacturer willing to create a watch to their own unique specifications. Turned down by Lip, a business decision the brand likely later regretted, it was Jean-Jacques Fiechter, longtime CEO of Blancpain and a passionate scuba diver, who took up the challenge, changing the future of dive watches forever.
1953 saw the arrival of Blancpain's Fifty Fathoms, a watch often credited as the first modern diving watch. Source: Blancpain
Unveiled to the public at Basel Fair in 1953 after extensive testing with the French Navy’s combat divers, the new watch was dubbed the “Fifty Fathoms” in a nod to its water resistance as well as a line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Galvanizing the basic silhouette that now embodies the dive watch, the Fifty Fathoms was housed within a then-gigantic 42mm case and offered a suite of newly-patented features including a rotating push-to-turn bezel for tracking elapsed time, a dual-gasket crown system, and a novel screw-down case back system in addition to a soft iron inner cage safeguarding the caliber from magnetic fields.
The TR 900 from Tornek Rayville was a subtly modified Fifty Fathoms intended to subvert the Buy American Act and make the watch available to US Military divers. Source: Revolution Watch
Immediately catching on with military divers around the world, a subtly modified version of the Fifty Fathoms known as the Tornek-Rayville TR-900 was later conceived by US Blancpain distributor Allen Tornek in an effort to subvert the Buy American Act of 1933. Now one of the rarest –and most expensive– military dive watches, the TR-900 was issued to US Military divers, Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technicians, and other maritime special operators starting in 1963. Despite a cooler reception from the mass market upon release, Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms leaped into the mainstream with both fins thanks to its inclusion in 1956’s The Silent World, Jacques Cousteau’s epic diving documentary. Now rightly considered among the heights of luxury watchmaking with starting prices around $15,000, it’s important to remember the Fifty Fathoms would never have existed at all without its basic design parameters coming from a detailed request from an elite military diving unit.
French combat divers pictured in 1956. A big shoutout to the French military for helping to create the dive watch as we know it today.
The Curious Case Of The Zodiac Sea Wolf
Offering a smaller 35mm case and more colorful options compared to the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms or Rolex Submariner, the Zodiac Sea Wolf also deserves its place in dive watch history. Source: Benjamin Lowry
While Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms receives the majority of the kudos for its 1953 release date, the humble Zodiac Sea Wolf was also right there and is deserving of its place in both military and recreational dive watch history. Where the Blancpain eschewed trends, instead leaning into pure utility with its oversized 42mm case diameter, Zodiac’s Sea Wolf stayed closer to the sizing norms of the day with a 35mm diameter and abbreviated 43mm lug-to-lug measurement. Looking beyond its smaller stature, which no doubt aided in the Sea Wolf’s Mid-Century market appeal, Zodiac’s purpose-built diver was no less an aquatic tool, offering a rotating elapsed time bezel, luminescent indices, and optional expanding bracelets intended to work with a variety of diving suits. Though the Sea Wolf wasn’t necessarily ideated with the military in mind, instead capitalizing on the rapid growth of hobby scuba diving, the watch became a regular choice for US Military divers and special operations forces, commonly spotted on the wrists of US Navy SEALs during the Vietnam Era.
Favored by early UDTs and the SEAL Teams to follow, the Zodiac Sea Wolf is commonly associated with service members from the Vietnam War Era. Source: Navy Helicopter Association Historical Society
In comparison to the Blancpain and Rolex’s Submariner which we will of course address in detail shortly, the Sea Wolf was smaller and offered a more comprehensive array of more colorful dial and bezel options, traits that likely limited its appeal to military divers in particular, especially as preferred sports watch sizes gradually began to increase. In the ensuing decades, brands like Blancpain and Rolex effectively scaled the luxury ladder. In contrast, Zodiac, which was imperiled along with much of the Swiss watchmaking industry during the Quartz Crisis, changed hands several times, losing elements of its core design ethos in the process. With that being said, modern Zodiac, today a part of the Fossil Group, offers a much more attainable pathway to heritage diving legitimacy with its current collection as well as relatively reasonable prices for vintage Sea Wolf references, both attributes that cannot be claimed by the final missing piece of the OG dive watch trio, Rolex’s world-beating Submariner.
A Zodiac Sea Wolf on the wrist of a US Special Forces solider. Source: The Dive Watch Connection
In part two of this article, we’ll take a closer look at more of the most significant instances of military organizations influencing the history and design of diving watches including the Rolex Military Submariner, Tudors of Espionage (T.O.E) both old and new, the OMEGA Seamaster, and a whole lot more.
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.
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.