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The History of Waterproof Watches

Omega Seamaster Ultra Deep

With the recent debuts of Rolex’s 11,000 metre-rated Deepsea Challenge and Omega’s 6,000 metre-rated Seamaster Ultra Deep, water resistance has been something of a hot topic for haute horology over the past few months. But beyond these hardcore amphibious offerings even a watch intended for the most sedate environments needs to be able to endure some light precipitation, or a quick hand wash at least. It’s all well and good having the most exquisitely finished Grand Seiko Hi-Beat calibre or beautiful Patek cloisonné enamel dial, but if it’s not safely swaddled in a hermetic cocoon then it’s really just another stay-at-home curio. But how did we get to an age where even haute horology comes with inbuilt water resistance? Let’s explore the fascinating history of waterproof watches.

Tavannes Submarine Waterproof Watch

Tavannes Watch Co. Submarine, image credit: © David Boettcher

Thus one of the most important practical evolutions in watchmaking, the water resistant case can trace its roots back to the 19th century and the pocket watches produced by the likes of W. Pettit & Co. and François Borgel. But it was World War I and the watch’s seismic move from pocket to wrist that spurred the need for water resistance timepieces in earnest. An article in the December 1917 issue of the British Horological Institute’s Horological Journal notes that “the War has led not only to new inventions, but to the development and improvement of things previously known. In the latter category may be included the wristlet watch… now to be seen on the wrist of nearly every man in uniform and of many men in civilian attire.”

It goes on to report on the commissioning of one of the very first known water-resistant wristwatches, Tavannes Watch Co.’s eponymous Submarine: “Two submarine commanders approached a certain firm, and asked them to consider the construction of a special watch suitable for their work… It must be water-tight; for even when a submarine is on the surface the deck is always more or less awash.”

Depollier Waterproof Watch

This period also saw companies such as Fortis, Gruen and Waltham produce their versions of the first hermetic watches. Of particular interest is Charles L. Depollier, an American, who alongside Auguste Jaques (hailing from Switzerland), was granted a patent in 1916 for a ‘Watch Waterproof Case’ featuring a bayonet-style locking crown.

Believed to be the first water-resistant timekeeper to be produced at scale, Depollier’s design went into production with Waltham as primary manufacturing partner in the shape of the Field & Marine and Thermo watch, respectively. The United States Army Signal Corps, in fact, even placed an order for 10,000 units in 1918. For those interested, Stan Czubernat’s book The Inconvenient Truth About The World’s First Waterproof Watch covers Depollier and his work in far greater detail.

Rolex Oyster 1926

The next big step and a real leap forward in the field of water-resistant watchmaking came in 1926, with the launch of the first Rolex Oyster model and its screw-down crown. Speaking two decades later, Rolex’s Founder, Hans Wilsdorf, said of the era before the Oyster’s release: “In those days, the idea of a watch impermeable to water appeared quite utopian and without future to the majority of manufacturers and technicians”. So, to help promote his new watch and shift the cultural status quo regarding water resistance, Wilsdorf – ever a master in marketing – supplied swimmer Mercedes Gleitze with an Oyster for her record-breaking English Channel swim in 1927.

Rolex Oyster Advert

Newspaper advert for the Rolex Oyster, 1927

And in celebration of both watch and swimmer’s successful aquatic crossing, he took out a full-page advert on the front cover of the Daily Mail newspaper extolling the Oyster as “the wonder watch that defies the elements”. An unbridled success story, Rolex’s Oyster, as we all know, has grown to become the brand’s flagship collection and has developed into something of a cultural touchstone for modern horology in general.

Omega Marine Waterproof Watch
Omega Marine Advert

Cartier followed suit with 1931’s namesake Tank Étanche (French for ‘watertight’) but then, in 1932, Omega’s Marine delivered the final stage in the development of water-resistant watches – the world’s first purpose-built dive watch. Rectangular in shape and employing a spring-loaded double case system to ensure a water-resistant seal, the movement, dial and hands are ‘plugged’ into a protective outer case. Notably, the Marine and namely its outer case employed a sapphire crystal; one of the first instances of the material’s use in watchmaking.

So, while pieces like the Ultra Deep and Deepsea Challenge might make many a collector roll their eyes, the fact is that dive watches have always been fundamental to the development of fine timepieces. Only a handful of people might head down to the Mariana trench, but we’ve all benefitted from the stepping stones to get there. And I’m sure there are still plenty of other untold stories of deep-diving watches out there yet to surface.

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About the author

Alan Seymour

Going from amateur watch devotee and hoarder to freelance journalist, Alan Seymour has been writing about watches since 2005. He’s contributed to the likes of The Telegraph, Sotheby’s, Octane, The Week and more.