In 1953, Swiss brand Blancpain released the first purpose-built dive watch. Built to specifications laid out by the French Navy’s combat swimmer unit, it was dubbed the Fifty Fathoms, a reference to the depth thought to be the deepest a diver could safely go using scuba gear, around 300 feet. A few years ago, Blancpain, still in the business, released a new version, the 500 Fathoms, rated for an abyssal depth of—you guessed it—3,000 feet.
This is roughly three times farther below the surface of the sea than the deepest scuba dive on record. And Blancpain is hardly an outlier: every other notable maker of dive watches now pushes models capable of tolerating water pressure that no human will ever be able to tolerate without a submarine. Why? The full answer invites a look back at the origins of diving itself.
In the early years of underwater exploration, divers wore bronze helmets, surviving on air that was pumped down to them from the surface through a gurgling hose. With the invention of the aqua-lung, the world’s first scuba system, in the 1940s, divers were free to swim untethered, but also had to keep track of how long they were breathing compressed air to avoid the bends. Initially, dive watches were simple tools—sturdy steel timepieces with big dials and rotating rings. Their water resistance was owed to multiple rubber gaskets, thick glass, and screw-down crowns. They were tested to 100 meters (just over 328 feet) of depth, though that was soon doubled for a healthy measure of safety, despite the fact that no one dared drop below 100 feet.
The 200-meter depth ratings remained the industry standard through the early 1960s, with almost every major brand from Switzerland and Japan releasing a dive watch. Bulova boasted slightly more capability, cagily rating its dive watches to 666 feet (203 meters) and giving them the nickname “Devil Divers”. But by the middle of the decade, a new breed of military and commercial adventurers were heading down to several hundred feet and brands responded with watches rated to 600 meters. In 1968, the Swiss brand, Jenny, introduced the first 1000-meter watch, calling it the “Caribbean”. Its thick, oversized case, domed glass, and decompression scale bezel presented a bold look that defied its breezy name. This was the heyday of scuba—The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau was on television and recreational diving was booming. Chunky watches had become symbols of derring-do and wearing one in daily life that could go down, down, down said something about your character, even if only a tiny percentage of elite professionals ever went below 100 feet.
This attitude persists today, spurring luxury brands to develop watches like Blancpain‘s 500 Fathoms, the 3,000-meter rated Breitling Avenger Seawolf, and the king of the deep, Rolex’s Deepsea Sea-Dweller, with its 3,900-meter rating. Never mind that new scuba divers are certified to a depth of 60 feet, most advanced divers max out at 130 feet, and the deepest dive on record is 332 meters. We apparently need watches that exceed the crush depths of modern nuclear submarines, which implode below 400 meters. On James Cameron’s 2012 trip to the deepest point on Earth, the 35,000-foot Marianas Trench, a prototype Rolex watch was strapped to the outside of his submersible. Seiko works with the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology to test its dive watches on remotely operated vehicles, proudly announcing their functioning at almost double their rated depth before the glass is deformed enough to press on the watch hands.
The truth is, a 100-meter rating is still perfectly adequate for a dive watch, just as it was more than 60 years ago. This is why it’s the international standard.
So why do watch brands keep developing extreme models? And why do we keep buying them? Marketing and bragging rights. It’s the same reasons SUVs are popular in the suburbs and Arctic-ready parkas are abundant on the streets of Manhattan. They’re symbols of capability and readiness, providing a sense of security and ruggedness in an era of so much planned obsolescence. Even if you’ll never go deeper than a reef snorkel, it’s nice to know your watch could, just in case.