8 Specialty Diver and Pilot Watches
By Roberta Naas
Today’s maritime and aviation timepieces are precise instruments designed and tested to withstand the pressures of both high altitudes and tremendous depths. Many top watch brands have developed features necessary for pilots and divers alike. The phrase “just in the nick of time” is one with real meaning when it comes to these specialized watchmaking fields.
Travel and gear-review writer Jason Heaton never dives without the right watch. Says Heaton, a PADI-certified rescue diver, “There’s a saying in the dive world: Two is one, and one is none,” he says. “If you have two pieces of equipment, it’s like having one, and if you have one, it’s like having nothing. Anything can happen to a single instrument. You always need backup, and for me that is a great dive watch.” Heaton has experienced life-changing adventures with quality instruments from IWC Schaffhausen, Rolex, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Omega, and Doxa. Since underwater navigation is tricky, using the watch to clock distances and durations helps with navigation and air-tank management. According to Heaton, the most important feature is a one-way ratcheted bezel for tracking elapsed time. In keeping with International Organization for Standardization (ISO) dive standards, he recommends the watch be water-resistant to at least 100 meters and have minute and hour hands that look distinctively different from each other.
Watchmakers incorporate features that render these pieces ultra water-resistant and diver-friendly, including double- or triple-locked winding crowns, additional gaskets, helium escape valves, silicone O rings, extra-large crowns, graduated one-way rotating bezels that measure elapsed time underwater, illuminated hands, antiglare crystals, and double-locked bracelet clasps.
“When looking for a diver’s watch, look at the strap. It’s good to have a rubber or Velcro strap that fits over the suit, or a quick-change bracelet,” says Heaton. “Divers also want a bezel that turns easily enough to set. Luminescence is also important, because you need to tell time under water, and finally, since big, clunky watches can get hung up on gear, a lower-profile watch is better.”
Some timepieces indicate bottom time, measure elapsed time, feature an alarm that can be sensed underwater, or offer interchangeable bracelets or extensions enabling them to be worn over a wet suit. Color of luminescence also plays a key role: Red and orange turn to gray at a depth of about 30 feet; yellow can be seen a little longer, while blue stays visible up to 300 feet.
Finally, to withstand extreme conditions, most dive watches are built of materials such as steel, titanium, or gold, with some brands also using high-tech composites such as engineered ceramic for cases.
Of late, free diving (diving without equipment on a single breath of air) has gained popularity. Herbert Nitsch achieved record-setting status when he dove to a depth of 700 feet off the Greek island of Spetses in 2007. Nitsch wears a Breitling during his long, single-breath dives, and in a few months he will attempt to set the Breitling Extreme 800 record, free diving to 800 feet.
In 1997, the crew of the Mata-Rangi expedition, en route from Chile to Polynesia, encountered a violent storm and lost radio contact. The crew members survived because they were able to broadcast a distress signal built into their Breitling Emergency watches.
The first truly water-resistant watch surfaced in 1927, when Mercedes Gleitze swam the English Channel wearing a Rolex. Thirty-plus years later, another Rolex was strapped to the hull of the bathyscaphe Trieste submersible, which descended 35,800 feet into the deepest accessible point on earth: the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench.
Over the years, top brands have created watches for elite water-bound corps. Panerai supplied the Royal Italian Navy; Tutima worked with NATO to create a special dive watch; and both Jaeger-LeCoultre and Luminox worked with the Navy SEALs program. The latter’s SEAL watch was introduced in ’94; more recently the label released its Scott Cassell watch, named for the counterterrorism operative and undersea explorer. For its part, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Master Compressor Geographic Navy SEAL watch went along on important underwater expeditions just last year.
Brands such as IWC Schaffhausen, Oris, Hublot, and Alpina have supported underwater exploration and preservation. IWC Schaff-hausen—which introduced its first Aquatimer watch in 1967—is a sponsor of the Charles Darwin Foundation, while Omega joined forces with environmental activist and photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand for the making of Planet Ocean, a documentary debuting this June. Says Stephen Urquhart, president of Omega, “It is essential that we, as responsible watch brands, not only equip the divers of the world with the right instruments for their exploration, but also ensure there continues to be clean oceans to dive in.”
photography by kenji toma
Fashion shoot: December 2013 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.