Diving wristwatches are among the most popular sports watches for collectors and casual wearers alike. Their chunky styling suggests ruggedness and an ability to withstand the elements, which, in fact, a water-resistant watch must do.

It’s not just resistance to water that defines a dive wristwatch—lots of watches can get wet without suffering ill effects. To be classified as a diving wristwatch, the timepiece must function normally at a depth of 100 meters (most modern dive watches are rated for 200-300 meters); its dial must be readable in pitch-black conditions; and it must survive shocks, corrosion from seawater, and exposure to magnetic fields.

The Rolex Oyster of 1926 is considered by many to have been the first waterproof wristwatch, if not the first certified dive wristwatch. The wristwatch was given a serious test (and garnered much publicity) in 1927 when a young stenographer named Mercedes Gleitze wore a Rolex Oyster when she became the first British woman to swim the English Channel.

Omega introduced the Marine in 1932, which was certified to 135 meters in 1937. For some, this is the first true dive wristwatch. Around the same time, Panerai began work on 300 diving wristwatches for the Italian Navy. The Panerai Radiomir, as it was called, featured a Rolex movement and was designed for use by frogmen commandos. Like the Rolex Oysters, the Radiomirs had a cushion-shaped case, and their oiled-leather straps were long enough to be worn on the outside of a diving suit.

The 1940s were also a busy time for Omega. In addition to making watches for the military during World War II, Omega introduced its Chronomètre in 1942. This handsome, highly accurate wristwatch had a silvered dial, Arabic numerals, and black wire hands. Best of all, its stainless-steel case was water-resistant.

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Panerai continued to produce wristwatches for the Italian Navy in regular and destro (left-handed) versions. Some watches from this period were known as Trittico watches, thanks to their trio of features, which included a depth gauge.

Panerai also made Kampfschwimmer watches, some with so-called California dials (numbers on the bottom, Roman numerals on the top), for Germany’s only postwar commando unit. And i...

Jaeger-LeCoultre introduced several diving wristwatches in the late 1950s, including the Geophysic Chronometer. Jaeger-LeCoultre also made a waterproof version of the Memovox called the Deep Sea Alarm in 1961. Meanwhile, competitor IWC released its water-resistant Aquatimer in 1967.

Indeed, the 1960s were a vibrant time for dive wristwatches. Doxa came out with the Sub 300T (300 is the number of meters it was rated for), which featured a U.S. Navy air-dive table on its bezel to aid divers. Even more helpful was the wristwatch’s brilliant orange dial, which was designed for divers in dark, potentially life-or-death conditions.

Divers loved the Doxa, which was embraced by U.S., British, French, and Polish naval forces. So successful was the orange-colored dial that Doxa added a few more models, including the silver-dialed Searambler and yellow Divingstar.

But Rolex was not about to give up its status as a key maker of dive wristwatches. One of its most collectible vintage military dive wristwatches is from the 1970s, the Rolex 5517 Submariner, which Rolex produced for the British Royal Navy. Only about 1,200 of these watches were produced, and perhaps only a few hundred of those survived. For serious dive-wristwatch collectors, a 5517 is often the centerpiece of a collection.

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