We all have different views on what makes the perfect watch, depending on personal taste, lifestyle, and often an appreciation of a particular watch’s history. We have created this quick overview to guide you through some of the key types of watches, from their tell-tale characteristics to how they became so popular.
Deep thinker – the diver’s watch
In 1926, Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf created the first watch that could claim to be ‘waterproof’, as the Rolex Oyster came complete with a screw-down crown, bezel and case back. As you may have noticed, today a watch is measured in water resistance, as no watch can assert that it is waterproof under absolutely any circumstances. Six years on from the Oyster, OMEGA began to create its own diving watches, which would one day evolve into the Seamaster collection. In 1936, Panerai created prototypes for the first military diving watch, and it went into production two years later. The 1953 Rolex Submariner was another landmark timepiece for divers, offering an impressive 100m of water resistance. When the Submariner made an appearance in the first James Bond film, 1962’s Dr No, it increased the appetite for this style of watch right around the world. However, Blancpain had produced the formidable 41mm Fifty Fathoms a couple of months prior to the Submariner, making it (frustratingly for Rolex) the original modern diving watch. Showcasing a rotating bezel and water-resistant to 100m, the Fifty Fathoms came about following a request from a secret agent, and was used by the French military’s combat diving corps.
Following the Second World War, diving became less a military activity and more a recreational sport in its own right, leading to an increase in commercial diving watches. In 1957, Breitling launched the Superocean, breaking another record by offering 200m of water resistance thanks to its one-piece case and locking bezel. Ten years later, Rolex introduced the Sea-Dweller, which was water-resistant to 610m. Its helium valve was a quantum leap in underwater timekeeping, as helium molecules that had penetrated the watch case during a dive could be safely released, preventing any damage.
“Following the Second World War, diving became less a military activity and more a recreational sport in its own right, leading to an increase in the number of commercial diving watches”
Components of a diving watch
Obviously, a water-resistant case is imperative in a diver’s watch. The independent International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) introduced a standard for water-resistant watches in 1990, which is followed by numerous watchmakers including the likes of Oris and Longines. Whether carried out by the ISO or an independent horology house, diving watch cases undergo several stringent tests under serious pressure.
Ever since its introduction on the Sea-Dweller, the helium escape valve has become a crucial element. Prior to its invention, the crystal on diving watches occasionally cracked due to the build-up of pressure. Likewise, a screw-down crown ensures the utmost water-resistance at great depths.
A rotating bezel tells a diver how long they have been underwater by measuring elapsed time. The average bezel will time up to 60 minutes, with markers every five minutes. A unidirectional bezel is particularly useful because, if a bezel is accidentally knocked, it will only move in one direction, leading the diver to surface from the deep earlier than necessary rather than too late. There is little light in the depths of the ocean, making luminescent hands another fundamental component. Many luxury watchmakers use Super-LumiNova, while some brands use their own specially developed paint, such as Seiko’s LumiBrite.
Last but not least, it is imperative that a diving watch has a reliable strap or bracelet. Rubber straps are particularly popular thanks to their light, bold and robust qualities. Alternatively, diving watches presented on a metal bracelet integrate a diver’s extension, enabling the easily adjustable bracelet to fit around your wetsuit.
Listen to our podcast episode discussing the history of diver’s watches here on Calibre Online.
Flying high – the pilot’s watch
The rich history of pilot’s watches spans more than a century. Since 1909, they have been continually refined and perfected by some of the world’s leading manufacturers. They first took off when Louis Cartier created the Santos-Dumont model for his friend, aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont. In November 1906, Santos-Dumont became the first person to be filmed in an airplane in flight – and he wore his Cartier-created watch for the 21.5-second journey. The highly legible timepiece was a move away from the previously Art Deco style of most wristwatches. In 1909, Louis Charles Joseph Blériot wore a Zenith watch when the aviator conquered the English Channel for the first time, propelling not only Zenith’s reputation but also the trend for pilot’s watches.
Another brand which is integral to the development of the pilot’s watch is IWC Schaffhausen. In 1940 it released the Big Pilot’s watch, which it supplied to the German Luftwaffe. It was sizeable (55mm), with a strong focus on legibility. As with diving, the popularity of pilot’s watches continued to grow commercially following the war. The hugely successful Breitling Navitimer chronograph appeared in 1952. Its slide-rule bezel was essentially an integrated flight computer that helped pilots make vital calculations concerning fuel consumption, unit conversion, speed and distance.
Unlike a diver’s watch, there’s no blueprint or checklist for what constitutes a pilot’s watch – but there is a style. In terms of aesthetics, most are very simple (with some exceptions, such as the Navitimer) and will include only the bare essentials, plus luminescent hands for maximum legibility, Arabic numerals, and a triangular index at 12 o’clock to help the pilot with orientation.
The movement of a pilot’s watch often integrates a flyback chronograph, which can be effortlessly reset to its starting point with the push of a button. Many (such as IWC’s Timezoner Spitfire Edition ‘The Longest Flight’) also feature a prominent, easy-to-handle crown – an historical acknowledgement of a time when pilots wore thick gloves. Additionally, many of the watches are anti-magnetic to avoid a loss of precision in a magnetic environment such as an airplane cockpit.
Find out more about pilot watches by listening to our Calibre podcast here.
Racing ahead – the chronograph
The key feature of any racing watch is its chronograph. Chronograph wristwatches began to appear in the early 20th century, and can essentially be used as a stopwatch with stop, start and reset features. The majority of chronograph watches have three subdials. When using the chronograph function, the seconds hand (often sweeping) will indicate the elapsed seconds on the main dial, making it easy to keep track of while driving. Meanwhile, the ‘actual’ seconds – the real time – will appear on a subdial. This is a handy piece of information (and will keep you from wondering why the seconds hand doesn’t seem to be moving on your watch!) The minute subdial will indicate how many minutes have passed since you started the chronograph function. Finally, the hour subdial will indicate how many hours have passed since you started to time yourself. Meanwhile, the dial will continue to display the ‘actual’ time. If that sounds complicated, don’t worry – although the layout can vary, all becomes clear when you use a chronograph watch yourself!
Another complication we can pretty much guarantee you’ll find on a racing watch is a tachymeter scale, which appears on the watch’s bezel or edge. You can use the scale to convert elapsed time (seconds) to speed (per hour). Some (such as Breitling’s Navitimer – see the section on pilot’s watches) even have a special slide-rule tachymeter bezel that can help you make other important calculations, such as working out your fuel consumption.
An example of an iconic and historic chronograph is the Rolex Daytona, which you can read more about here.
Look sharp – the dress watch
Last but not least is the ever-elegant dress watch. If a pilot’s watch has fewer must-have features than a diver’s watch, the dress watch is even more open to interpretation. Dress watches come in numerous shapes and sizes, but thickness is crucial; a dress watch should always fit under a shirt sleeve, and should have a pure, refined, unobtrusive design. With this in mind, one thing to consider when buying a dress watch is the timepiece’s size in proportion to your wrist.
“A dress watch can come in numerous shapes and sizes, but thickness is crucial – a dress watch should always fit under a shirt sleeve”
Unlike the action-packed watches we have looked at so far, the dial will not need to be read quickly, so does not require stand-out features such as luminescent hands or large Arabic numerals. They tend to have simple dials with few embellishments, although some dress watches include features such as the highly desirable moon-phase complication. Dress watches were originally created to be worn with smart clothes – but times have changed, and today they are an extremely popular choice with both smart and casual fashions. The movement of a dress watch also tends to be thinner than that of other calibres, so the watch can achieve a slim appearance. Arguably the most famous dress watch of all time is the Patek Philippe Calatrava: the original model strictly adhered to the ‘form follows function’ mantra, was notably thin (9mm to be precise), and its lugs were smoothly integrated into the three-part case rather than soldered on. Like the majority of dress watches, it is presented on a leather strap.
The Cartier Tank is another classic example of a dress watch, featuring a simple white dial and elegant black Roman numerals, plus Cartier blue sword-shaped hands to add character and charm. Dress watches’ enduring elegance makes them a particularly popular choice as a gift to mark an important life event, such as a graduation or birthday.