Essential Diver and Pilot Watches
By Roberta Naas
CLOCKWISE FROM TOPLEFT: IWC Aquatimer chronograph ($5,600). Levinson Jewelers, 888 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-462-8880; Luminox Scott Cassell Limited Edition Deep Dive Automatic 1525 watch ($2,000). Claudia N, 639 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach, 305-534-5986; Omega Seamaster Ploprof 1200M watch ($9,700). Aventura Mall, 19501 Biscayne Blvd., 305-931-8788; Rolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner Date watch ($34,000). Mayors, 1000 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach, 305-672-1662.
Miamians love diver’s watches due to the lifestyle the sunny South offers,” says Robin Levinson, co-owner of Levinson Jewelers in Fort Lauderdale. “Even if you are not a deep-sea diver, you can still feel safe with a diver’s watch while in the pool or the ocean.” Safety is a key component to any divers’ timepiece. In 1997, the crew of the Mata-Rangi expedition, on a reed boat en route from Chile to Polynesia, encountered a storm, was without radio contact, and was sinking. The crew was equipped with Breitling Emergency watches (with a transmitter built in that broadcasts a distress signal to rescuers), and all were saved thanks to this highly technical timepiece.
Like their aviation counterparts, dive watches are rugged timepieces meant to withstand extremes. The first truly water-resistant watch surfaced in 1927, when Mercedes Gleitze swam the English Channel wearing a timepiece by Rolex. Both emerged unscathed. More than three decades later, another Rolex was strapped to the hull of the bathyscaphe submersible Trieste, and descended 35,800 feet into the deepest accessible point on Earth—the Atlantic Ocean’s Mariana Trench. Again, the watch emerged intact and functional. Over the years, top brands have created watches for elite corps. Panerai supplied the Royal Italian Navy. Tutima worked with NATO to create a special dive watch, and both Jaeger-LeCoultre and Luminox have worked with the Navy SEALs program. The Luminox Navy SEAL watch was introduced in 1994, in fact. More recently, in fall 2011, Luminox released its Scott Cassell watch (named for the counter-terrorism operative and undersea explorer). For its part, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Master Compressor Geographic Navy SEALs watch went on important underwater expeditions just last year.
Of late, the practice of free diving (done without equipment or artificial air) has entered into the world of horology. Austrian Herbert Nitsch broke a world record by diving to 700 feet off the Greek island of Spetses in 2007 while wearing a Breitling. This June, he plans to set the “Breitling Extreme 800 record”—a free dive to 800 feet.
The history of horology has seen houses such as IWC, Oris, Hublot, and Alpina support underwater exploration and other causes to benefit the seas. IWC, which introduced its first Aquatimer watch in 1967, sponsors the Charles Darwin Foundation, while Omega has joined forces with environmental activist and photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand in the making of Planet Ocean, an exploration documentary debuting this June. “It is essential that we, as responsible watch brands, not only equip the divers of the world with the right timepiece instruments for their exploration, but also ensure that there continue to be clean oceans to dive in,” says Stephen Urquhart, president of Omega.
The best dive watches are defined by certain important characteristics. A watch for serious diving must be water-resistant to at least a diver’s International Organization for Standardization (ISO) rating of 200 meters, as well as offer additional underwater functions. Furthermore, most dive watches feature illuminated hands and markers for underwater reading, as well as antiglare crystals on the face. Watchmakers also provide 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, and double-locked bracelet clasps.
Some dive watches indicate bottom time, measure elapsed time, feature an alarm function that can be sensed underwater, or come crafted with interchangeable bracelets or extensions allowing them to be worn over a wet suit. Color, actually, also plays a key role. Red and orange light particles disperse first, turning to gray at a depth of about 30 feet. Yellow lasts longer, and blue remains visible the longest—to depths of up to 300 feet. The right luminescence, therefore, is key. Finally, to withstand extreme conditions, most dive watches are built of rugged materials such as steel, titanium, or gold, while some watchmakers also use high-tech composites including engineering ceramic for cases. In short, when looking for a dive watch, one thing is certain: Function trumps form.
FROM LEFT: Breitling titanium Aerospace watch ($3,340). 19501 Biscayne Blvd., 305-935-9350; breitling.com; Alpina StarTimer Pilot watch ($2,395). King Jewelers, 18265 Biscayne Blvd., Aventura, 305-935-4900; alpina-watches.com; Hamilton’s Khaki Flight Timer ($1,495). Tourneau, Aventura Mall, 305-792-2298; hamiltonwatch.com. Tutima Grand Classic Black Chronograph ($3,700). Carrazza Jewelers, Bahia Mar Beach Resort and Yachting Center, 801 Seabreeze Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-523-5237; tutima.com
In April 1970, America held its breath, waiting to see if the lives of the astronauts aboard the crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft would be spared. Mission Commander James Lovell used his Omega Speedmaster Professional wristwatch to time to 1/10th of a second the firing of the secondary rockets that would take the ship out of lunar orbit and bring it safely back to Earth, earning Omega NASA’s highest distinction: the Snoopy Award.
Since Orville Wright navigated a biplane over the Kitty Hawk sand dunes in 1903, precision timepieces have played a vital role in flight. In 1904, Louis Cartier created a wristwatch for his friend Alberto Santos-Dumont, who needed something easier than a pocket watch while flying his dirigibles around the Eiffel Tower. In the late 1920s, after his celebrated solo transatlantic flight, Charles Lindbergh worked with Longines to create the Hour-Angle watch as a navigational tool, and in 1932, Amelia Earhart wore an Omega wrist chronograph tachymeter on her journey as the first solo woman to cross the North Atlantic by air.
In 1955, IWC developed a method to overcome the effects of magnetic fields by housing the automatic watch movement inside a soft-iron inner case. Other key developments came in the 1940s and ’50s with the introduction of watches such as Breitling’s Navitimer (launched in 1952), which featured a slide-rule bezel used to calculate fuel. Today, several well-known watchmakers are involved in aviation advancements both in space and here on Earth. Tutima sponsors the Tutima Academy of Aviation Safety, while Bremont uses certain of its watches during ejection-seat testing. Breitling sponsors aerobatic aviation, while Omega participates in testing of the Solar Impulse plane. Hamilton, meanwhile, worked with Air Zermatt rescue in Switzerland to create a watch that tracked flights and landings. And the list goes on.
So what exactly constitutes a pilot’s watch? These are rugged instruments housing many necessary emblematic functions, such as COSC-certified chronometry. Examined by the Swiss observatory Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres, these pieces undergo rigorous testing involving such conditions as extreme temperature and changes in gravitational force. In addition to chronometric precision, pilot’s watches are usually antimagnetic, shock-resistant, and offer functions such as compass abilities, slide-rule bezels, and multiple time-zone (or GMT) indication. The most important factor in a pilot’s watch is undoubtedly readability—an issue IWC takes very seriously. For its new TOP GUN Big Pilot and TOP GUN Chronograph watches, the brand optimizes second- and minute-hand visibility, which is especially useful in aviation.
While the concept of synchronizing crew watches to the navigator’s timepiece may have taken a backseat to current cockpit instrumentation, the look and quality of a true pilot’s watch remain steadfast today.
Photography by Kenji Toma