Monday, September 24, 2007

Watches Under Water

An abbreviated history of the evolution of the water resistant wristwatch
By Michael Friedberg

As the wristwatch evolved in the 20th century from the pocketwatch, its public acceptance in large part may be attributed to improvements in its durability. The early enemies of the wristwatch included water, dust, shocks and magnetism. It was primarily during the 1920s and ‘30s that engineering advances occurred in the fight against these forces. The wristwatches that we know and wear today are products of this evolution.

Rolex and Omega, which today are leaders in the Swiss watch industry, pioneered the fight against water. While some cases were "well sealed" even before 1920, it was Hans Wilsdorf of Rolex who perceived an opportunity and, with astute marketing, made Rolex a world famous brand.

In the early 1920s, a famous Swiss casemaker, Francis Baumgartner, made cases based on a patent by Borgel. The idea involved sealing the case by taking the middle part and threading it on both sides, rotating in opposite directions. The movement and dial then were fited within a ring that screwed into the caseframe. Several companies then used Baumgartner-made cases in the 1920s, including Omega and Longines. However, the Borgel-based cases did not seal well at the stem opening. To solve that, two Swiss watchmakers in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Paul Perregaux and Georges Peret, applied for a Swiss patent in 1925 for a screwed stem system.

Wilsdorf grasped that a hermetically sealed case, together with careful fitting of the crystal and a special stem mechanism, would produce a better wristwatch. He quickly negotiated to have the Perregaux and Peret patent assigned to him. Wilsdorf then obtained a British patent on October 18, 1926.

The Rolex Oyster became a commercial success. In 1927, a stenographer, Mercedes Gleitze, swam the English Channel with the unheard of accompaniment of a wristwatch –the Rolex Oyster— on her wrist for the entire 15 hour, 15 minute, swim.

The ensuing publicity catapulted Rolex to a prominent place in the world of watches. The battle against dust and water had been won. Wilsdorf proclaimed "With this invention, originally made to increase the precision of the Rolex watch, at the same time the first waterproof wristwatch of the world was created. Like an oyster, it could remain in the water a indeterminate time before being damaged."

In 1932, Cartier made a waterproof wristwatch, using a specially screwed crown. The Pasha of Marrakesh said to Louis Cartier " I would like to know the exact time while swimming in my swimming pool." The Pasha achieved his wish and Cartier may have created the first luxury sports watch in the process.

Omega took a radically different approach. In 1932, it debuted the Omega Marine, a watch that basically had one case inside another. In 1936, an underwater researcher, Charles William Beebe, dove to the depth of 14 meters with an Omega Marine strapped to his diving suit. Before the age of scuba gear, Beebe succeeded wearing a huge helmet, weighted boots and tubes leading up to the surface, as well as his Omega Marine.

During World War II, the world's militaries in practice distinguished between special diving watches and those having some water resistance. Divers needed heavily sealed cases and the idea of watches like the Omega Marine did not succeed. Instead, the idea was to have a large watch with a system to seal the crown and stem --the parts of a watch that were especially vulnerable to water. World War II Italian and German Navy divers adopted a different approach, using a well sealed watch that later had a special guard to keep the crown (and stem) flush against the case. Originally, the Panerai watches had unprotected crowns that used the Rolex screw-down mechanism. However, constant winding of these watches caused deterioration of water resistance. Officine Panerai solved the problem by a pressure-lever on the crown; those watches worked at a depth of 30 meters.

Instead, most World War II forces –armies, navies and air forces—used watches that simply had well-sealed cases. The famous "WWW" --wristwatch, waterproof-- of the British forces really just used high quality cases that were well sealed. Many of these even had snap-on backs, rather than tighter screwed backs, like the IWC Mark X. There wasn't a perceived need for great water resistance. Even the legendary Mark XI, which debuted shortly after the war with a screwed back, had British military specifications requiring it to be water resistant to 10 meters.

The ultimate evolution of more water resistant wristwatches may have resulted from clever marketing and a change in civilian lifestyles. In 1954, Rolex debuted its Ref. 6204 Submariner model at the Basel Fair: a dive watch for civilian use. The design was based on Rolex's Ref. 6202 Turn-O-Graph model and over the following decade evolved to look like the watch we know today. The Submariner became an instant success and an instant classic.

The original Submariner, Ref. 6204, did not have Mercedes hands and had many other small differences from the current model. Two years later, in 1956, it was replaced with the Ref. 6538 --the "James Bond" Submariner, which was the first watch rated to a depth of 660 feet. It looked much more like the current model except that it did not have crown guards. Various other evolutionary changes occurred in the Submariner's design over the ensuing decades.

There is some debate regarding whether Rolex produced the first civilian "dive watch" with its Submariner model. Certainly, it debuted a long time after the Omega Marine, but that model was not a great success and perhaps with hindsight can be regarded as a historical anomaly. But in the early 1950s the Submariner had a profound effect on the market. While not unique, the idea of a bezel that could be turned unidirectionally to tell elapsed time became identified with the "dive watch".

There are claims that Blancpain, with its 50 Fathoms model, preceded the Submariner by a few months and was first used in a film made in late 1953. Blancpain successfully marketed its watch with Jacques Cousteau, the famous undersea diver, and later came out with its Aqualung and Bathyscaphe models as well. Blancpain also sold its 50 Fathoms watches for military use, as the German Navy model at right reflects.

The success of these models can be attributed to being right for their times. Professor Picard in September 1953 descended to a depth of 3,150 meters in a bathyscaphe with a watch made by Rolex strapped to the outside of the capsule. Scuba diving was developed and rocketed in popularity in the 1950s.

Omega debuted its first dive model Seamaster, the 300 (which had a water resistance to 200 meters), in 1957 and which used Omega's 20 jewel Cal. 28 SC-501 movement. It redesigned the Seamaster 300 in 1965 and, following that model's success, then introduced many new models -- the Seamaster 120 in 1966, the Seamaster 600 in 1970 and the Seamaster 1000 (with a corresponding 1000 meter water resistance) in 1971.

Even the luxury companies eventually followed suit, at least in their own way. In 1972, Audemars Piguet introduced its Royal Oak model, a luxury sports watch with a nautical theme and porthole design. Patek Philipe soon followed with its Nautilus: again a watch with a nautically-related theme, but certainly not a true dive watch.

Today, water resistance is both taken for granted and perhaps exaggerated in importance. Extraordinary water resistance often is a badge of durability, but in a sense over-engineering arguably may be used as a marketing vehicle. Beginning in the 1970s, some wristwatches had water resistance ratings of 1000 or 2000 meters, yet it is impractical for any human to descend to anything close to such depths.

Dive watches continue to enjoy immense popularity. They are practical, sporty and fun watches. Matching contemporary lifestyles, their popularity is well deserved. Even out of the water, they subtly --perhaps subconsciously-- reinforce the idea of a casual lifestyle.

full article at http://www.worldtempus.com/wt/2/2491

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