Anyone familiar with the story of how English watchmaker John Harrison devoted his entire life to creating a timepiece that would allow mariners to calculate their position at sea will have some notion of the romance watchmakers have for the ocean. Their ardor, however, has not exactly been returned. Water may be the worst practical enemy a watch can have, something anyone who has ever ruined a watch in a swimming pool can readily tell you. There are few more disheartening sights than that telltale glimmer of condensation on the inside of your crystal, letting you know that things inside are far from well.
The first timepieces produced expressly for seafaring pursued the safest possible course—avoiding water at all costs. Early marine chronometers were protected by stout wooden boxes and suspended inside by a system of gimbals, which kept the timepiece in the same horizontal position, even in ships tossed by heavy seas. The utilitarian design of early marine chronometers continues to inspire modern wristwatches. The most faithful replicate the original look of these timepieces, with subdials for power reserve and subsidiary seconds at 12 and 6 o’clock. Other models, however, have adapted the dial layout for different functions, such as chronograph counters, while retaining a nautical air.
Watches remained vulnerable to direct contact with water until the Rolex Oyster established itself as the first truly immersible model in the 1920s. Since then, water-resistant watches have evolved from specialty items, like the original Panerai models for Italian naval commandos, to the classic dive models of the ’50s that project a sense of style while combining practical features like luminescence and a turning bezel. Reissues of these models continue to excite watch collectors whether or not they venture near the water. Many of the ultramodern diving watches are driven by a much different design ethos. Serving the ideal of extreme performance, these pieces make almost a fetish of the depths to which they are capable of descending, with suggestively bulky dimensions and exotic features that will take them far beyond the physical limitations of their owners’ bodies.
Despite the space-age looks and hull-crushing depth ratings these timepieces offer, there is still a considerable amount of work to be done in creating a truly amphibious timepiece. Even the most vaunted of today’s deep divers still rely on a system of rubbery O-rings, as in the early models. While these rings create an adequate seal under slowly and evenly increasing pressure (the same way they are tested), many of them fail in more chaotic real-life situations, such as might be experienced going off a diving board. Even seemingly innocuous pressure events continue to befuddle watch engineers. “We can make a watch watertight at 3,000 meters,” says one such developer at a prestigious Swiss firm. “Our main headache is the gentleman who wants to take his watch into the Jacuzzi.”