The gloves come off

How to review a dive watch.

“The bezel is easy to grip, even with gloves on.” If I have to read (or write) that phrase again in a dive watch review, put a fork in me, I’m done. But the prevalence of that criteria of quality for a dive watch shows just how limiting the concept of a “review” really is. How does one critically assess a watch designed for diving when it’s not really needed for that purpose anymore? Will anyone reading a review really be timing anything, much less a dive, wearing gloves?

I really shouldn’t question the validity or necessity of dive watch reviews since it’s pretty much been my bread and butter for the better part of a decade. A rough calculation leads me to estimate I’ve taken more than 150 different dive watches deep, everything from a Scurfa to a Richard Mille. My rationale for doing so is twofold: people seem to enjoy seeing dive watches being used for their intended purpose, and if a watch company calls something a “dive watch”, someone should hold them to that and test it in that environment.

Other than three or four watches that have leaked (I won’t embarrass them here), they’ve all performed their assigned task almost equally well—tracking elapsed time underwater. So how then to differentiate? It comes down to the finer details, the enhanced features that might make one easier to read in both harsh daylight shallows and murky night dives, or a bracelet extension that adapts to a compressed wetsuit sleeve. But so many dive watches present solutions to problems that don’t exist. I remember diving with an Hublot Oceanographic that bristled with locks over the chronograph pushers and the crown that controlled the inner timing ring. This feature was intended to prevent accidental manipulation that could lead to water ingress. But it also prevented me from being able to time anything after I’d jumped in the water, especially “with gloves on.”

There have been plenty of other watches with similar “features” that actually detract from, rather than enhance the usability. More often than not, these were watches with some sort of bezel lock or protection. Let’s be honest, the Omega Ploprof is clumsy to use, even on dry land, requiring two fingers and a thumb. Those cool Supercompressor-style twin crown divers? I adore the look but adjusting the timing ring with a tiny crown, again “with gloves on”, is a pain. And if you forgot to zero out the bezel before descending, forget it—you risk allowing water into the watch (trust me, it happened once on a 1,000 meter rated piece).

I have this sense that watchmakers are inveterate tinkerers who like to find clever solutions. And over the centuries, that has given us things like automatic winding mechanisms, locking crowns, and perpetual calendars. But there’s something to be said for knowing what is a solution and what is simply added complication. 

I am often asked what is the most important feature of a dive watch. I usually say, tongue partly in cheek: “the strap”. And you know what? It’s true. Think about it, the strap/bracelet is the first thing you handle, it’s what is next to your skin, and it’s what keeps a watch secure on your wrist, whether you’re diving or simply going for a hike. And when I get a dive watch to review, it’s the first thing I notice as I’m sitting there in a thick neoprene or rubber exposure suit, trying to fiddle with a too-short strap or finicky clasp extension. And then after the dive, some of the more complicated clasps (and bezels for that matter) are prone to clogging with sand and grit. Or a tacky rubber that gets clammy and chafes during tropical surface intervals. These are the small details that matter and more often than not, the simpler solution is the better one.

What is not important in a dive watch, to me, is the movement. Assuming it’s robust enough to tolerate a few knocks on a gunwale without getting out of whack, and keeps decent time for, let’s face it, about an hour (most dives aren’t longer than that), any decent Swiss or Japanese movement should do fine. Blancpain, Tudor, Doxa, and countless others used ETA movements for decades of faithful diving service. Keep the caseback solid and give the in-house wizardry and decoration to the haute horlogerie collectors. It’ll also keep prices down (see “Dive watches have lost their mojo”).

The dirty little secret is, when I wear a dive watch diving, I hardly ever even look at it. I wear a Garmin Descent dive computer on my opposite wrist and, in addition to tracking my total dive time, no deco time, decompression stops, ascent rate, and water temperature, it also tracks my heart rate underwater and pins my GPS location so I can find that sunken treasure again next time. It is the Falcon Heavy to the Wright Flyer, if you’ll pardon an aviation analogy. This is not to say that a traditional dive watch isn’t still useful. I can time swim distances for underwater navigation, and surface intervals with the bezel. And yes, it can provide a backup to a dive computer that fritzes out during a dive, assuming you’ve also got a backup depth gauge with you.

For me, the real beauty of a dive watch is simply that you CAN take it diving. To go under the ice, inside a deep wreck or fight a stiff current with a little steel capsule of gears and springs on your wrist still thrills me. My Garmin is a great tool, but when I get back on shore, it comes right off. There’s no romance to it, no nostalgia for adventures past. Sure, it stores a log of past dives but not in the same way a dinged-up Submariner or Seiko beckons you to get back out there when you see it on your wrist come Monday morning. And that’s impossible to capture in a review. With or without gloves on.

Thanks for reading. —JH