This is not a story about Hans Wilsdorf’s Rolex Hermetic, nor is it a story about the Pasha de Cartier, or even the Omega Marine. And it certainly isn’t a story about the Submariner, the Ploprof, or the Radiomir. Those early water-tight innovators and those later dive watch legends have a story of their own. No. This is the story of the less heralded…the poor cousin…the skin diver.
Let’s dive in…
The year is 1943. Imagine, if you will, a young French commando and spy, along with his friend—an engineer with the firm Air Liquide—living in Nazi-controlled France. The spy is an explorer and underwater hobbyist. An aspiring filmmaker, were it not for the war. To pass the time, the two tinker with an automobile gas regulator in the hopes that it will allow them to do something remarkable—breathe underwater. That autumn day in 1943, while the war rages, the young Frenchman wades into the cold flow of the Marne to test their invention for the first time—a test he will attempt with fellow enthusiasts more than 500 times in the next few months.
What does this have to do with a watch, you ask?
There are moments in history that change everything. Some of them are explosions—unforgettable events that define a generation. The dropping of the atomic bomb. The first lunar landing. Others are quiet and unassuming. Like Marie Curie and the discovery of radioactivity. Or, Tim Berners-Lee and the creation of the world wide web.
That spy’s name was Jacques Cousteau. His friend, Emile Gagnan. And their invention…the Aqua-Lung.
Diving had existed in some form for centuries before Cousteau, but the Aqua-Lung allowed divers to operate freely underwater, for an extended period of time, without a tether to an onboard oxygen source. In other words, it brought diving to the masses.
Following the war, the Aqua-Lung was manufactured and sold to amateur divers in France, quickly making its way to enthusiasts in the United Kingdom and as far away as the United states by the early 1950s.
Accidentally, Cousteau had helped spawn the development of a new sport and usher in an era of undersea exploration. Skin Diver magazine launched in the winter of 1951. The term “SCUBA” (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) was coined by Christian Lambertson in 1952. Cousteau’s The Silent World was released to an enraptured audience in 1955, and hard upon the adventure series Sea Hunt, starring Lloyd Bridges, debuted in 1958. The world was suddenly mad about the ocean.
Enter skin divers.
Skin diving, by definition, is the act of diving without the aid of an artificial breathing apparatus. It’s been practiced since the dawn of Ancient Greek Civilization. So, what’s all this about Cousteau and the Aqua-Lung? Well, it’s a bit like those who purchase the Omega Moonwatch with no intent of travelling into space. It’s tickling the dragon’s tail—in a small way experiencing that gloss of danger and adventure that is beyond our reach, a desire to play a small role. People were after the cool factor.
In 1953, in response to growing demand for a reliable method of underwater timing, Zodiac and Blancpain released the first ever rotating bezel, dedicated dive watches at Basel Fair. The Zodiac Seawolf, rated to a depth of 100m, will come to define the archetypical skin diver.
Professional dive watches, such as the Ploprof or the Sea Dweller—only a few years away—conjure images of thick, heavy steel cases, and water resistance of 200, 500, and even 1000m. But not everyone is a professional diver. In fact, most people are not divers at all. And wielding a tank around on your wrist is not everyone’s cup of tea.
This is the middle ground dominated by the skin diver. While there is no official definition of a skin diver, it is generally considered to be a watch with a water resistance rating somewhere between 100 and 200m. Because of the lower rating, it tends to be slimmer and more ergonomic than its professional brethren. Rugged, yet stylish. Early examples often had arched cases with sloping, squared-off lugs which hugged the wrist. They favoured tall acrylic domes with slender, coin-edge bezels. And more often than not, they had large, unprotected crowns. They were sporty, yet elegant, and ran anywhere from 34-38mm in diameter—with a few notable exceptions.
There was a rakish charm about early skin divers. You could almost imagine James Bond surfacing from a clandestine dive into hostile territory and then walking into a tuxedo to sip martinis with a femme fatale without changing having to change his watch. They offered everything you needed for weekend waterside adventures but would slip just as easily beneath a shirt cuff come Monday morning.
Early prototypes of the Seawolf had an elapsed time bezel; however the first production models sported a countdown bezel, before reverting—in the late fifties—to what has become the norm in the dive world. The recent reissue from the Fossil Group—the Super Seawolf 53 Skin–is based on a 1960s release of the Seawolf Datomatic. This watch included a date complication at 3 and iconic triangular indices at 6, 9, and 12. This would be a dial configuration copied by many other brands throughout the 1960s and 70s.
Another seminal design arrived at the end of the 1950s in the form of the Longines Nautilus. Ervin Piquerez, who came from a family of casemakers (and who also ran a very successful bicycle manufacturing business), conceived of the new configuration, which included a bakelight bezel—later deemed too fragile for diving. The compressor case patented by Piquerez used an O-ring seal that made use of the atmospheric pressure underwater and became increasingly watertight the farther the watch descended. Today, enthusiasts are more familiar with the archetypal two-crown version of this case (which employs an internal rotating bezel) and its later design, the Super Compressor, also developed by Piquerez. However, many watchmakers eventually turned to this initial design for their skin divers, including the 1961 Bulova Snorkel. The design would prove so influential that it would eventually cross-pollinate—first in 1968 with Jack Heuer’s racing chronograph, the Autavia Dato, and later with Breguet’s Aéronavale Type 20 and Helmut Sinn’s 103 Pilot Chrono.
However, the case shape that would come to be most often associated with mid-century skin divers would be conceived and refined by the Italian-Swiss firm Squale (based on the Italian—squolo—for shark), who began producing divers in 1959. Though hardly considered a skin diver today (with a rating of 50ATM), the shape of the 1521 typifies the emerging style of the 1960s and 70s. Squales could be found on the wrists of some of the most adventurous freedivers of the era, including Enzo Maiorca and Jacques Mayol. Squale cases could also be found housing skin divers from such diverse brands as Silvana, Elgin, Vetta, Darwil, Eagle Star, Dima, Jeder Mann, and Navzer. Recently, Squale released its Sub 39 commemorating 60 years of watchmaking and paying homage to those early skin divers designs.
Soon other case makers were clamouring to get into the game. The French casemaker Georges Monnin was among the most successful. Monnin designed the first ever diver for Heuer, known as the Heuer 844. The French cases could also be found on the Aquadive brand. New York-based, Swiss Manufacture T.K. (Theordore Kagen) Company also supplied smaller, lesser-known brands around the world with their ubiquitous skin diver cases.
Aside from Monnin, French watchmakers, in general–perhaps through the early influence of Cousteau–rallied around the skin diver. Armand Nicolet was one of the more popular brands. Among other developments, his cases would eventually include an innovation unique to the skin diver: a helium escape valve in the crown. YEMA–a brand recently rejuvenated by the release of its Superman Heritage line– would also produce a number of memorable skin divers.
And, of course, there is that most famous of skin divers, the 62MAS, released by Seiko in 1965. This 37mm diver, with a water resistance of 150m would come to be the watch by which all skin divers would be measured. Seiko released a series of homage watches to the 62MAS in 2020, including the limited edition SLA017, and a more widely released version—the SPB line—in their Prospex series. All have proven to be widely popular.
Back in Switzerland, Jenny–a sister company to Doxa, founded by Gustav Jenny–would elevate the humble skin diver with the creation of its MONOBLOC Caribbean Triple Safe and a ground-breaking decompression bezel design. While the watch had all the style and flair of its brethren, it also laid claim to an incredible 1000m of water resistance–begging the question, “When is a skin diver no longer a skin diver?” Jenny also created iconic designs for the likes of Ollech & Wajs, Aquadive, and Fortis.
Before long every player—both major and minor—had a skin diver in their stable. Bulova, Caravelle, Ricoh, Technos, Tessa, Waltham, Wittenauer, Wolbrook…the list is inexhaustible. In 1961, even Rolex began to give out a skin-diving handbook with the purchase of its Submariner.
The allure of the skin diver is a simple one. The watches evoked a lifestyle of rugged individualism. The subtitle of Skin Diver magazine was originally “A Magazine for Skin Divers and Spearfishermen.” What could be more virile than the image of spearfisherman striding out of the sea with a speargun in one hand, a leviathan slung over his shoulder, and a svelte-looking skin diver on his wrist? It was a shaft of light slanting into the dark heart of post-war suburbia.
However, as the seventies were coming to a close, tastes were again changing. The invention of quartz at the end of the previous decade (another one of those quiet historical events) was quickly taking hold of the marketplace with its slimmer, more accurate, and less expensive offerings. Traditional watchmakers were being pushed out. And the skin diver receded in importance.
That is, until recently.
In the last decade, brands like Oris, Seiko, YEMA, Tudor, and Longines have seized upon a renewed interest in automatic watches—brought on by social media and popular online magazines like Fratello and Hodinkee—and opened their back catalogues with a series of reissues and reimaginings. Some have even resurrected lost brands, like Synchron Group’s renaissance of Aquastar. And, of course, microbrands, such as Lorier, Halios, and Dietrich, have also muscled their way in from the fringes.
While the specs have changed, the style has not. It isn’t difficult to understand the resurfacing of the skin diver now, however. As our world moves ever deeper into the virtual and the sedentary, skin divers offer that same whiff of salt sea air and the illusion of adventure they always did. At the office, with a skin diver on wrist, you might well glance down and dream of weekend crusades and outdoor escapades. And who knows? Once you’ve got the right gear, you cannot predict what feats to which you’ll rise. As Tennyson famously wrote, “Come, my friends, ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and…smite the sounding furrows…”
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