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Ascending to New DepthsA history of IWC's Diving Watches

The diving watch is both a mechanical triumph and a social phenomenon. Mechanically, it is a triumph because it represents a great engineering accomplishment although one that appears deceptively simple. Constructing an impervious watch case has been no small feat, and that achievement allowed the wristwatch to evolve both into a scientific tool and a recreational accessory. Because of its popularity, the diving watch has achieved cult status. The diving watch evokes a spirit of adventure – the romance of exploration - that combines with the finesse of watchmaking and the strength of engineering.

IWC was not among the first companies to produce diving wristwatches, but it clearly has been among the best. It has produced engineering breakthroughs in case construction and designs that possess versatility and utility. Its watches have conquered great depths. Yet the story is not concluded, because IWC's new Aquatimers both perpetuate and develop a special tradition.

Early Development of Diving Watches

Much of the genesis of undersea wristwatches began before IWC made its contributions. During the 1920s, engineering advances occurred in the fight against the early enemies of the wristwatch: dirt, water and magnetism. Public acceptance of the wristwatch depended on its reliability. To the extent that a tiny time-keeping instrument, worn on the wrist, could be protected from outside forces it could be accepted.

In the early 1920s, a famous Swiss case maker, 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 fitted within a ring that screwed into the caseframe. While several Swiss companies then used Baumgartner-made cases in the 1920s, they did not seal well at the stem opening. To solve that problem, in 1925 two Swiss watchmakers in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Perregaux and Peret, applied for a Swiss patent in for a screwed stem system.

Accompanied by clever marketing, by the early 1930's the "waterproof" wristwatch gained commercial acceptance. Advertisements showed watches on a swimmer crossing the English Channel. Some store window displays even depicted a wristwatch keeping time submerged in a tank of water.

In the 1940's, diving wristwatches were used by militaries in World War II. The wristwatch had evolved into both a tool and a scientific instrument.

Popular Culture and the 1950s

It was in the post-World War II years that the diving wristwatch became a popular success. After the Great Depression of the 1930s and then the war years of the 1940s, the 1950s ushered in a thriving new decade. There were new business opportunities, new products and new travel. A new age of exploration was born. For many, disposable income and time for recreation became available for the first time. An interest in exploring the world under water naturally followed. In September 1953, Professor Picard descended to a depth of 3,150 meters in a bathyscaphe with a specially-constructed watch strapped to the outside of the capsule. Scuba diving was developed and rocketed in popularity in the 1950s. The explorations of Jacques Cousteau and Lloyd Bridges in television's "Sea Hunt" program heightened the public interest in diving.

The influence of Jacques Cousteau on the popular culture cannot be overstated. A great explorer of the world under water, more than any other person he introduced the public to the romance and the science of diving. During World War II, Cousteau and a French engineer, Emile Gagnan perfected the Aqualung, which allowed a diver to stay under water for hours. In 1950, Cousteau became president of the French Oceanographic Campaigns and also purchased the ship Calypso to further undersea explorations. His films The Silent World and The World Without Sun, from 1956 and 1966 respectively, won Academy Awards as the best documentary productions.

Cousteau also wrote many books and in 1957 he became director of the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco. For eight years beginning in 1968, he produced the popular television series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. In 1974, he started the Cousteau Society to protect ocean life.

This increase in public consciousness about diving was accompanied by the popularity of the diving wristwatch in the 1950s. However, many of the “higher end” Swiss watch manufactures did not emphasize “tool watches” and did not have significant sports lines, at least until the 1960s or 1970s.

IWC’s First Diving Wristwatches

IWC introduced its first true diving wristwatch, the Aquatimer, in the mid-1960s. The earliest construction drawings that have been found for this model, the Reference 812AD, were from November 1966. This watch, re-designated as Reference 1812 in 1974, was notable because it was water resistant to 20 atmospheres or approximately 700 feet. 37mm in diameter, it had three distinguishing visual characteristics: a rotating internal bezel, two crowns, and an engraved caseback. It was powered by IWC’s great automatic movement, Calibre 8541. IWC’s new Aquatimer was first publicly shown at the Basel Fair of 1967, although it is possible that some models may have been unveiled and sold before the Fair.

Today, the Ref. 812AD/1812 is a rare and highly prized collector's item. However, the model had a very conservative design – which today is considered “classic” - and consequently may not have sold well. Even its dial variations were relatively staid combinations of black, silver or white. Apparently, IWC management apparently decided that more dash was needed, and a newer design was introduced.

In March of 1968, less than two years since the official introduction of the first Aquatimer, construction drawings were started for the successor model, Reference 816AD (Reference 1816 from 1974 onwards). This model was more radical in design or, what might be charitably termed, the watch was a product of its times. We need to remember that the ‘60s were the era of the Beatles and bell bottom pants; this new model apparently was intended to fit right in.

Reference 816AD/1816 had colorful dials: red shadow or blue shadow, as well as a traditional black one. It was water resistant to 30 atmospheres or approximately 1000 feet. Like its predecessor, this Aquatimer’s movement utilized IWC Calibre 8541, although a 23 jewel version was used rather than the 25 jewel ones in the Reference 812AD/1812.

Reference 1816 continued for 10 years, including through the quartz onslaught of the mid-1970s that almost vanquished the Swiss mechanical watchmaking industry. It was succeeded by a less frequently found model, Reference 1822. The first designs for this model are from August 1978 and the watch was shown at the Basel Fair in the Spring of 1979. Visually looking like its predecessor, the primary differences were engineering ones relating to case design. This model also was water resistant to 30 meters, but this time its movement was the 25 jewel Calibre 8541 variation. Many are found without the engraved back.

The 1980’s: Porsche Design

The late 1970s were grave times for the Swiss watch industry. Mechanical watches hardly sold. IWC almost closed its doors and the company was sold by its long-time owners, the Homberger family, to VDO, a German instruments manufacturer. Various new strategies were developed, including collaborating with Porsche Design to develop sportier new watches and to target them at a younger market.

In 1980, the late Günter Blümlein became CEO of IWC and expanded the company’s involvement with Porsche Design. Among the significant results from this collaboration was a diving watch, the Ocean 2000. This model, initially Reference 3500, was first shown at the Basel Fair in 1983. However, the first Ocean 2000 probably was made somewhat earlier, since the first ones were labeled "Porsche Design" and delivered directly to Porsche Design in Salzburg for sale using their own distribution network.

The Ref. 3500 Ocean 2000 was a great watch. Modern, classic and clean in design, it was water resistant to a phenomenal 200 atmospheres or 2,000 meters. This was the first commercially-produced wristwatch that could withstand such pressures. An unusually large watch for its era at 42.5 mm in diameter, its case was made of titanium. IWC’s engineering expertise in designing and producing such a housing was unequalled within the Swiss watch industry.

In the late 1970s, F. A. Porsche had the idea of using titanium for a watch case. The metal was contemporary, light, corrosion-proof, hypo-allergenic, relatively non-conductive, and antimagnetic. However, titanium also, unfortunately, was very difficult to fabricate. No titanium watches had been produced in series by any other company. Consequently, IWC developed new fabrication techniques. These included hot forging using sintered steel forms to withstand the high pressures involved. Precise speeds and cooling liquids were required during milling, lathing and drilling.

The Ocean 2000 was a significant accomplishment not only because of its titanium case, but also because its case design produced unequalled water resistance. As mentioned, for the first time a watch could withstand depths of 2000 meters. This required not only special case design and manufacturing techniques, but also a special crystal and glue to hold it in place. The end result was a watch that far exceeded the ability of any diver to descend anywhere close to such depths. This huge margin of safety might be desirable, but it also created a perceived value that translated into marketing appeal.

The original Reference 3500 Ocean 2000 model was succeeded by a Ref. 3504 version, and also smaller Ocean 500 models were produced. These later models, Reference 3503 and 3523, were “only” water resistant to 500 meters, and had a case diameter of 34 mm. The Ocean 500 was frequently marketed, at least in IWC-Porsche Design catalogs, as a ladies’ sports watch.

One of the legendary Ocean 2000 variations was a military model, the so-called “Ocean Bund” that was used by divers in the German military. This highly collectible model was made in several variations. These included a quartz version using IWC Calibre 2250 (References 3314 and 3315), a “standard” military version using ETA-2892 based IWC Calibres 375 and later 37521 (References 3509 and 3529) and a special amagnetic mine-sweeper variation which used a special movement with a beryllium balance (Reference 3519).

The 1990s: Rebirth of the Aquatimer

IWC’s collaboration with Porsche Design lasted twenty years and ended in the late 1990s. By that time, the Swiss mechanical watch industry had regained momentum. Consequently, in the Fall of 1997, IWC introduced a new model line, called “GST”, which was an acronym for “gold, steel and titanium”. These models were shown at the Basel Fair in March 1998, and first in the 1998-9 catalog. Within the GST model line-up was a new diving watch, the GST Aquatimer.

The GST Aquatimer, Reference 3536, was a classic diving watch. Again large at 42 mm in diameter, it was available in steel or titanium, with either a bracelet or a Velcro strap. It also was water resistant to a huge 2000 meters. It was notable for its clean, no-nonsense design and especially its bezel.

Like the Ocean 2000, the GST Aquatimer movement was based on an ETA 2892 base. This time, the movement was IWC calibre 37524 and significantly enhanced by IWC. One magazine, WatchTime, reports that IWC’s changes to the base movement were such that “you could almost describe it as a total revision. Nearly all critical components long the path form the escapement to the mainspring are removed from the movement and replaced with corresponding components from IWC’s own manufacture.” In 2003, the GST Aquatimer’s movement was redesignated as IWC calibre 30110, due to significant changes in finishing, including changing from gold plating to nickel plating as traditionally used in many of IWC’s classic movements.

A very special diving watch within the GST line also was introduced in 1999. This model, Reference 3527, was called the “Deep One” and was the product of especially clever watchmaking and engineering design. Powered by the 36-jewel IWC Calibre 8914, which used a Jaeger LeCoultre base movement, the watch included a unique complication. The Deep One had a mechanical depth gauge that showed the diver how deep he had descended. This unusual complication was achieved by allowing water to enter the case. The water pressure distorted an internal ring that in turn produced an analog depth reading on the dial.

The Deep One was designed to be water resistant to a depth of 100 meters. This of course was not very deep when compared to the water resistance of the Ocean 2000 and the GST Aquatimer watches. Actually, it was “deep enough”: it is recommended that amateur divers not descend more than 30 to 40 meters. The depth gauge on the Deep One only shows depths of up to 45 meters. Some commentators have quipped that the Deep One should have been called the Aquatimer, and actually the GST Aquatimer was the “true Deep One”. In all events, the novel complication produced something to talk about, even though the model was produced only for a short time and in limited quantities.

One aspect of the Deep One that was quickly missed was its design. Its yellow arc on the dial resulted in a distinct sportiness. Its internal bezel recalled the original Aquatimer designs. The watch looked sporty yet engineered –quintessentially IWC. Even more than its unique complication, the Deep One was an especially attractive watch, as well as a bridge to the past.

The 2000s: A Bridge to the Future

The design of the Deep One did not stay dormant for long, since it must have influenced the designers of IWC’s new Aquatimer line. At the same time, the design borrows from the case construction techniques of the Ocean 2000 and the GST Aquatimer. And, of course, the rotating internal bezel harkens back to the original Reference 1812 Aquatimer. In a sense, everything is new, yet nothing is new.

The new Aquatimer models are the culmination of almost 40 years of developing diving wristwatches in Schaffhausen. This is no mean accomplishment because IWC’s engineering standards have always set a higher bar for themselves.

It also is the case that these new models are not simply new dial designs on traditional watches.. The designs are fresh and sporty, yet consistent with a long tradition. But more than being just good designs, these are new watches with new features. The base model, the Aquatimer Automatic 2000 (reference IWC3538), is new because it achieves 2000 meters of water resistance despite two crowns and an internal bezel. The Aquatimer Chrono-Automatic (reference IWC3719) is a diving chronograph. Not content to leave matters there, IWC then has produced a world’s first movement: a minute rattrapante chronograph (reference IW3723). That essentially allows elapsed time to be told by way of the internal bezel, by way of the chronograph or via the minute fly-back hand.

These are real accomplishments. They reflect design, engineering and watchmaking. They pay homage to the explorations of Jacques Cousteau, going in uncharted waters to new depths. These watches push the edge of exploration, combining science with romance. They broaden our universe.

Autor: Michael Friedberg