The realm of the premium dive watch is surprisingly sparse. Value-conscious divers have been an enormously popular part of so many brand’s strategies in the last few years; swimming in these waters is the preserve of horology’s biggest fish (plus a few eccentric indies). As you’d expect, that includes the brands that were there at the dawn of the dive watch: Rolex, Blancpain and Panerai.
Being expensive is no guarantee of excellence, however, and you may note a couple of high-profile absentees from this list – brands whose dive offering just doesn’t stand out in this company, or works just fine on a technical level but needs a design rethink. Innovations (or gimmicks) like depth gauges have been left behind for now, so these are just good looking, well built, luxury divers. Perhaps controversially, they’re not all ISO-certified, but they must have at least 100m water resistance and, shall we say, a diving ethos at heart.
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There’s no chance you shop for this watch against any of the others on our list; the Royal Oak Offshore Diver is a proposition all of its own and it knows it. We like that it’s basically the acceptable face of the Offshore – slimmer, simpler, more restrained – even though that is naturally a paradox in its own right. It’s water-resistant to 300m, the inner bezel rotates via the screw-down crown at 10 o’clock, and the watch comes with a yellow rubber strap should you prefer (no quick-swap system though).
Blancpain was there at the beginning for dive watches (the Fifty Fathoms was launched in 1953) but today, the FF has become something quite glossy and overblown (although the various special editions, like this year’s Barakuda are pretty cool). The original Bathyscaphe was unsuccessful, but now to our eyes is the more authentic diver. Certainly it’s the better equipped, with a fully ceramic case and bezel, although dive watches really don’t need sapphire casebacks. It’s 43.6mm wide, 13.8mm thick and good for 300m depth.
Very late to the retro-diver party, Glashutte Original’s SeaQ is a near-identical rebirth of a late sixties GUB model, the Spezimatic Type RP TS 200. It’s well sized at 39mm, boasts an in-house movement and 200m water resistance. As ever with GO, you have to steer carefully through the range: don’t go for the (even) more expensive Panorama Date and we’d also avoid the two-tone luminova of the SeaQ 1969. As it is, you may have some feelings about spending £7,000 on a largely unheralded diver, but we’ve kept it in because we like the looks, it’s well made and wears comfortably on its textile strap.
Few things manage to be both mammoth and delicate like a Grand Seiko dive watch. There’s no getting around the fact that at 46.9mm wide and 17mm thick this is a big chunk of a watch (albeit titanium-cased), and fittingly it’s water-resistant to 600m. But because it’s Grand Seiko the dial is micron-perfect (as well as being made from solid iron for anti-magnetic protection), with intensely fine polishing to every surface. Inside is a high-beat 5Hz movement – not something most divers bother with – and it’s good for 55 hours.
Despite marking the 50th anniversary of a classic dive watch, the new gen Polaris Memovox is more desk-diver than rugged tool watch (no crown guards; beautifully polished case; endearing yet somewhat extraneous alarm function). The faux-aged luminova reinforces the impression, but makes the overall look warmer and less stark. Only 1,000 pieces exist, so it’s the one to bag for bragging rights, but the less expensive basic Polaris is also well worth a look. Water resistance is 200m.
Most of the Seamaster 300M range comes in comfortably under £5,000 but 2019 has seen it edge into higher budget territory with an all-ceramic addition. You may remember the Planet Ocean Deep Black collection from 2016; this can be seen as a sleeker, smarter, cheaper alternative (for a saving of £2,400 you sacrifice some water resistance and a GMT function) as well as a pricier version of the hard-to-fault stainless steel 300M Diver. It’s a shame the diameter had to increase to 43.5mm, but dropping the date window was a nice touch.
This was probably the hardest choice to make – whittling down Panerai’s large range of divers to one watch. Even restricting ourselves to the newly-standalone Submersible range, choice abounds: we love the Mike Horn limited edition and you can choose between a wide array of materials, sizes, functions and finishes. The PAM00799 seems to tick a lot of modern boxes – BMG-Tech case, Carbotech bezel, dash of stylish colour – yet remains quintessentially Panerai. Vitals: 300m deep, 47mm wide, in-house 72-hour P.9010 calibre.
Ok, come at us, we know a Patek Philippe is not exactly begging to sink beneath the waves but let’s face facts: most dive watches never go near the sea. The entry-level Aquanaut is admirably simple: 40mm, 120m water resistance, a tropical composite strap apparently chosen for its resistance to UV and salt water. We prefer the colourful looks of the 5168G but couldn’t in good faith include a white gold watch on the list – think of the scratches! – although you will probably have more luck getting on the waiting list.
The Ressence Type 5 is a real outlier; you will struggle to spend more on a watch that’s genuinely intended for immersion, and it looks nothing like a traditional diver. But it has a titanium case, heavy-duty straps, a lockable gasket for the caseback setting system and the party piece, an oil-filled dial for perfect legibility underwater. The cleverness just bounces off every surface. Actual water resistance is a bit low, at 100m, but as ever, you have to ask why you honestly need more.
That’s right. No Submariner. There’s obviously nothing wrong with the venerable 114060 Submariner no-date, but last year’s update gave the Sea-Dweller 126600 a new movement (calibre 3235, with Chronergy escapement and 70 hours power reserve) and a slightly streamlined design – although clearly, 43mm diameter and 1,220m water resistance still makes for a whole lot of watch. For the sheer hell of it, the markings on the ceramic bezel are coated with PVD platinum.
The Ronseal factor is high with the Ulysse Nardin Diver. You get a sturdy steel case, chunky, faceted hands and hour markers, a rotating bezel with thick teeth that even the most butterfingered could not fail to operate and water-resistance up to 300m. For all that, however, it brings out the desk diver in us: something about the gold detailing, the texture on the bezel inlay and the colour-matched date wheel says “I could get wet, but I’ve just done my hair”. Similarly, it looks cracking on a Milanese mesh, although more dive-friendly straps are on offer.