Simon de Burton
Launched in 1926, the Rolex Oyster is widely recognised as being the first properly waterproof timepiece – but it was another 25 years before anyone rose to the challenge of making a commercially available wristwatch that was capable of withstanding the pressure of really deep water as opposed to simply being swim-proof.
True, Omega had given it a try in 1932 with its double-cased Marine, and Panerai is said to have produced the first, fully reliable professional dive watch in 1936 with its Rolex-based creations made exclusively for the Italian navy.
But following the perfection of ‘self-contained underwater breathing apparatus’ (no wonder they just call it SCUBA) in the early 1940s, recreational diving became popular and created a demand for watches with serious water resistance, highly legible dials and some form of elapsed time recorder that would show the wearer when it was time to come up for air.
Having already developed and improved its celebrated Oyster case, Rolex was able to come to the market in 1953 with the first version of its now-celebrated Submariner model (although Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms appeared a year earlier, initially for military use only) and many other makers – such as Jaeger-LeCoultre, Tudor, Longines and, of course, Omega – followed suit with dive-worthy products.
“These watches can be regarded as proper bits of kit”
Especially notable among them was Breitling, which had already established a reputation as a maker of aviation watches, having invented the pilot’s wrist chronograph in 1915. The firm’s association with the sea was all but non-existent though. But the boom in sport diving prompted it to get in on the act in 1957 with the creation of the boldly-named SuperOcean.
By then, Breitling was already experienced in the production of watches with rotating bezels (a diving essential) following the introduction of the Navitimer pilot watch five years earlier. The SuperOcean combined such a bezel with a specially designed case that was water-resistant to 200 metres and a bold dial on which five-minute intervals were marked by highly luminous, arrow-shaped markers.
Before the decade was out, a SuperOcean chronograph had been added to the line-up, and by the 1960s, the range comprised several different versions including a bold (and now highly collectable) chronograph with the bezel’s dive time quadrant being picked out in red, white and blue, vibrant green hour markers and hand highlights, and a nifty window to indicate when the chronograph was operating, since the watch didn’t have a running seconds indicator.
The SuperOcean line has continued to be a big hit for Breitling, so it’s not surprising that it celebrated the 50th anniversary of the original model with the introduction of the Héritage range in 2007.
Things have moved on in the watch world since then however, and Breitling has now upgraded the SuperOcean for this year’s 60th anniversary of the model with an all-new Héritage range, comprising time-only versions with 42mm and 46mm cases and a 46mm chronograph.
The former are fitted with chronometer-certified Tudor movements (the brand recently entered into a movement-sharing collaboration) while chronograph models use Breitling’s own in-house chronometer accurate mechanisms.
Black, blue and bronze coloured dials are available, each with a matching bezel made from scratch-proof, fade-proof high-tech steel and ceramic. There is also a choice of straps comprising ‘rubber leather’, rubber and crocodile, or for the authentic look combined with absolute practicality, there’s an excellent mesh bracelet.
But while the aesthetics may be traditional, the watches are not. With their unidirectional bezels, screw down crowns, anti-glare crystals, luminous dials and water resistance to 200 metres, they comfortably pass the ISO standard dive watch test and can be regarded as proper bits of diving kit.
Which, incidentally, should still be ticking away long after many a high-tech dive computer has been consigned to the dustbin.
The Breitling SuperOcean Héritage line starts at £3,570; breitling.com