French Diving Watches of the 1960’s and 70’s – PART I

In Part One of this review, we look at the phenomenon of the rise in popularity of diving watches and why they are so popular nowadays. In Part Two, we formulate some lifehacks for choosing vintage ‘divers’ that look and feel good on the wrist.

Reglex, Sokado, Isoma vintage diving watches
Typical diving watch features of the 60’s and 70’s are the rotating bezel, improved contrast dial readability, lume paint on the hands and numerals.

Part I

The Modern Popularity Factor

Why are watches with ‘underwater DNA’ more attractive to many than their ‘dress’ counterparts? Bulky, edgy shapes, and bold contrasting designs make ‘divers’ more eye catching pieces. Plus, they are not afraid to get wet, and in general it is an impressive challenge to ensure the operation of fragile mechanics at a depth under water. Diving watches also have a nice tactile gadget component – you can rotate the bezel, and play with the protected screw-down crown, metal bracelet and buckle.

Today, flagship models that catch the interest of wealthy clients are the Rolex Submariner, the Patek Philippe Nautilus, and the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Prices for these models are clearly over the average market level, and even with a sufficient amount of money, it is not easy to get one on your wrist – the waiting lists are scheduled for up to one and a half years, and auction rates for particularly interesting models can reach £300k – 500k and above.

Top luxury ‘Divers of the 21st Century (images from official catalogues).

Of course, the design of the modern diver has significantly moved away from the traditional (with the exception of Rolex, who are stuck in the 60’s), however they still have the same underwater DNA.

Diving watches are now breaking auction sales records, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg in the rich and fantastic history of these timepieces. But where is the current interest and demand for diving watches coming from? Let’s try to figure it out.

The Diving Boom of the Sixties

The first wristwatches with significant water protection began to appear in the 1920’s. There is a lot to say about this – the designers have come on a long and difficult journey. However, to put it shortly, the underwater watch remained a purely instrumental device until the end of the 1960’s, unintended for everyday civilian wear.

Here, we could mention nice professional models like the Omega PloProf, ZRC Spirotechnique, Triton, Rolex Submariner or Blancpain Fifty Fathoms – but the original first issues of these models are extremely difficult to find, and the amounts you would need to be prepared to pay are sometimes crazy.

Omega PloProf, USSR Zlatoust vintage diving watches
Early Divers: Omega PloProf 1 (read more on Monochrome Watches), Zlatoust-USSR, Omega PloProf 600.

We will not dive deep on this topic. Firstly, these are instrument watches, not comfortable for real daily wear. These products are not intended for the mass consumer, and only remain in use by professional divers. In the 1960’s, few people were even aware that such watches existed. Secondly, the mass popularity of the underwater watch theme was inherited from daily wear ‘skin divers’, made in a convenient format and a variety of bold designs. Therefore, let’s move on to ‘civilian’ diving watches, those that really made the diving watch entity famous.

Suddenly, from the second half of the 1960’s, a whole mass culture of underwater watches rapidly developed! The highest concentration of the boom was observed in France, but it also affected Switzerland, Germany and USSR (the main players on the board of the global watch industry). However, the concentration and diversity of French diving watches dwarfed all other countries. Hundreds of small brands produced dozens of unusual watch models with water protection and in a wide variety of styles.

STAINLESS STEL BACK, vintage watch case backs
Typical caseback patterns of French diving watches – Diver with a fish (ANJAX), a Warship (FRESARD), and plain signatures in French for more expensive full-steel body cases (GEWA).

What Does Cousteau Have to do With It?

The underwater exploration of the world’s oceans by Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s diving team certainly played an important role in popularising the diving watch in France. Starting in the late 1950’s, members of Cousteau’s team tested progressive underwater watch models in real underwater conditions. Most importantly, the equipment for diving also underwent major improvements. In the 60’s, scuba diving left the military-scientific framework, creating more opportunity for the middle-class to enjoy amateur and recreational underwater activities.

Diving popularity in advertising posters and book covers
Covers and Posters of the 1960’s – skin diving popularity is all around in advertising, cinema and books.

In just a few years, scuba diving was becoming super fashionable. By the mid-1960’s, scuba gear such as wetsuits, underwater cameras, and underwater watches were at the height of popularity. Waterproof watches were sold on shelves next to scuba gear and underwater equipment, usually from unknown brands, yet still of highly reliable quality.

Doxa vintage advert
DOXA Watch Advertising in the 1960’s (Source: Monochrome Watches).

The image of the ‘ugly’ bathyscaphe-man in a heavy suit with a copper helmet was transformed into a smart, modern water-lover in the company of young beauties and wonderful sunny weather. Spy novels, detective novels, and popular films – the world of scuba diving was everywhere!

Scuba set, Skin diver

The Colour Revolution in Polygraphy

In contrast to the monochrome tones of the 1940’s and 50’s, the news stands of the 60’s were filled with full-colour magazines. The sixties brought with it a unique period of bright soft shades that are difficult to confuse with anything else – the craving for colourful expression is captured in the designs of clothes, furniture, and household items. Even the colours of the cars started to change from post-war black and khaki, to new beige, blue, red, yellow and even orange! Of course, a riot of colours also broke into 1960’s watch designs.

Following the pop culture trend, dozens of brands started to spring up in the French watchmaking world, producing lightweight civilian underwater watches for swimming and skin diving. French taste was involved in these new designs, and new ideas began to be formed about the diver’s watch as a convenient item for daily wear, and not strictly as just a professional tool for an underwater explorer.

Coloured vintage dials BOSCH, JAZ, LES ROUTIERS vintage watches
Typical coloured French Diver examples: BOSCH Octo bezel, JAZ GMT WorldtimerLES ROUTIERS – A Purely French Product of the 60’s-70’s.

Proudly Made In France

By the 1960’s, a completely independent and original production of watch movements and components had matured in France. The traditional centre of watchmaking was the city of Besançon, while the most famous manufacturers of movements are France Ebauches, LIP, Lorsa, Cupillard, Hippolyte Parrenin, and Jeambrun.

France Ebauches, LIP, Lorsa, Cupillard, Hippolyte Parrenin, and Jeambrun

Even a small engineering and design firm (for example, a manufacturer of underwater equipment) could quickly start producing watches under its own brand. Small brands had plenty to choose from both in terms of features and quality from French suppliers.

Plenty of French and European micro-brands instantly emerged with diving/swimming watch assortments – AMSA, ARCY, ACTION, AIRIN, ADORA, ADMIRA, ANDRE RIVALLE, ALFEX, ANJAX, AURORE, AVELTA, AVYSTYLE, ALTIMATIC – this list of unfamiliar names seems endless, these just names started with ‘A’.

The Quartz Crisis of the 1970’s

Here, it is important to mention that, parallel to this boom in the popularity of ‘divers’, the ‘quartz crisis’ was impending on the watch industry. New and cheap high-precision quartz and electronic watches were beginning to replace traditional mechanical ones. Watchmakers resisted, and movement manufacturers saved as much as they could, but in the end it came to using simplified movements without ruby ​​stones and shockproof devices, often of terrible quality.

In watch design, traditional mechanics were also trying to maintain their positions. Designers began looking for ways to catch the buyer, not by the strings of tradition, but by captivating them with a new, bright and dynamic design. It turns out unexpectedly, wonderfully, and sometimes even defiantly, that now the most strange models are the most valuable and desirable among collectors.

What About the Swiss Giants?

If we exclude Rolex, the diving boom mostly passed by the top Swiss manufactories, each brand releasing one or two models, yet remaining in an expensive price segment far beyond the scope of mass demand.

The price stratification from ‘popular’ brands draws the Swiss Giants even deeper towards the classics and away from the elegant experiments of the mass market. From the 1960’s to the 1980’s, top Swiss brands simply continued to make gold flat rounds, paying no particular attention to the ongoing colourful sea-sun-scuba-watch festival going on right outside.

Nevertheless, a couple of interesting models still managed to emerge – Audemars Piguet Royal Oak (first issue 1972) and Patek Philippe Nautilus (first issue 1976), the watches with which we started our review. For a period they remained rather strange elite priced models compared to the rest of the market, and were not well received against the background of the rest of the diving varieties, but today they are breaking records in sales and auctions.

Mid-Range Swiss Watch Brands

Mid-range Swiss brands have laid claim to their part of the hype. Omega, for example, began to call almost all of their models by the name ‘Seamaster‘, even simple classic watches with basic water resistance. Tissot, Longines, Heuer, and other serious mid-range Swiss brands were also actively involved in the market, but were not focused on the public, and rather more on competition with professional underwater models such as the Submariner, PloProf, Dodane / Airain Triton, ZRC Spyrotechnique, Aquastar, Doxa, Yema, etc.

Omega Seamaster, Temporis 200m, Longines Super Compressor watches
Omega Seamaster 300 from 1962 (photo Bespoke Unit), rare caseback Temporis Swiss, Longines Super Compressor 1961 (photo source WannaBuyAWatch).

Vintage professional diver models, and even civilian models with ‘diver DNA‘ are now valued at much higher than ordinary vintage watches.

What to Choose and What to Look For

Inexpensive diving watches are exactly what were sold in sports and diving equipment stores in the 60’s and 70’s. Not luxury and top brand items, but mid-level products, often by completely unknown and just emerged brands. During this period, these watches were used not as accessories, but as real instruments for controlling diving time, and they should be considered this way today.

Vintage divers can be found at flea markets and auction sites, but famous models are extremely rare, and their prices are usually 5-10 times higher compared to ordinary watches of a similar brand and class.

Airain Dodane automatic 30 Rubis diving military watch
A happy flea market catch – AIRAIN / DODANE French diver, stainless steel automatic with rare Triton crown type. Hence the case is civil type, strong military/diving DNA is seen here.

Vintage models from mid-level brands, for example the old Seamaster Professional or Longines Super Compressor, are an excellent choice, being a convenient option for every day wear, and can range from £5000 and above. Even a model from a lower tier brand like Eterna, EDOX or Baume with swimming features (phosphor, large hands, bezel, threaded crown, scuba diver on the lid) will cost a significant amount, and you’ll be lucky if you find something really good at £1500.

Of course, everyone wants to find a Rolex Submariner from the 60’s, the first Royal Oak , or the original radioactive Panerai from the 1950’s. But how much money will these timepieces cost? We started our review with affordable popular watches, which are nice and comfortable for everyday wear. And when it comes to these watches, is not there also an added sense of joy and feeling of freedom from wearing something that could be devalued by several thousand pounds from just an accidental scratch? We will provide more leads to choose something good in PART TWO of this review.

The Skin Diving Boom Legacy

The fascinating historical background of the Skin Diving Boom has left us with a legacy of deep and widespread appreciation for diving tools. That’s why almost any timepiece with ‘Marine’ or ‘Diving’ DNA beats its dress mate.

There is such a wide variety of underwater watches from dozens of brands and manufacturers, with the most diversity mainly observed on the French fields (beaches :). Although for mass-produced items the situation wasn’t good, particularly for a lot of the lowest quality class watch brands and especially ‘economy’ class ones, as many were affected by the Quartz Crisis – never to recover.

SMOKE, GEWA, TEKEL, FRESARD, JOPEL vintage watches
French vintage diving watches: (YEMA sub brand).

In the PART TWO of this article, we will cover which of the French diving watch brands are real rubbish, and which are worthy of serious attention. As well as how to find a masterpiece that will delight both your wallet and your eyes.

If you have any questions or suggestions please feel free to contact via e-mail german.polosin@gmail.com.

To be continued…. enjoy French diving watches!

German Polosin, April 2021, translation by Phoebe Chase

P.S. Don’t forget to check out the vintage diving watches in our collection !

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