When one thinks of a dive watch, the image that usually comes to mind is that of a round steel case, rotating bezel and a black dial with three prominent hands. This conception is based on certain archetypal timepieces that have woven their way into our collective horological unconscious — a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms or Rolex Submariner. But at some point, these design elements were groundbreaking and sensational, even as the watch itself was when it first descended beneath the surface of the sea. It takes a lot to break the mold of what a dive watch can be, often to the point of absurdity, and in the past 60 years or so, many have experimented with shapes and materials, ways of displaying time and how their bezels operate. History is littered with design experiments gone wrong, as evidenced by the plethora of defunct 1970s dive watch brands that litter eBay. Still, watchmaking is all about innovation and some brands manage to swim against the current and produce wholly original designs that, while entirely new, can still be called dive watches. One of those is Clerc with its decidedly avant-garde Hydroscaph Chronograph.
Clerc is an old name revived, the brand dating back to 1874 in Geneva. But unlike many of the revived brands, which are little more than a holding company buying a long-dormant name and dusting off some heritage editions, Clerc is actually run by Gérald Clerc, a descendant of the company’s founder. The company only has two watches in its current lineup, the Hydroscaph and its chronograph sibling of the same name, and it’s obvious that these watches are not based on some 19th century drawings found in the Clerc attic. These are thoroughly modern timepieces.
The mechanical watch is, ironically, an anachronism (literally, “backwards time”) and so is its sub-genre, the dive watch. Most divers use digital wrist-mounted computers to track depth and time, rendering the dive watch a quaint relic and symbol more than a legitimate tool these days. You would think this fact would be a death knell to dive watch companies but it has, in many ways, freed them from the constraints of strict underwater practicality, allowing them to experiment with design. The Hydroscaph is one result of such tinkering, managing to conjure the image and panache of a diving watch while being fairly unsuited for actual underwater use.
The calling card of any diving watch is its bezel, which rotates to track elapsed time. Over the years, the bezel has evolved to be more secure from accidental movement, first with a ratcheting mechanism and then with various shrouds and locks. The Hydroscaph bezel is a bold octagonal slab of DLC-coated steel with bevels on four sides. It is not meant to be gripped and turned, but rather operated with a small crown on the side of the case at 10:00. This crown has a fold-out locking clip that, when turned, rotates the bezel counter-clockwise in crisp ratcheting clicks. It is satisfying to operate but entirely impractical as a dive tool. This is innovation for the sake of it — and it works, but only as a design exercise. To unlock the crown, the clip must be flipped up with a fingernail, an operation difficult in normal circumstances and presumably impossible with wet fingers and certainly with neoprene dive gloves on.
Calibre: CLERC calibre C608
Frequency: 28,800vph (4Hz)
Power reserve: 44 hours
Hours, minutes, seconds
Chronograph seconds and minutes up to 60
Rotating timing bezel
Material: DLC-coated stainless steel
Diameter: 44.6 mm
Case Back: Screw-in steel with sapphire aperture
Water Resistance: 50 ATM (500 meters)
Lumed hands and hour markers
Vulcanized rubber with fold-over deployant clasp
On the other end of the innovation scale is the Hydroscaph’s use of a centrally mounted elapsed minute hand for the chronograph, which is eminently practical. Historically, most chronographs have tracked minutes on a tiny 30-minute subdial, which made figuring out elapsed time a matter of squinting and some quick math. Moving the minutes counter to the entire dial makes reading off the elapsed time a cinch, up to 60 minutes. To differentiate the minutes from the sweep seconds, the minute chronograph hand is orange. Though there is no hours totalizer, for most recreational diving, 60 minutes is just about right. With this method of tracking dive time, that innovative but impractical bezel becomes, ironically and thankfully, redundant. The chronograph is a joy to operate, with two oversized levers on the righthand side of the case to start, stop and reset.
In addition to its timekeeping and chronograph functions, the Hydroscaph also sports a 24-hour day/night subdial. This indicates the current time on a 24-hour scale so there is no mistaking 10:00 a.m. for 10:00 p.m. Since this isn’t a second time zone function, presumably this function is for those who spend a lot of time in the Arctic or inside a submarine, since a glance out the window would suffice for even the most jetlagged person. Most day/night dials have a darker arc from 18:00 to 6:00 to indicate nighttime, but the Hydroscaph has its darker half from midnight to noon. Like the bezel crown, this is no doubt a design flourish, since it serves as one side of the triangle that is the centerpiece of the asymmetrical dial aesthetic.
For all the design aspects with the bezel and dial, it is perhaps the case where the Hydroscaph really shines. The 44.6-millimeter DLC-coated steel case is made up of no less than 103 parts (or so we’re told) and is very tall and heavy. Its height is no doubt due to the calibre C608 inside, which is a modular chronograph movement that stacks the chrono bits on top of the timekeeping parts, some of which are visible through a peek-a-boo aperture on the caseback. While a big case could be uncomfortable on the wrist, Clerc mitigates this by building it with articulated lugs that pivot up and down to “float” on the wrist, making it a surprisingly comfortable watch to wear. The vulcanized rubber strap also helps, and it’s scented with vanilla to mask the typically foul smell of natural rubber. The case is a study in angles, accented by its brushed and polished bevels, cutout arcs and those levered chronograph pushers. The fact that it is water-resistant to a crushing 500 meters is almost irrelevant in a watch that is more about what is possible than what someone will actually do with it.
There is no doubt that the Clerc Hydroscaph Chronograph has a polarizing design. It won’t appeal to those who prefer classic lines and dimensions on their watches, but it demands respect for what it accomplishes in its avant-garde design and innovations. And after all, design and innovation are what watchmaking is all about.