The dive watch is arguably the most popular type of timepiece sold these days. Brands large and small include divers in their lineups or even base their entire brands around underwater timepieces; Cartier even stepped into the fray this year with a decidedly luxe diver. Can Patek be far behind? (We hope not.)
Even for those who never dip a toe in the sea, the familiar aesthetic of the large watch with a glowing dial and rotating bezel represents a dashing adventure and derring-do attitude that’s lacking in modern man’s ordinary daily life. The dive watch serves as a reminder of adventurous days gone by and a rugged readiness we hope will match our own if and when push comes to shove.
Despite their incredible popularity, you’ll be hard pressed to find a single dive watch adorning a wrist should you step onto a dive boat anywhere in the world. Digital dive computers have all but replaced the analog watch, which is more likely to be spotted at the beach bar or duty-free shop. Yet there are a few holdouts, old-school divers who prefer to dive with memorized no-deco tables and a rotating bezel, or those belt-and-suspenders types who want a good old analog backup should their computer go on the fritz at fifty fathoms. More often than not, those guys will not be wearing a dive watch from Switzerland — they’ll be wearing one of Japan’s finest.
In reality, most Japanese dive watches are the best suited for real-world use. Their simple movements have legendary durability, often surviving years of abuse and zero maintenance, even if they aren’t the most accurate. Designs that forgo adornment in favor of readability and functionality win out over fancy locking bezels, helium release valves and shiny slim hands. Of course, their affordability makes them not only more accessible to divemasters that live on tip money, but also more bearable should they be lost of broken.
In short, if you want a real dive watch, look to the Land of the Rising Sun. We recently did just that, procuring three of Japan’s best dive watches representing different brands, styles and price points for a real-world shootout below the waves in the Caribbean. Their shared trait — beyond excellence — is a penchant for getting wet.
On paper, the Seiko seems horribly overmatched when stacked up against the other two watches in this comparo. After all, it’s the oldest design by decades, is one-fifth of the price of the Orient and is the only one that is actually assembled outside of Japan. But underestimate Seiko at your own peril. The company’s been making dive watches since the 1960s, producing numerous groundbreaking icons since, from the reference 6105 worn by US servicemen in Vietnam to the world’s first titanium dive watch in the mid-70s to the ubiquitous 6309 that has become a favorite of collectors and tinkerers alike. In fact, the SKX series of dive watches, which dates to the late 1980s, is a direct descendant of the 6309 and has been a worthy successor.
Seiko’s watch lineup, in particular its dive watch lineup, is a labyrinth of market-specific pieces, often differentiated by hand or marker shape and bezel colors and then coded with an arcane alphabet soup of cryptic names. The SKX line is easier than most to untangle. The best known of the bunch are the SKX007 and -009 variants. But these two watches are Japan Domestic Market (JDM) only, meaning if you want one, you’ll need to order online from eBay or an overseas dealer. The U.S. gets the SKX173 and -175 models, virtual clones of the 007 and 009 except for a difference in the dial markers on the 173 and a bracelet option for the -175. Also, the SKX173 and -175 are made in Seiko’s factories in Malaysia to the exact specifications as their Japan-made brethren. Confused yet? Let’s move on to the watch itself.
At 40 millimeters, the SKX175 ($450) is a modestly sized watch in an era of jumbos. Of the three divers we tested, it was by far the most comfortable and classic-looking, thanks in no small part to its “jubilee” style bracelet. This bracelet is flimsy and rattly, with stamped steel end links and clasp. But you know what? It’s glorious. Jubilees, with their combination of wide outer links and tiny central links, are renowned for their comfort; they drape on the wrist. It also has that great 1970s look which, combined with the reasonably sized case and “Pepsi” bezel, looks and wears much like a vintage Rolex GMT-Master.
Calibre: Seiko 7S26
Frequency: 21,600vph (3 Hz)
Power Reserve: 41 hours
Hours, minutes, seconds, day and date
Material: Stainless steel
Case Back: Steel screw-in
Crystal: Hardlex (mineral glass)
Water Resistance: 20 ATM (200 meters)
Dark blue, lumed hands and painted hour markers
Jubilee-style steel, foldover safety clasp
Never mind the prominent “Malaysia” markings on the dial and case back. Seiko’s quality control is evident here; their finely tuned manufacturing process clearly can be duplicated anywhere while still turning out watches that swing above their weight. The bezel action is perfect; the simple brushed and polished case finishing is flawless, if unremarkable; and the dial glows with typical Seiko nuclear strength. The movement, Seiko’s old reliable 7S26, is the equivalent of a Chevy pushrod engine and is known for its reliability if not its accuracy. This is not a chronometer, folks — ours lost about 20 seconds a day, not horrible for a $500 watch, but a very possible issue in the long term. The movement is not hackable nor manually wind-able, meaning you shake it a few times to get it running and apply back pressure to the crown if you want to synch it with a time signal; given its lack of accuracy, we didn’t bother. Seiko’s Magic Lever auto winding system, an ingeniously simple function, means that the 7S26 may be the most efficiently winding movement around. Merely picking up the stopped watch after a few idle days caused the seconds hand to start moving.
Enough about the details. This is a dive watch first and foremost, built for a brutally simple task. Underwater it was right at home. Seikos consistently flaunt the most visible dials around, and the SKX175’s large lozenge-shaped markers and chunky hands shouted the time. The bezel was easy to grip and turn and secure once set, making it the best of our test trio. That bracelet, while comfortable topside on a sweaty wrist, was lacking when paired with a pressure-shrunken wetsuit sleeve. The absence of any wetsuit extension in the clasp made for a nearly tourniquet-snug fit. Seiko makes some of the best rubber dive straps in the business, but we couldn’t swap out the bracelet due to the odd use of shoulder-less spring bars that couldn’t be removed without damaging the bracelet end links.
All in all, the Seiko performed as we expected it to: nostalgic and charming but also outdated. It felt like diving with a vintage dive watch, and in many ways, it is. There are certainly plenty of other Seikos we could have chosen, from the legendary “Orange Monster” to the Kinetic series right up to the cutting edge Grand Seiko Spring Drive diver, but before Seiko puts the SKX series out to pasture, we wanted to take it deep. And, for its price, it took to the task like a fish to water.
Citizen Promaster Depth Meter Chrono (BJ2128-05E)
In the mid-1980s, Citizen’s Aqualand dive watch revolutionized the category. The incorporation of a depth sensor with digital display and multiple dive functions bridged the gap between outdated analog watches and new-era dive computers. While there have been other Citizen dive watches over the years, the Aqualand cemented the brand’s place as a maker of real, working dive watches. The tumor-like bulge housing the depth sensor on the side of the case was a dead giveaway that this was a tool watch, and few people outside of avid divers bothered to own them, giving the Aqualand, and its wearer, instant credibility.
The original Aqualand remains one of the most intuitive and useful dive instruments to this day. Subsequent models offered many variations but always remained true to its multifunction depth gauge roots. Sadly, the Aqualand has been discontinued, though Citizen continues to make depth sensor diving watches under its Promaster banner. Having not dived with a Citizen since the old Aqualand, we were eager to get our hands on the latest Promaster, the Promaster Depth Meter Chrono ($695), reference BJ2128-05E for those keeping score at home.
Over the past few years, Citizen has moved away from the analog-digital dial it popularized on the earlier Aqualands. That’s a shame, because while analog is the most intuitive way to read the time quickly, digital is most effective for displaying data like depth, ascent rate and past dive logs — all functions the old Aqualands did so well. The Promaster we tested uses hands and subdials to display dive information; depth is indicated on an outer scale (in meters) and pointed to by the central hand. It’s easy to read, but those additional functions of the old models have been lost.
Use is as simple as can be. A water pressure sensor on the side of the case detects when you’ve started to descend, and the central hand starts its tracking of your depth. While diving, the watch indicates current depth down to a narcosis-inducing 50 meters. A separate maximum depth hand would be handy for use in calculating no-decompression time. It’s only upon surfacing that you can read back your last dive’s maximum depth by pressing the top button — nice for logging your dive but not quite as useful as the Aqualand used to be. The watch can also be used as a traditional chronograph by pressing and holding the bottom button until the central hand moves to the 12:00 position.
Calibre: Citizen B740 Eco-Drive
Power Reserve: Approx. one year in absence of light
Hours, minutes, seconds, date
Chronograph elapsed seconds and minutes (up to 50 min)
Current depth and maximum depth down to 50 meters
Material: Stainless steel
Diameter: 48mm (including depth sensor)
Case Back: Steel screw-in
Crystal: Anti-reflective mineral glass
Water Resistance: 20 ATM (200 meters)
Black with chronograph subdials, luminescent hands and markers
Rubber strap with pin buckle
The Promaster Depth Meter Chronograph belongs to Citizen’s Eco-Drive family, so its timekeeping is via a quartz crystal and its internal battery is charged by sunlight. We’re typically drawn to mechanical watches like the other two in our comparison, but there is something to be said for a rugged watch that can sit on your desk for the months between dive trips, faithfully keeping time, and then be ready to go at a moment’s notice, with no winding, setting or battery changes necessary. In that way the Citizen lives up to its tool watch purpose.
While some of the functionality of the old Aqualand has been lost, the Promaster is definitely a step up in terms of topside style. The tri-compax dial lends a more polished chronograph appearance, and the depth sensor would hardly be noticed if it weren’t for the black protection bar on the left side of the case. Shiny surrounds on the subdials and bezel ring snazz things up, maybe a little too much for what is first and foremost a tool watch; the thin black coin-edged bezel with its small numerals provide a touch of retro diver appeal and tone down the geek factor. Citizen straps have gotten an upgrade too. The old ones were stiff rubber, prone to cracking and terribly uncomfortable. The one on the new Promaster is extra supple with a high quality clasp and a molded shape that fits snug to the case. It was plenty long to fit over a wetsuit sleeve with room to spare. We do miss the “No Deco Limits” table Citizen used to print right on the rubber in the old days.
In truth, we’re still pining for the old Aqualand’s functionality and unapologetic dive instrument aesthetic. Citizen’s updates are reasonable, though, and the Promaster Depth Meter Chronograph is one of very few dive watches that offers a depth gauge at all, making it the most truly useful watch in our comparison and on the market.
Orient Pro Saturation Diver 300m
Ask anyone to name the top watch companies in Japan and you’ll likely hear Seiko, Citizen and Casio. While the big three have the most name recognition around the world, there’s a fourth name that merits respect: Orient. Though it’s now owned by Seiko, Orient has a half century of proud independent history under its belt and is in fact Japan’s number one producer of automatic watches.
Orient does not have Seiko’s prolific history of dive watches, nor Citizen’s resume of innovation. In fact, the only dive watch of any significance in Orient’s history was the humble King Diver produced in the ‘60s and ‘70s with limited success. Today, the brand’s lineup consists of a smattering of affordable in-house automatic and some quartz dress and sports watches, plus a surprisingly large heap of dive watches; we stopped counting at a dozen variations. One of these watches stands out: the Pro Saturation Diver 300m ($1,995).
The Saturation Diver, as it is commonly known, is a modern legend and cult object among dive watch fans. Many (including us) have waited years to try one on, and Orient’s did not disappoint. If there ever was a watch that could represent an entire genre, this is it: big, bold and brimming with unbridled masculinity and ruggedness. You could almost get your Open Water certification just by strapping it on your wrist.
Calibre: Orient 40N5A
Frequency: 21,600 (3 Hz)
Power Reserve: 40 hours
Hours, minutes, seconds, date, power reserve
Material: Stainless steel
Case Back: Steel screw-in
Crystal: Anti-reflective sapphire
Water Resistance: 30 ATM (300 meters) helium safe
Red with luminescent hands and markers
Steel bracelet with safety clasp and ratcheting extension
Vented rubber strap with pin buckle
Many watch companies crow about their dive watches’ durability, give them ludicrous depth ratings and add a helium release valve to their cases for the remote chance you find yourself in a diving bell breathing trimix gas. The Orient, on the other hand, gets a rather “average” 300 meters of water resistance (let us know if you ever see that number on your depth gauge) and forgoes the helium release valve. Yet, it’s rated for “saturation” diving (i.e., moving in and out of a helium-saturated environment) thanks to its overbuilt, supertight construction that no tiny helium atoms can penetrate. Take that, Sea Dweller.
The watch comes with an excellent steel bracelet that features an innovative sliding adjustable clasp for wear over anything from a thin wetsuit to a thick shell drysuit. But we wore it on the provided rubber strap, which is extra long, thick and flexible. The oversized “vents” in the strap allow for tightening over a wetsuit in order to take up slack as neoprene compresses at depth. It also gives the watch an even more imposing stance on the wrist.
There really is nothing the Orient doesn’t do well, and, for $2,000, that should be the case. What we didn’t expect is a watch that feels every bit as good as those we’ve tried with twice the price tag. Japanese watches have always been known for their bang-for-your-buck quotient, and the Saturation Diver proves that point. While its heft and purpose-focused design are all tool watch, the details are far from lacking. The fat black bezel insert is matte finished, markings are engraved, and the zero marker is set in and surrounded by a small metal ring. The crown, typically a telltale sign of quality (or not), threads smoothly, has distinct setting positions and winds beautifully. The movement powering this watch is Orient’s own in-house 40N5A self-winding calibre, an updated motor that now allows for hand-winding and hacking.
The unusual dial moves the date window to 9:00 and adds a useful and distinctive power reserve gauge at 2:00. Again, details hint at this watch’s prowess. The date window is delicately double stepped, and the 1:00 and 2:00 markers are cut out to fit the power reserve meter. Luminescent paint is generous and flawlessly applied, even when viewed under a loupe. With its massive glowing applied markers, unique hands and logo at 6:00, this is a dive watch with a singular look that’s also instantly recognizable for its purpose. Did we mention it’s red?
The Saturation Diver comes in a variety of dial colors — yellow, orange, white, black and the newest color, red. That last one is an odd choice for a dive watch dial, because it’s the first color in the spectrum that disappears as a diver descends and water filters out light. On our dives with the Orient, the dial changed to gray at a mere 15 feet of depth. Fortunately, this doesn’t really affect readability since the contrast between dial, hands and markers is still stark. Topside, where the watch will spend most of its time, the red is as prominent as the Rising Sun of Japan’s flag.
The Orient Pro Saturation Diver exists as an almost mythical sea beast from the East, a seldom seen but formidable monster of the deep. It ranks right up there with any dive watch, Japanese or otherwise, that we’ve worn in terms of quality, features and performance.