The history of waterproof watches can be traced back to the early 20th century, when the usage of wrist watches bagan to become more available to the general public and not just the elite wealthy individuals of society. This was also met with need for durable and reliable timepieces for use in outdoor environments and everyday life began to emerge. In 1926, the Rolex company introduced the first waterproof watch, known as the "Oyster." This watch featured a screw-down crown and a hermetically sealed case, which allowed it to withstand depths of up to 100 meters. This was a huge leap forward for the durability of watches, not only providing protection from moisture which so often destroyed the delicate watch mechanisms of timepieces, but also added protection from dust and other particulate matter that made its way into the a watch over time and caused the watch to not function at optimal levels and created the need for more fredquent servicing of timepieces.
The development and growth of the first waterproof watches was driven by the growing popularity of outdoor activities such as swimming, diving, and water sports. The need for a timepiece that could withstand the rigors of these activities was evident, and watchmakers responded by creating watches that were not only waterproof, but also shock-resistant, antimagnetic, and able to withstand extreme temperatures.
One of the key innovations that made the first waterproof watches possible was the use of O-ring seals. These seals, which are made from a rubber-like material, are used to create a watertight barrier around the watch's case and movement. The O-ring seal is compressed between the case and the crystal, creating a tight seal that prevents water from entering the watch.
Another important innovation was the use of screw-down crowns and casebacks. These features allowed the watch to be sealed tightly against water pressure, preventing water from entering the watch through the crown or caseback.
As the popularity of water sports and outdoor activities grew, waterproof watches became increasingly popular among a wide range of consumers.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the development of waterproof watches reached a new level with the introduction of watches specifically designed for diving. These watches featured a rotating bezel, which allowed divers to measure their dive time, as well as a helium release valve, which prevented the watch from being damaged by the pressure of helium gas that builds up in the watch during deep dives.
In the 1970s, the development of quartz watches revolutionized the watch industry. Quartz watches, which use a quartz crystal to keep time, were more accurate, more reliable, and more affordable than mechanical watches. This led to a significant increase in the popularity of waterproof watches, as more and more people began to wear them for everyday use.
In recent years, advances in materials and technology have allowed for the creation of even more durable and reliable waterproof watches. For example, watches made from ceramic, titanium, and carbon fiber are able to withstand extreme temperatures and pressures, and are resistant to scratches, dings, and other types of damage. Additionally, new waterproofing technologies, such as ceramic coatings and special gaskets, have made it possible to create watches that can withstand depths of up to 1,000 meters. The term water resistance is used now for watches, versus the term water proof since although many watches are rated for deeper water activities, no watch is truly 100% water proof in all conditions.
The term “Water Resistant” is used along with a pressure rating in atmospheres and metres or feet of water, which gives an idea of just how water resistant the watch is. There are two international standards that regulate the testing of watches, ISO 22810:2010 Horology - Water-resistant watches, and ISO 6425:1996 Divers' watches.
The normal pressure of the atmosphere atmosphere at sea level is about 14½ pounds-force per square inch (psi) or 1 bar - a standard atmosphere is 1.01325 bar. This is equivalent to a column of mercury in a barometer of 29.92 inches or 33.9 feet of water, which is about 10.3 metres of water. So one bar pressure is equivalent to about 10 metres water gauge or depth under water.
A watch rated at 3 atmospheres (3 atm) or 30 metres / 100 ft water depth might seem at first sight to be more than adequate for swimming or showering. However, this rating is a static pressure that the watch was tested to when it was new and the watch is not in any sort of motion. There are all sorts of reasons why a watch of this rating is not suitable for swimming, such as the pressure is increased by movement - diving into water, or the water pressure created from a shower is a much higher dynamic pressure. As well, the pressure rating was recorded when the watch was new. Over time the seals and oils in a watch deteriorate and need to be renewed. If the watch has been tested, the certificate will tell you its level of water resistance. Unless a watch has been tested recently and is relatively new it is better to use caution with regards to its resistance to water. This holds particularly true for vintage watches that may not have been serviced for a long period of time.
- Watches rated at 3 atmospheres / 30 metres are resistant to rain or splashes from hand washing, but are not suitable for swimming or wearing in the shower.
- A watch rated at 5 atmospheres / 50 metres will tolerate gentle showering, but not power showers or jumping or diving into water.
- For swimming, water resistance of at least 10 atmospheres / 100 metres is required.
- For sub-aqua, water resistance of at least 20 atmospheres / 200 metres is required.
Overall, the history of waterproof watches is a story of innovation, experimentation, and progress. From the first waterproof watch created by Rolex in 1926 to the advanced, modern watches of today, watchmakers have continuously pushed the boundaries of what is possible in the field of waterproof watches. As the popularity of outdoor activities and water sports continues to grow, it is likely that we will see even more advancements in the design and functionality of waterproof watches in the future.