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A Brief History of: Aquadive’s Titanic Trendsetting Watches of the Deep

Within the ocean of vintage purpose-designed dive watches, forgotten brands float about like flotsam after a wreck, almost always overshadowed by the iconic Swiss marque that rules the depths and bears the gilded crown.

Historically speaking, an immense number of watch manufacturers enjoyed relatively long periods of smooth sailing before succumbing to the turbulent waters of the quartz crisis. And just like the wrecked ships of yore, many of these companies carried treasures within their lineups that have rested in obscurity for decades, but have recently been re-discovered by those willing to search – often those of us that have been priced out of the sports watch icons of better-known brands which have ascended over time from the realm of the tool watch into luxury items. Aquadive is one prime example of a pro-grade diver that’s been lost to the depths of time.

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In the 1960s, the SCUBA diving boom led to a dramatic increase in the production of dive watches – required kit at the time. While some companies pivoted from the production of lighter duty timepieces intended for skin diving towards the more serious side of the diving business, other new marques were born out of the desire to manufacture tools specific to SCUBA diving, watches made with essentially no regard to the demands of the rest of the market. Aquadive made its debut in the ‘60s with its line of uniquely water sport-specific watches, a range of watches that deliberately bucked the period’s small watch trend in favor of burly, hulking pieces of utility-focused underwater equipment. Available almost exclusively in catalogs and dive shops, the Aquadive lineup was diverse in design, but specific in function. 

The early Aquadive line is exceptionally well-represented by the appropriately named Aquadive 1000 model, a marine monolith that came in both standard diver and chronograph form. Both of these watches were capable of a mind-boggling 1,000 meters of water resistance, and they look unique among vintage divers – falling somewhere between a stainless submersible and a fanciful wrist-bound flying saucer. In order to accommodate the watches’ extreme depth rating, these early models utilized a monobloc case sourced from the Swiss company Jenny SA. This “triple-safe” case is oversized in the best of ways, and is a masterclass in the concept of form following function. Add in the retro Scotchlite dials, generously proportioned Bakelite bezels, and lumed hands, and you end up with a highly-legible leviathan that looks just as apropos lounging on the beach as it does searching for Atlantis. 

Aquadive kept with its dive-centric ethos through the ‘70s, when they introduced what is considered to be their most popular and brand-defining design, the Time-Depth Model 50. This watch was a dual-purpose piece that walked in two worlds as both a wristwatch and depth-gauge. Prior to the digital age, divers relied heavily on (as in entrusted their lives to) analog equipment to track critical variables that made a dive safe; the most important of those were, of course, time and depth. The Time-Depth Model 50 represented a unique cross-breeding of complications specific to diving, and they were actually useful and not just a “kitchen sink” watch like many highly complicated mechanical watches tend to be. In fact, watches with built-in depth gauges remain relatively obscure to this day. 

Like the Aquadive 1000 before it, the Time-Depth Model 50 is a juggernaut that stands an astounding 18mm tall and boasts a diameter of 46mm. According to the pleasantly prideful 1976 Aquadive marketing advert, the Time-Depth Model 50 was “not just a diving watch…not just a depth gauge…but an instrument that identifies you as the ultimate diver!” Interestingly, the Model 50 was only rated to 100m of water resistance – far less than many of Aquadive’s other models. Fortunately, the bourdon tube depth-function measured to a max of 60m, which meant one could easily tell (gauge, if you will) when they were in deeper territory than they intended to be; best to avoid the phantom 40 meters that exist between the depth rating and gauge reading. 

Does this headline make sense to anyone? Honestly, what does this even mean?

The Model 50 was endorsed by none other than Scott Carpenter, NASA astronaut and SEALAB II aquanaut. Having successfully spent thirty days living in an underwater habitat 200m below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, Carpenter was the perfect high-profile adventurer to introduce this new dive tech to the masses. Carpenter’s knack for looking effortlessly cool helped the campaign, as well. Was Scott Carpenter science’s Paul Newman?

The Time-Depth Model 50 came in a multitude of funky, ‘70s-as-hell color combos, including a somewhat subdued black and white variation and a vibrant blue and orange option. Often worn on a robust 24mm Velcro strap, these watches were powered by an electronic movement and featured a prominent crown protruding from the 9 o’clock location. Often referred to as a “destro” crown, this placement ensures that it is less likely to be bumped or unscrewed by accident, as well as keeps it from digging into the wrist of the majority who wear their watches on the left wrist. All of these details underline Aquadive’s dedication to being intensely focused on practical applications and utility in design when it came to their tool watches. 

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Like so many other watch companies of the era, the quartz crisis brought about change for Aquadive and ultimately spelled the brand’s demise. Before the fall of the company, they produced a number of interesting quartz models that remained on-brand with the legacy of utility-first designs they had built the brand on, but it wasn’t enough to keep them from sinking. Despite their failure to navigate the quartz crisis, the spirit of the brand lives on in the multitude of vintage examples strewn across the globe just waiting to be unearthed, and as vintage-minded buyers shift their interest away from the increasingly expensive usual suspects,  function-driven, insider pieces like those made by Aquadive become all the more attractive. 

Justin Couture is a writer, husband, and dog-dad extraordinaire. He runs TheWristorian, which focuses on lesser-hyped watch models and the history around them. Outside of horological pursuits, Justin can generally be found spending time with his family, fishing, and catching a nap with his Cavalier Spaniel, Henson, whenever possible.

Model 50 photos from the fine folks at Unwind in Time used with permission.

Vintage Advertising from Aquadive is believed to be fair use for educational purposes. 

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