The Best by Far from the Far East
Japanese Dive Watch Icons
When it comes to dive watches, many immediately think of iconic Swiss watches like the Rolex Submariner and the Blancpain Fifty-Fathoms — and rightly so. These two in particular can be credited with bringing the genre into the mainstream and incorporating many of the dive watch features that we now consider de rigeuer: timing bezels, screw down crowns, luminous dials, anti-magnetic protection…check, check, check and check.
Of course, the story doesn’t stop here. In fact, there’s another country that can credibly lay claim to a long and storied history with this particular genre: Japan. Maybe it’s due to the fact that Japan is an island nation combined with its history of precise craftsmanship, but no survey of great diving timepieces is complete without a fistful from the Land of the Rising Sun. If you need evidence of Japan’s dive watch prowess (or just a road map to buying yourself one), read on.
Orient King Diver
One of the oldest true Japanese dive watches hails from Orient, a Japanese watch company founded in 1950. The King Diver was introduced in 1964, designed in the same vein as the popular compression-case Swiss dive watches of the sixties. As was typical of these types of divers, the timing bezel was internal and operated by a second crown on the outside of the case, while the case back was compression sealed as opposed to merely screwed on. The King Diver’s popularity spawned an entire collection of dive watches stretching all the way into the early ’80s. We love this piece, not only for its history, but also for its elegant looks. It’s not hard to see a Japanese take on James Bond sporting this piece with a tux one moment, underwater fighting off legions of baddies the next.
Seiko is probably the preeminent name in Japanese divers. Its first dive watch, the 6217, was released in 1965 and hewed to the same formula as Swiss watches with a rotating timing bezel, generous lime and good water-resistance. However, it’s the 6105 — with its cushion case, recessed crown at 4 o’clock and documented history of service on the wrists of our GIs during the Vietnam war — that gets our hearts racing. Seen as a robust and inexpensive alternative to the less-than-reliable issued timepieces available, the 6105 found favor with soldiers during and after the war. In fact, it even had its close up in Apocalypse Now as the watch of choice for none other than Martin Sheen’s dogged Capt. Willard. The 6105 is powered by the 17-jewel 6105A automatic movement, which has proven itself a durable workhorse.
Seiko Prospex “Tuna”
The development of the now-iconic Seiko 6159-7010 Professional 600M is credited to a letter received by Seiko from a disgruntled saturation diver, who complained that their dive watches had a habit of popping their crystals during decompression and would temporarily stop running when bumped against rocks. This led to an intensive development plan and resulted in a watch unlike any that came before it. Introduced in 1975 and nicknamed the “Tuna” because of the evocative shroud that protects its timing bezel, this was the first dive watch constructed primarily out of titanium, a metal chosen for its combination of strength, lightness and a non-corrosive nature. The case itself is so strong that it can both withstand depths of 600 meters and resist the rigors of saturation diving and decompression without relying on a helium release valve. Just as significantly, the 6159 marked the inauguration of the Professional Diver Series, or “Prospex” (think “professional specifications”), which has become a staple among divers ever since.
Like Seiko, Citizen has a long history with dive watches, though perhaps with a more technical bent. The first piece from their Aqualand series was released in 1985 and was the world’s first dive watch to incorporate a digital depth meter on its analog dial. As dive computers were still in their infancy at the time, this was a significant advancement. In addition to displaying current depth, the Aqualand also recorded maximum depth and featured a depth alarm and dive timer. The version that we’re enamored with, however, is the re-issue, which landed in the mid-90s. This watch, the JP2000, improved upon the original by adding a rapid ascent alarm and a dive log that could record the maximum depth and dive time for up to four separate dives. Even today, these features would be enough for all but the most technical of dives.
We all know that Japan is the home of Godzilla, the king of all atomic monsters. But it’s also home to another couple of ‘Zillas, namely, the Citizen Autozilla and Ecozilla. Okay, fine, so these are nicknames — officially they’re dubbed “Promasters” — but trust us, they’ve earned their bestial titles by virtue of their outsized cases and abilities.
First up is the Autozilla, which, as its name implies, uses a mechanical automatic Miyota movement. Its hardened “Duratect” titanium case can withstand water pressure up to 1,000 meters, and it features a novel latching mechanism that allows the user to remove the bezel in one simple step for field cleaning. As for the dial indexes and the hands: they glow like Godzilla’s breath.
Its smaller cousin, the Ecozilla, relies on Citizen’s solar-powered Eco-Drive quartz movement and is available in either titanium or steel, though it drops the quick-release bezel. Mind you, this should not indicate that the Ecozilla is any less of a professional diving tool. Its 300-meter depth rating is more than ample for a casual wreck dive on the Andrea Doria, and its outsized dial and generous lume will light your way on the way down. The Autozilla has since been discontinued, but knowing Citizen, something equally monstrous is lurking on the horizon.
Believe it or not, Casio is also a player in the dive watch market, and has been so for decades. Naturally, their G-Shock line of rugged watches leads the way, with their Frogman (introduced in 1993) being their sole ISO-certified dive watch. That’s right — even though the humble and ubiquitous G-Shock is the go-to backup for many divers, technically speaking, unless it’s a Frogman, it’s not a true diver. ISO 6425 certification calls for a very specific set of criteria to be met before a watch can truly be considered a dive watch, and the Frogman is the only G-Shock to meet them.
So, what makes the Frogman, with its unique, asymmetrical case, a diver? For starters, each one is individually tested to 25 percent beyond its stated water-resistance rating. It also features a dedicated dive timer, and, in the case of the first models, is made from titanium. Today’s Frogman adds solar charging, atomic time signal syncing and tide graphs to its list of functionality, and just like the original, it remains a true, certified dive watch.