By Jason Heaton
on 12.27.11
Photo by GP

When most people think of a dive watch, the first thing that comes to mind is the prototypical ratcheting bezel, with its chunky flutings and bold markers. But there was another style of diver that emerged in the early days of recreational diving and found great popularity – the Super Compressor. To be clear, the Super Compressor was itself not a watch. It was a patented type of watch case that was used by dozens of watch companies, some famous (Jaeger-LeCoultre, Longines) and some now lost in the abyss of history (Baylor, Precimax). This broad range of Super Compressor watches means that those looking for a great vintage dive watch have a lot of choices and some that are downright affordable. Let’s take a closer look at this iconic family of dive watches.

The Super Compressor watch case was patented in 1956 by Ervin Piquerez SA (EPSA), a now defunct Swiss firm, and manufactured by them for almost two decades. And while most of the Super Compressors could be identified by their twin crowns and internal rotating timing ring, the name actually referred to the case’s sealing technology, which made use of a spring-loaded caseback that sealed tighter as external water pressure increased. EPSA’s logo was a stylized diving helmet and could be found either on the outside or inside of the caseback. The crowns typically were without a watch company’s logo but were cross-hatched or, as the French more eloquently put it, “quadrille.”

In the early days of dive watches, conventional rotating bezels turned in both directions and only used friction to stay in their set positions. This presented the obvious risk that an accidental knock to the bezel could rotate it, altering the recorded bottom time, which carries the obvious hazard of artificially lengthening the time remaining and allowing the diver to overshoot a no-decompression limit. One solution to this potential problem was the development of a unidirectional ratcheting bezel. Another solution was the locking bezel, which required a button be pushed to release the bezel. A third solution was an elapsed-timing ring protected underneath the watch’s crystal where it could not be bumped. When the internal timing ring was introduced around 1960, many watch companies adopted it for their dive watches and a new aesthetic was created.

The twin-crown Super Compressor divers have always had a more modern and sleek look than the more brutish conventional divers. One might even call them “dress divers.” The subtlety of the timing ring being under the glass means that the watches don’t scream “tool watch” and allows the lines of the case to merge with the crystal. They generally sit lower on the wrist, which make them friendlier to shirt sleeves and they look better on leather straps than do external bezel divers. The twin crowns, positioned at 2 o’clock and 4 o’clock, add visual interest in much the same way a chronograph’s pushers do. Twin crown Super Compressors were generally made in one of two case sizes: 36mm or the rarer 42mm, both highly wearable modern sizes even today.

What these Super Compressors possessed in style, they lacked in functionality. While one crown was dedicated to winding and setting the watch, the other crown was geared to turn the timing ring. Nice in theory, not so nice in practice. Gripping a small crown with wet fingers, or worse, gloved fingers, is maddeningly finicky and manipulating the crown underwater compromises the rubber seals, inviting leakage. So while these watches trumped their external-bezeled cousins in appearance, they fell short in practice. But this didn’t stop countless watch companies from adopting the design. Beautiful examples of Super Compressor divers were sold by some of the top names in horology, differed in appearance only by their dials and hands and by the movements housed within.

The twin-crown Super Compressor divers have always had a more modern and sleek look than the more brutish conventional divers. One might even call them “dress divers.”

The great thing about the prevalence of the Super Compressor case is that there are so many fine vintage examples to be found across a wide price and collectability spectrum. Some of the rarer and more prestigious examples included the Universal Genève Polerouter Sub, the Longines Compressor, the Vulcain Diving Alarm, the IWC Aquatimer and the Jaeger-LeCoultre Polaris. Be prepared to pay big money for good examples of these. But you can still get the same look as these in some truly affordable vintage Super Compressors that were made, like the Fortis MarineMaster, the Hamilton 600 and other long defunct names like Olma, Droz, Baylor and Technos. These watches pop up on the auction sites (like Antiquorm all the time for less than a grand.

If you want the Super Compressor look in a modern watch, there are still some twin-crown inner-timing-ring divers being made, though they’re technically not Super Compressors. A few years ago, Longines introduced an homage to their 1960 Compressor with their Legend Diver and it is as faithful as if you dug up a time capsule, complete with a domed crystal (now sapphire), elegant logo and script, the cross-hatched crowns and “aged” dial markers. Best of all, it’s water resistant to 300 meters. IWC’s Vintage Collection Aquatimer pays homage to their first dive watch from 1967 and it strikes a fine balance between modern angles and dial with the distinctive case shape, double crowns and a retro-inspired rubber strap. Gear Patrol favorite, Halios, has its Laguna, a cleanly-designed update to the Super Compressor legacy. Best of all, it sells for less than $700.

Vintage watches are hot these days, as collectibles or as fashion accessories. And some of the coolest, most available vintage watches are the Ervin Piquerez SA Super Compressors. These innovative tool watches have stood the test of time while still retaining that adventure swagger from their heyday in the 1960s.

ADVENTURE IS ONE CLICK AWAY

Subscribe to GP for a daily dose of the best in gear, adventure, design, tech and culture. 5pm sharp.