Underwater Living
By Jason Heaton
on 1.31.12
Photo by Gishani

In the 1960s, scuba diving’s popularity was booming, thanks almost entirely to one man: Jacques-Yves Cousteau. It was Cousteau who, along with Emile Gagnan invented the Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA) known as the Aqua-Lung. It was also Cousteau, whose French-accented voiceovers and globetrotting adventures on his TV series fascinated households worldwide. And as if he wasn’t busy enough, Cousteau was also the president of the American diving equipment company, U.S. Divers Company, which was providing reliable, affordable underwater gear to amateur underwater explorers. So when U.S. Divers selected a DOXA dive watch to bear its logo, it was like a blessing from Neptune himself.

By 1967, DOXA was a tired brand whose glory days were seemingly behind it. But they saw in the bold sport of diving an opportunity to create a new kind of watch, one designed for the sport diver, not the mine-clearing, Black Ops, Special Forces frogmen who were wearing stark Rolexes and Omegas. So DOXA designer, Urs Eschele, started with a blank sheet of paper and a list of specifications from some of Cousteau’s minions. The result was a watch that didn’t look like anything else and could have only been the result of a purely purpose-designed mandate. U.S. Divers Co. was so pleased with the SUB 300 (the “T” didn’t come until later) that it bought the rights to be sole distributor of the watch in the United States and put its familiar “Aqua-Lung” logo right on the dial. The watch was a huge success and countless divers wore it as a sort of badge of honor. If you wore a DOXA SUB in the 1960s, you were a diver.

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Photos by Gishani for Gear Patrol

The DOXA SUB 300T was produced for many years in various forms but languished in the 1970s, thanks to the quartz watch revolution. But it received another celebrity endorsement, this time in the form of a fictional hero, Dirk Pitt. Pitt was the creation of former dive shop worker turned novelist, Clive Cussler who, as legend has it, was given a DOXA as a parting gift when he left his dive shop job to pursue writing full-time. He was so smitten with the watch that he made it standard equipment for his globetrotting, world-saving, hyper-masculine do-gooder. Thanks to the millions of Dirk Pitt novels sold over the decades, the DOXA SUB lived on, if only in fiction, until the watch was resurrected in the early 2000s.

The DOXA SUB is a clear example of the “form follows function” design philosophy and its aesthetics are polarizing – you either love the way it looks or you hate it. And while it is not as elegant or versatile as the prototypical dive watch, the Rolex Submariner, it remains perhaps the best-designed pure dive watch ever made, from bezel to bracelet. A bold statement indeed but one need only examine the DOXA SUB’s features as proof.

The DOXA SUB is a clear example of the “form follows function” design philosophy and its aesthetics are polarizing

The rotating elapsed-time bezel stands tall and clear of the case and is supremely easy to grip and turn, thanks to buzzsaw-like teeth. The heavy steel bezel has a small notch that allows for easy removal for cleaning and the 60-detent ratchet is firm and precise. Of course, the most distinguishing feature of the DOXA bezel is the outer ring of no-decompression depth limits that correspond to the times on the inner bezel ring. In the days before electronic dive computers, divers relied on remembering these depth limits in order to avoid having to decompress before returning to the surface. With the DOXA SUB, a diver set the bezel’s zero mark to line up with the minute hand upon descending and then referred to the no-deco limits markings, along with his depth gauge, to determine when it was time to safely ascend. The bezel markings were engraved into the steel, which made them more durable than the printed aluminum rings that were found on most other dive watches of the day.

The DOXA SUB’s dial was also innovative. While the original SUB had an orange dial, a color that was thought to be the most visible at depth, black, yellow and silver dials quickly followed. In reality, the color orange turns to a dull gray below about 20 feet of water and it is the black-dialed Sharkhunter variation that provides the best contrast in deeper water. The dial also features huge markings with wide swaths of luminescent paint (tritium, hence the “T” in the watch’s full name), which glowed brightly for better visibility in murky visibility.

Like the dial, the DOXA SUB’s hands were designed for maximum readability. To this end, the minute hand, which is of primary importance to a diver, is a massive arrow with a wide stripe of tritium paint. Conversely, the hour hand looks almost vestigial, a tiny stalk that all but disappears from view underwater. The sweep seconds hand has an oversized, lumed rectangle that, when marching around the dial, leaves no doubt that the watch is wound and running.

The case is massive and heavy, even by modern standards, as wide as it is long, a full 44mm and close to 15mm thick. The 1967 DOXA SUB 300T was more substantial than most of the thinner, more elegantly sculpted dive watches of its day and feels surprisingly modern even 45 years later. Despite its heft, the symmetrical gently curving tonneau (barrel) shape makes it a comfortable watch to wear for almost any size wrist. The original DOXA SUBs were sold with a steel “beads of rice” bracelet and had a spring-loaded clasp that expanded to accommodate a wetsuit-clad wrist. Nothing was arbitrary on the DOXA SUB. If it didn’t serve the purpose of a timing a dive, it didn’t make it onto the watch.

There are still many of the original 1960s DOXA SUBs around today, a testament to the durability of the watches, especially since most of them were bought to be used as they were intended. The evidence of countless hours spent under the crushing pressure of seawater and dozens of knocks on tanks and boat ladders can be seen in the scratches and dings on the bezel and case. The half-life of tritium is about twelve and a half years and the dial markers and hands of this old warrior have faded to a lovely café au lait. The reliable Swiss automatic movement within continues to count out the minutes, as if faithfully waiting for another dive to time. But this old bottom timer has earned its retirement, where it will spend its remaining years topside, reminding its owner of adventures past and the glory days of diving.


Photo Credits | Gishani for Gear Patrol, Illustrations by GP

Consider Reading: Volume 1: Super Compressor Dive Watch