Deep Dive

Scuba Diving in the Cayman Islands with Two Longines Dive Watches


March 19, 2020 Watches By Photo by Allen Farmelo

Welcome to Deep Dive, in which we test dive watches both new and vintage beneath the waves in some of the world’s most beautiful locations. This time, we’re in the Cayman Islands with the Longines Legend and Heritage divers, modern recreations of vintage Swiss classics.

Field testing dive watches means going scuba diving, and that’s what we did recently with two modern recreations of Longines’ first two dive watches, the Skin Diver (circa 1959) and the Legend Diver (technically reference 7042, circa the early 1960s). Though vintage in style, these two watches are capable modern divers packed with modern automatic mechanical movements, bright-shining lume, 300m of water resistance, sapphire crystals, and corrosion-proof stainless steel. Under the waves on the desolate East End of Grand Cayman in the West Caribbean, however, they proved that few significant advancements have been made in mechanical divers since the middle of the 20th Century.

As part of Longines’ Heritage Collection, the Skin Diver and the Legend Diver are very faithful recreations of the vintage pieces. Unlike most brands’ reissues, Longines doesn’t change the sizes much. Instead, they recreate watches that were originally larger than average, and this means you get both vintage credibility and modern appeal.

Original versions of the both the Skin and Legend Diver will cost you manyfold what these recreations will run you. (The Skin Diver costs $2,600, the Legend Diver $2,400.) Because these recreations are aesthetically accurate, durable, and well executed, seeking a vintage one seems reserved for collectors with money to burn. If you’re still not convinced, keep in mind that Longines has been in continuous operation in the same building (with some modern additions) since its inception in 1832 — this eliminates the inauthenticity one can feel when buying recreations from a brand that is essentially a trademark acquisition operating out of third-party factories.

In fact, though Longines uses ETA movements, it bears consideration that A) Longines and ETA are both owned by the SWATCH Group, and that B) two ETA facilities operate at the Longines factory, both building movements that were developed with and for Longines specifically.

When we asked CEO Walter Von Kanel if he considered Longines movements to be “in-house”, he rightfully noted that, “One has to be careful with this question.” Then he rattled off specific calibers and their varying level of uniqueness to Longines watches, citing small movements for ladies models as the most qualified for that exalted status. So, it’s a gray area, to be sure, but, perhaps like in buying a Seiko, when buying a Longines you do get the satisfaction of knowing that all manufacturing happens in one central facility, thus lending the watches the spirit of in-house manufacturing, if not concrete bonafides as such.

What’s more, it would be a tall order for any company to offer an in-house watch at these prices. Longines occupies the slot in the SWATCH Group just below Omega, so while there is some price overlap, the mandate on Longines is to slot into the echelon below that brand. That cut-off point is roughly $5,000 — these two divers each cost less than half that, and given their uniqueness, historical pedigree, and the manufacturing continuity at Longines, both models seem like a bargain.

The Skin Diver was Longines’s first dive watch, issued in 1959. We’ll spare you the forensic details in the differences between the original and the modern executions, but suffice it to say, the recreation is very very close to the original: It measures 42mm across, and it wears comfortably on all sizes of wrists. One female diver in our group with somewhat diminutive wrists sported it comfortably enough against bare skin, and very comfortably over her 3mm wetsuit. Unfortunately, the Milanese-style bracelet — which is gorgeous and rock solid — lacks an expansion mechanism, so for diving we put it on an Isofrane rubber strap.

A black PVD-coated steel bezel stands in for the original Bekelite version, and it’s a delight to operate. Its teeth bite into frigid finger tips or neoprene gloves for easy operation above or below the surface. With no date, the watch is super easy to set should it run out of power, and overall, it’s a no-nonsense, hardcore diver with 300m of water resistance and vintage vibes that’ll make your dives — be they at the desk or in the ocean — beautifully anachronistic.

Vintage-style lume, or fauxtina, or whatever we want to call the color of the markers and hands on both the Skin Diver and the Legend Diver, has been a somewhat heated topic. However, because these watches are recreations of vintage pieces whose tritium lume had, in fact, turned beige, it’s easy to just accept this color as a tribute to the watches’ real ancestors. Modern lume is highly unlikely to change color over time, so the choice of beige is the only viable option.

Down in the basement of the Longines factory is both a museum and a hermetically sealed archive containing tens of thousands of original models. That archive is off-limits to most employees, let alone visitors, but on a recent trip to company’s plant we were granted a short-lived visit during which a stylishly bespectacled curator delicately pulled priceless examples into her caring hands for us to ogle. That visit convinced us that the tinted lume on these watches was the right choice; there they were, in all their beige patina’d glory — the templates for these recreations.

Longines developed the Legend Diver in the early 1960s as the follow up to the Skin Diver. Significantly different in many ways from the Skin Diver, the Legend Diver employed “super compressor” technology, which was developed by the case maker Ervin Piquerez (“EPSA”). In the simplest terms, the super compressor uses the increasing water pressure experienced while diving to compress the case seals, thus improving waterproofness at depth where it’s needed. Many, though not all, super compressor-equipped watches used the dual crown and internal rotating bezel found on the original Legend Divers. The recreation, being true to form, uses the same configuration, but foregoes actual super compressor functionality in favor of modern case sealing and screw-down crowns, offering the watch a robust 300m of water resistance.

Like the Skin Diver, the Legend Diver measures 42mm, and is a kind of amalgamation of the various Legend Diver references that came out during the 1960s. Again, we’ll spare you the meticulous forensic analysis, and simply say that unless you happen to be a Legend Diver expert, this watch is also very very similar to its ancestors. The chief evolution from the earlier Legend Divers is the addition of a date window.

We asked Walter Von Kanel why he included a date window, and his answer was characteristically blunt and candid: “Look, I need to sell these watches, and most people want a date window.” Fair enough. He then went on to tell us — with a notable roll of his eyes — that they did a small run of these without the date window, and that, as he expected, they didn’t sell that well. (From time to time these dateless models will surface on the secondary market for ridiculous asking prices that would send us off after a vintage one instead.)

The example of the Legend Diver we had in hand came on the Alcantara fabric strap, which we dove with. The traditional buckle worked fine, and the Alcantara survived with nary a sign of use, though it did take a while longer to dry than, say, a nylon NATO strap would have. But this strap is an interesting proposition, offering a dressy look that can take a dip without damage.

Operating the crown of the Legend Diver at 4:30 to adjust the internal timing ring is not ideal when compared to operating a more standard external bezel, like the one found on the Skin Diver. For actual diving, it’s kind of a nuisance, especially once the watch is strapped on over a wetsuit, which pushes the crown into the neoprene, making it even harder to operate. (Of course, very few people are using timing bezels underwater these days in any case.) The internal bezel is perfect for timing domestic tasks, however. The dual crowns recreate the compelling complexity of this particular super compressor configuration, one that speaks to the 1960s specifically, when this type of diver was somewhat common.

It’s worth noting that Longines offers the Legend Diver in a 36mm case, and that this smaller version is available with a black dial, a beautiful (though certainly not vintage) faded tropical dial, and also with a white pearl dial. Interestingly, 36mm is, in fact, not the vintage size, as would be the common assumption. Indeed, the original was around 42mm, so here we see the smaller watch as a rather modern phenomenon: namely, the bid for customers into “vintage sizes” and for the “unisex” market.

Longines produces and sells close to 2-million watches a year. We have no idea what percentage of that number the Heritage line accounts for, but it’s safe to assume it isn’t the bulk. At the same time, we don’t see Longines pushing ads for their Heritage models the way, say, Oris pushes the very successful Divers 65 reissues or that Doxa pushes its historic recreations of their SUB 300 models. This is the economics of scale at work, and the only possible downside is that some people are less aware of Longines’ rich and deep history than they might be if the brand were pushing their Heritage series more robustly.

For us watch nerds, however, the Skin Diver and the Legend Diver recreations are not only some of the best Longines watches being produced today, but some of the best historically accurate recreations on offer from any brand.

Longines provided this product for review.

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Allen Farmelo

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