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05/11/2021
 8 minutes

5 Indestructible Watches for the Most Extreme Conditions

By Tim Breining
Extremsport
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Deep-sea divers, fighter pilots, thrill-seekers, and watch lovers with refined tastes all have one thing in common: Their passion for robust timepieces. Whether it’s a diving or pilot’s watch or a watch that can take even the hardest of blows, these timepieces have been fan favorites for decades. However, for most of the folks wearing them, these watches may never have to withstand the tests they are designed for. 

These watch features aren’t just impressive and handy; they can, in fact, be quantified and compared. Stunt flying, anyone? A quick diving adventure to the local shipwreck? Maybe. But how about having a watch like this on your wrist at the office? Isn’t it plain cool to own the most robust, water-resistant, and shock-proof watch, no matter what you do (or don’t do) with it? 

Refined and indestructible: the Rolex Sea-Dweller Deepsea
Refined and indestructible: the Rolex Sea-Dweller Deepsea

Watch enthusiasts love comparing the specs of what’s on their wrists with each other. But let’s be honest: It’s not exactly crystal-clear what these specifications and numbers specifically mean. What exactly can you do with 300 meters of water resistance? Do these specs say anything about how durably it’s manufactured? The same goes for names like “diving watch,” “sports watch,” or “Flieger A and B.” Can anyone tell you off the top of their head what these labels guarantee, if anything? What can you expect to experience with them? The following five watch examples will hopefully shed some light on this. 

1. The Rolex Sea-Dweller Deepsea: An Extraordinary Classic

There are so many different diving watches you can buy. Although no single model embodies everything they have to offer, Rolex’s Sea-Dweller Deepsea, with its staggering 3,900 meters (12,800 ft) of water resistance, is a great example of how diving watches are manufactured. These timepieces’ specifications are anything but ordinary. 

The most basic level of water resistance is protection against rain or splashes. Watchmakers achieve this by building watches that prevent water from seeping into their cases. Gaskets seal the unavoidable spaces and slits in a watch, e.g., the crown or case back where water could enter the timepiece. The advantage here is that watches can remain thin and sleek. Dress watches, for instance, don’t require a thick case or a screw-down crown. The disadvantage, however, is that this protection only lasts up to around 50 meters (5 bar, 164 feet). Furthermore, depth ratings shouldn’t be understood in a one-to-one manner: For example, the pressure placed on a watch when you hop in the pool could be much higher. Get too acrobatic with your next jump off the diving board, and that could be the last time you see your watch in working condition. 

New Rolex Deepsea Image Rolex
An extraordinary watch on land and sea: The Rolex Sea-Dweller Deepsea.

Robust and Refined: The Rolex Sea-Dweller Deepsea’s Domed Sapphire Crystal

The minimum depth rating for a diving watch is typically 200 meters (20 bar, 656 feet). However, divers wanting to venture to greater depths need a more robust watch to avoid the danger of its crystal shattering or case back warping while underwater. Watches with very high depth ratings almost always tend to be chunky clunkers upon the wrist, and their crystal is often domed. This feature on the Sea-Dweller Deepsea is not for looks; it helps make the watch even more stable. It’s the same reason the legendary Rolex Deep Sea Special had a semi-spherical “bubble” over its dial that was approximately 33 times as high as normal watch crystal. 

Along with a case designed to resist pressure and prevent water from seeping in, the helium escape valve is another indispensable feature for serious diving watches. First introduced by Doxa in 1969 and by Rolex’s Sea-Dweller in 1971, it solves a specific problem saturation divers encounter by releasing helium through a round vent in the case side. 

2. Exotic Vintage Character: The Christopher Ward C65 Super Compressor

The so-called “super compressor” is a rarer sight among diving watches. Instead of a case back built to withstand crazy amounts of pressure, the Christoper Ward Super Compressor uses the elasticity of a super-thin compression spring that presses the case back tighter and tighter against the O-ring gasket as the watch descends and water pressure increases. Hence the watch’s name: Within its stated depth rating, the deeper the watch goes, the more compressed and sealed it becomes. With the C65 Super Compressor, the Christopher Ward brand has reintroduced a timepiece featuring this technology more than 50 years after its last true appearance. From the 1950s to the 70s, the case manufacturer Ervin Piquerez SA supplied several well-known brands with this innovation. Although the C65 is specified to a depth of “only” 150 meters (15 bar, 492 feet), this somewhat forgotten watch construction has provided more than sufficient proof of concept. 

3. Pita Barcelona Oceana: A Diving Watch Revolution?

You can find a radical new diving watch concept in Barcelona with the timepieces from AHCI Master Watchmaker Aniceto Jiménez Pita. The Pita Oceana can reach depths of up to 5,000 meters (500 bar, 16,500 ft) and be set while diving. The Spanish watchmaker achieves this astonishing feat by sealing the timepiece’s inner mechanisms entirely inside the case without any openings. The watch has no crown or stem. Instead, the hands of its heavily modified ETA 2678 base movement are set by turning a bidirectional closed case back featuring its patented Time Setting Mechanism (TSM) and Remote Transmission (RT) technologies. Magnetic points on this rotating back plate activate the magnetic gears adapted over the movement. This magnetic interplay is shielded to maintain the watch’s excellent precision of +/- 2 seconds per day. 

Diving Watch Norms: What to Look for When Purchasing

If all of these ingenious technologies and designs have got your head spinning, the good news is that there are reliable certification systems that guarantee a watch’s performance. However, what does the term “diving watch” really mean, especially considering that it covers everything from “diver-style” timepieces to gargantuan, nearly indestructible models rated to serious depths? 

National and international standards are a great help. For example, the ISO 6425 standard defines what constitutes a diving watch. If a manufacturer states that their watch follows this standard, the buyer can rest assured that the timepiece meets its stated specifications and has been tested by an independent institution. 

Along with reliability underwater, ISO 6425 also defines strap/band solidity, shock and magnetic resistance, the presence of a rotatable timing bezel, and legibility. The minimum water resistance standard is “only” 200 meters (656 ft), even though there are more water-resistant models out there not claiming ISO certification. In this case, the buyer has to trust the manufacturer and be able to spot the difference between marketing and good-old-fashioned physics. Put another way: Although official standards ensure reliable, precisely-defined minimum requirements, this doesn’t automatically mean that a non-certified watch is inferior to one that’s certified. 

Well-made diving watches like the Omega Seamaster almost always meet ISO 6425 standards.
Well-made diving watches like the Omega Seamaster almost always meet ISO 6425 standards.

4. IWC Big Pilot’s Watch Shock Absorber XPL: A Shock-Resistant Pilot’s Watch

Speaking of durability, a few weeks back at Watches and Wonders, IWC presented an impressive concept timepiece that pushes the envelope of shock resistance while still maintaining its pilot’s watch look. This is a welcome opportunity to delve into the technical concept of shock resistance and its relation to pilot’s watches. After an alleged eight years in development, this watch is scheduled to be released in annual ten-watch increments due to its manufacturing complexity. 

The central idea behind the Big Pilot’s Watch Shock Absorber XPL is its shock resistance. IWC states its timepiece is protected from acceleration forces of more than a jaw-dropping 30,000 g. Before looking at how this watch actually achieves this, let’s first explore its background. At first glance, it seems excessive to build a watch that can withstand thirty thousand times the force of Earth’s gravitational acceleration. After all, a well-trained fighter pilot can tolerate a force of 9 g for only a short amount of time. 

IWC presented an extremely durable concept watch at Watches and Wonders 2021.
IWC presented an extremely durable concept watch at Watches and Wonders 2021.

The fact is that a watch that can resist “only” 9 g would lose quite a bit of its everyday functionality – and not just for fighter pilots. Whenever we hear about “Gs,” it conjures up images of evasive fighter jet maneuvers or wild roller coaster rides. People generally don’t think about the jolts or shocks watches sometimes endure. When they occur, watches do, in fact, experience surprisingly high levels of force. A watch that gets bumped hard against a wall or dropped on the floor suddenly “hits the brakes” to a complete stop within a very short time period, subjecting it to very severe force. 

When a hard object falls onto a similarly hard surface, this can easily create a four-digit g-force upon impact. Studies have shown that a smartphone dropped to the floor is subject to a g-force of over 400. From this perspective, and with the IWC Big Pilot’s Watch Shock Absorber XPL in mind, 30,000 g starts to sound a lot less absurd. 

Extremely Robust: IWC’s Tough-Built All-Rounder 

Mechanical watch shock resistance requires two key things. First, impacts cannot create deviations in accuracy outside of acceptable parameters. Second, the watch’s movement may not sustain any permanent damage. The force occurring during an impact mainly depends on the mass of the watch’s components and the rigidity of its bearings. One thing that makes shock resistance particularly difficult is how small the tiny balance wheel shafts have to be to minimize friction. Perhaps the most common watch shock protection is a spring suspension system that lets the balance wheel “float in space” any time the watch experiences a shock, increasing the time of connection. The same amount of force enters the watch’s movement, but the maximum force is significantly reduced as a result. 

IWC Big Pilot’s Watch Shock Absorber XPL applies this principle to its movement. Its case houses a cantilevered spring suspension system cradling the movement inside: the patented SPRIN-g PROTECT system made of advanced Bulk Metallic Glass (BMG). Known for its outstanding shock-absorbing qualities, this is the same material found in golf clubs. 

When the watch experiences a shock, this construction channels the force to its solid case, while the inner movement is subject to significantly lower impact thanks to its being suspended. IWC’s use of titanium and aluminum to create this timepiece’s shock absorbing system provides additional protection. 

5. Sinn 103 Ti UTC IFR: A New Pilot’s Watch Standard

Sinn created new industry standards with watches like the 103 Ti UTC IFR
Sinn created new industry standards with watches like the 103 Ti UTC IFR

Excluding German watchmaker Sinn from an article about pilot’s watch requirements and technologies would be quite the horological faux pas. This becomes even more understandable when considering Sinn’s role in the creation of the DIN (German Institute for Standardization) 8330 standard for pilot’s watches. There’s currently no ISO equivalent to DIN 8330, so think of it as like the ISO 6425 standard but applied to pilot’s watches. 

The 103 Ti UTC IFR is one of Sinn’s first models certified according to the DIN 8330 standard. Before DIN 8330, Sinn, together with a university of applied sciences and other companies, established the TESTAF technical specifications for pilot’s watches. This was followed by cooperation with (among others) watchmakers Laco, Hanhart, Stowa, and Glashütte Original, along with Lufthansa Cargo to create the DIN 8330 standard. 

A particular feature of this standard is its inclusion of aviation industry regulations and international military standards. The result is a strict set of comprehensive guidelines. The functionality of DIN 8330-certified timepieces may not be negatively affected by shocks, nor may their operation interfere with cockpit instruments or airplane scatter, for example. The watch should also function as a backup in case onboard instrumentation fails to work properly. Conversely, the watch should not interfere with nor limit normal aircraft operation. 

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About the Author

Tim Breining

My interest in watches first emerged in 2014 while I was studying engineering in Karlsruhe, Germany. My initial curiosity quickly evolved into a full-blown passion. Since …

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