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Dive Watches at Auction - Landing a Bargain

Dive Watches at Auction Landing a Bargain

Is it a good idea to jump in the deep end and invest in a vintage dive watch?

Ranking auction stars in the Dive Watch category is a bit like trio betting tips — almost always the same players, but not necessarily in the same order. That said, Rolex does seem to stand out from the crowd, thanks to its history, seniority, technical prowess, and looks. As one specialist puts it: “Rolex is a war machine. Watertightness has always been a concern for them, ever since the 1930s. Even now, it takes between five and ten years to produce a new case, or a new movement. And when it comes out, it’s perfect.” 

A market that's still immature

However, dive watches didn’t immediately draw the attention of auction houses or collectors. “It was 30 or 40 years before a dive watch achieved record auction results”, says Romain Réa, CEO of Antiquorum. “The dive watch isn’t a complication as such. It’s also relatively reare and needs a degree of explanation; that takes time.” This observation applies to all brands: from a technical point of view, the movement in a dive watch is not the centre of attention. The only thing that counts is the case and its watertightness. Another atypical aspect is that most end users (divers, submarine operators, servicemen and women, and the like) are not in the public eye. 

Dive watches also plough an unusual furrow, wending their way between history (true), marketing (sometimes outrageous), tribute pieces (albeit destined for the general public) and operational watches (for the armed forces that keep them under wraps), as well as periods of war when they were sometimes on the wrong side of history (such as Italy and Germany during World War II), times over which brands tend to draw a discreet veil… At the end of the day, separating truth from fiction — and prototypes from limited editions — can be a real conundrum. To cut through the tangle, it’s best to stick to factual criteria: dive watches with seniority and those that have a genuine history or hold a record. Any that fall into both categories win the jackpot.

Landing a Bargain

Seamaster 300 FAP © Omega

The Pioneers

Panerai is most definitely in the first category. Its earliest studies for dive watches (in this case, for the military) date back to 1936/1937. The pieces in question are extremely rare, and often extensively tried and tested. Some may even be diving instruments rather than watches (i.e compasses).

Their movements are secondary — Angelus and Rolex Cortebert calibers are frequently used. On 8 December 2014, Artcurial blazed a trail with a ‘Panerai Only’ auction in which the oldest lots dated back to the 1950s. The auction was highly praised by the critics — and many items sold for just a few thousand euros.

During the 1940s, World War II halted watchmaking developments, but in the 1950s they revived, boosted by two separate trends: the armed forces started to procure new kit, and diving began to emerge as a leisure activity.

In response, leading brands took to the seas: the Omega Seamaster, the Rolex Submariner, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms and the Breitling SuperOcean date back to 1948, 1953, 1954, and 1957 respectively. These original pieces are still highly soughtafter, with a clear preference for Rolex and Blancpain: these brands’ watchmaking aura has trickled down to dive watches, even though these are destined for more discerning buyers. Later, Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak (1972) and Patek Philippe’s Nautilus (1976) broadened the spectrum, although they were not pure dive watches.

Landing a Bargain

Ref. 1680 Submariner © Rolex

Record And History

When it comes to watches with a fine history and record-holders, the pieces in question are more recent, quite simply because extreme dives of between 3,000 and 10,000 metres are too.

Timepieces in this category include those produced by Rolex for Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises (COMEX) in Marseille: approximately 1,800 watches in the space of 35 years — plus a good number of fakes, especially as far as the dials are concerned. Original pieces currently go for CHF 80,000-100,000, rising by 5% per year on average. Antiquorum broke a new record when a 1979 Ref. 1680 Submariner COMEX, one of a series of only 60 watches, fetched CHF 524,000.

Both Phillips and Christie’s have sold a Rolex Deep Sea Special. On 23 January 1960, this extreme dive watch secured the deepest dive record, at 10,911 metres. One piece sold for CHF 1,058,500 at Phillips, another for CHF 1,890,000 at Christie’s (this one being the very first, thus commanding a higher price). That’s a lot more than for a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, regularly valued at CHF 50,000 for models from between 1955 and 1965.

Landing a Bargain

Fifty Fathoms Rotomatic Incabloc © Blancpain

Challengers and those to keep an eye on

Nowadays, the interest in dive watches is drawing attention back to a couple of other references besides Rolex and Blancpain: the Breitling SuperOcean, the Omega Seamaster, a few 1970s Doxas, and to a lesser extent, some Royal Oak Offshores. The latter watch will be celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2023, which should bring it into the limelight. Omega’s Ploprof, launched in 1970, attracts some connoisseurs. It may not be a timepiece for everyday wear, but its uncompromising technical standards and atypical look make it a curiosity. A few rare watches prototyped for COMEX in 1968 have gone for CHF 140,000, but no 1970s models have fetched more than a tenth of this exceptional price. At under CHF 20,000, the 1950s SuperOcean remains affordable and is establishing itself as a potentially good investment. Lastly, special Seamasters such as those supplied to the Royal Navy in the late 1960s (and duly stamped as such) are very often sold for six-figure sums, but models from the earlier series (1955-1965) are still within reach, at CHF 30,000-40,000. 

This year GMT Magazine and WorldTempus have embarked on the ambitious project of summarising the divers watch since 2000 in The Millennium Watch Book - Divers watch, a big, beautifully laid out coffee table book. This article is an extract. The Millennium Watch Book - Divers watch is available in both French and English here:

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