Four years after the release of the Tudor Black Bay, retro dive watches have become the absolute must-have for any brand looking to embrace its inner hipster
By Tim Barber
One might mischievously speculate that even within the closed corporate ranks of Tudor/Rolex, there will have been a few raised eyebrows when Oris released a bronze version of its hit retro dive watch, the Divers Sixty-Five, back in January; for Tudor was shortly to unveil a bronze variant of its own all-conquering retro diver, the Heritage Black Bay. The bronze Black Bay appeared at Baselworld in March, upsized to 43mm, and with applied numerals (for the first time on a Tudor dive watch) on its chocolate brown dial. It is also the first ever bronze-cased watch from Rolex or Tudor. Along with an all-black PVD variant, the incorporation of Tudor’s MT5601 in-house movement into the entire Black Bay line, and even a bezel-free 36mm model, it made the Heritage Black Bay once again one of Basel’s major talking points.
So it has been since the Black Bay first appeared in 2012, opening the floodgates for a swathe of retro-ish, diver-ish watches touting modish strap choices, colourfully recherché designs and a warming sense of history – or, at least, patinated lume – over and above their original “tool watch” capabilities. Heck, even Q-Branch came round to Nato straps and vintage style with 007’s Omega Seamaster “Spectre”; while this year’s dive revivalists include Oris, Alpina, Zodiac and Seiko.
Of course, Tudor hardly invented the idea of the retro watch, let alone the retro dive watch – you could argue that the Longines Legend Diver, launched in 2007 and still going strong, set a worthy blueprint for such shenanigans, which was followed up in fine style by Jaeger-LeCoultre with its Memovox “tribute” watches celebrating the Polaris and the Deep Sea in subsequent years.
But it was Tudor who hit the retro zeitgeist dead-on, and accelerated it, fuelled on the one hand by the simple and startling dearth of good, sophisticated watch design at sub-£3,000 prices. More subtly, the sharply increasing value of vintage Rolex Submariners (and eventually Tudor ones too), pushed these out of reach for many clued-up, new generation watch lovers who craved a slice of retro Rolex coolness. The Black Bay gave them an alternative that breathed the same air as those vintage Subs, at a price that offered serious value for the quality.
Of those following in the Black Bay’s wake, the most interesting is the aforementioned Divers Sixty-Five from Oris, a sleeper hit at last year’s Basel. It faithfully recreates a charming Oris watch from (you guessed it) 1965, which oozed character thanks to its jazzy quarter-hour numerals silhouetted against square blocks of lume. Its slim proportions, domed glass and cool, tropic-style rubber strap give the Sixty-Five a handsome vintage ambience. This from a brand known more for its capable modern tool watches, and with barely a presence in the vintage market despite its 112-year history. To Oris’s surprise, it’s been a smash.
“It was the best seller of 2015, but it wasn’t planned that way,” says Rolf Studer, Oris’s managing director. “It was designed just to be a nice testament to our dive history, since the original had our own movement in it. But it brought a different clientele that maybe would consider our other watches too serious, too much purely tool watches. This is much more about emotion.”
Though it’s a coincidence that Oris pipped Tudor on the bronze diver front, it would hardly be unkind to suggest that, in developing the Sixty-Five for a willing market, it took a good look at Tudor’s playbook. Last year’s re-edition has now blossomed into a suite of watches that use colour and texture judiciously to keep the retro details just fresh enough, while retaining that sense of well-worn history. And as with the Black Bay, each style comes with carefully selected strap options, including distressed leather, vibrant NATO bands or a bracelet.
Oris has also broadened the appeal with a slightly larger, more generic style that was launched in January’s bronze model, and appeared in a steel version at Basel. This is bigger by 2mm (at 42mm total), and it ditches the funky numerals for more conventional circles of creamy lume. It distinguishes itself, however, with a dial of deep, inky blue that, like the crimson bezel of the original Black Bay, may be at odds with the vintage theme but lends the watch a certain stylish magic that feels perfectly fitting. There’s also a breezy new version of the 2015 model, which swaps the original black dial for one of mysterious grey and blue-green (Studer describes it as “Deauville” blue); the most outlandish version, it’s also the most stylish.
Oris is a maker of serious dive watches, but the Sixty-Five is not really one of them: while its uni-rotating bezel and 100m depth rating ensure it meets the demands of the ISO dive watch standard – and comfortably covers the depth any modern diver is likely to go to – it’s a relatively minimal depth rating by modern standards. It’s half that of the Black Bay in fact, but also for around half the price.
For a tenth of the price and the same depth rating as the Black Bay, though, there’s Seiko, the most accomplished producer of dive watches of all, but one not often given to taking the “emotional” retro route. However, this year it has set its army of vintage fans drooling with the revival of the “Turtle”, the cushion-shaped beater (Ref 6306-9) it produced in the 1970s and ‘80s, and one of the great cult watches of the era. There are a number of versions being produced within the Prospex range, of which the most handsome and desirable has to be a Pepsi-bezel special edition celebrating the brand’s partnership with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI). Whether any of these reaches the UK is another matter, however.
Other brands to hit the hipster dive trail with enthusiasm include Raymond Weil, whose black and orange Freelancer diver is visible at the top of the page, and Christopher Ward, whose latest Trident adds vintage lume (a tick-box that has risen to the top of designers’ checklists over the past few years, but in truth may be a trend whose time has already come) and a “distressed” leather strap.
We’ve already written, here, about the revival of an entire brand, Zodiac, based on the looks of its old sports watches – it even brought yet another bronze version of a retro diving watch to Basel. Another model, the Super Sea Wolf 53 Compression, comes in a variety of groovy colourways including a crimson bezel on a distressed leather strap – a streetwise Tudor alternative.
Alpina launched a vibrant new automatic diving range at Basel, the Sea Strong Diver 300. Always keen to highlight its historic credentials, alongside this it also presented a retro model, the Sea Strong Diver Heritage, based on a super-compressor reference from half a century ago. With its polished case and the silky sheen of its dial and inner rotating bezel, it’s less sporty in appearance than some of the other watches discussed here, but actually trumps them for depth rating, at a doughty 300 metres.
Like its modern progenitor and fellow super-compressor revivalist, the Longines Legend Diver, it’s let down by its generic leather strap. But, strap changing tools being the de rigeur accessory of the post-Black Bay watch collector, this needn’t remain a problem for long.