The history of efforts to use watches underwater and to make watches that are water resistant, or waterproof and to make dive watches goes back to perhaps the 17th century. In the 19th century water and dust resistant watches were usually one-off pieces custom made for a particular customer and described as "Explorer's Watches". Hard hat divers of that period sometimes placed common pocketwatches on the inside of their helmets in order to know the time spent under water. Early in the 20th century such watches were industrially produced for military and commercial distribution. Like their predecessors early 20th century dive watches were developed in response to meet the needs of several different but related groups: explorers, navies, and professional divers.
In 1926, Rolex created the new “Oyster” watch, featuring a hermetically sealed case. On 7 October 1927 an English swimmer, Mercedes Gleitze attempted to cross the English Channel with a new Rolex Oyster hanging round her neck by a ribbon on this swim. After more than 10 hours in the chilly water the watch remained sealed and kept good time throughout.
Omega SA is credited as the creator of the world's first industrially produced diving watch intended for commercial distribution, the rectangular Omega "Marine" with a patented double sliding and removable case, introduced in 1932. After a series of trials undertaken by the Swiss Laboratory for Horology in Neuchâtel in May 1937, the watch was certified as being able to withstand a pressure of 1.37 MPa (13.5 atm), equivalent to a depth of 135 m (443 ft), without any water intake whatsoever.
By today's standards, the Omega Marine was no more a divers watch than the Rolex Oyster which preceded it. Indeed, the Rolex Oyster had more in common with a modern divers watch than the Omega, since it had a metal bracelet instead of the leather band of the Omega.
In addition, a large number of "canteen" style dive watches by Hamilton, Elgin or Waltham were made to military specification during and after World War II. However, these watches were made in small numbers, and were not intended for large-scale commercial distribution. Today, interest in these watches is limited to collectors.Following a request made by the Royal Italian Navy, in September 1935, for a luminous underwater watch for divers, Panerai offered "Radiomir" underwater timepieces in 1936. These watches were made by Rolex for Panerai.
In 1953, Lip-Blancpain's Fifty Fathoms waterproof watch came on the market in France. Various models were issued by Blancpain in small quantities to the military in several countries, including US and French Navy combat diver teams. The Fifty Fathoms was worn by Jacques Cousteau and his divers during the underwater film "Le monde du silence", which won the Palme d'or at the Cannes film festival in 1956, and in the US when TV star Lloyd Bridges wore a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms dive watch in a photo that appeared on the cover of the February 1962 edition of Skin Diver Magazine.
The Rolex Submariner was introduced at the Basel Watch Fair in 1954 which coincided with the development of self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, known as scuba. In 1959, the United States Navy Experimental Diving Unit evaluated five diving watches that included the Bulova US Navy Submersible Wrist Watch, Enicar Sherpa Diver 600, Enicar Seapearl 600, Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, and the Rolex Oyster Perpetual.
In 1961, Edox launched the Delfin line of watches, with industry-first double case backs for water resistance to 200 meters. They later released the Hydrosub line in 1963 featuring the first crown system with tension ring allowing depths of 500 meters.
In 1961, Rolex began to include a skindiver handbook with the Submariner, then available in two models, one water resistant to 200 m (660 ft), the other, less expensive version, to 100 m (330 ft). It was the choice of watch for the character of 007 in the first ten James Bond films, causing the "Sub" to achieve an iconic status.