By ALEX WILLIAMS
Ask yourself, how many buddies do you have with dive watches? Now ask yourself, how many of them dive with one?
Didn’t think so.
One man who has made a living doing so is Jason Heaton, a Minnesota-based journalist, who is known to watch geeks as a test pilot for the world’s most illustrious undersea timepieces. As a contributor to magazines like Men’s Journal and Outside, and sites like Hodinkee and Gear Patrol, Mr. Heaton, 47, has scuba-tested many dive watches, ranging in price from a few hundred dollars for a Scurfa to a $145,000 Richard Mille over the course of more than 400 dives around the world.
Fresh off a dive off Sri Lanka, where, wearing a Rolex Submariner, he explored the wreck of the H.M.S. Hermes, an aircraft carrier sunk during World War II, Mr. Heaton discussed the continuing allure of dive watches in an era when many scuba enthusiasts consider them obsolete.
Q. First off, does any diver really need a dive watch?
Short answer, no. The electronic dive computer came into regular use in the late 1980s. You get on a dive boat now, nobody’s wearing a watch — well, maybe 10 percent are. There’s this secret fraternity out there. But it’s a dying breed.
So why are dive watches so dominant in the marketplace?
James Bond is the obvious hook. Sean Connery wore a Rolex Submariner in the early Bond films, and that watch represented this concept of no-nonsense ruggedness. Men these days yearn for a time when you actually had to do things — split your own wood, hunt for your dinner. We’re getting so removed from that that we hold on to these talismans of derring-do.
Does that mean a mechanical dive watch is nothing but a retro affectation?
I always wear a dive watch on the wrist opposite a computer. First off, should the battery in the computer fail, you have a backup. Secondly, there are things an analog watch does better than a digital dive computer, such as helping time swim distances for navigation. At worst, it’s ornamental. When you’re back at work, you can always look down on your wrist and smile and think, “I just took this down to the wreck of the Hermes two weeks ago.”
That does not stop watch brands from pushing the engineering frontier. Several high-end dive watches, for example, come with a “helium escape valve.” Sounds cool, but what is it?
Saturation divers — like guys welding oil pipelines in the North Sea — live in a habitat pressurized to the same depth as the seawater in which they’re working, and the gas they’re breathing is high in helium content, which seeps into watches. The valve helps the gas escape. But those valves are utterly worthless to 99.9 percent of the people who buy them.
What about all the watches with crazy depth ratings? Citizen just came out with an Eco-Drive Professional Diver 1000M rated to go an insane 1,000 meters. Who needs that?
The fact is, most recreational divers don’t go deeper than 50 or 60 feet. A high-water resistance is a badge of honor, like a 200-mile-per-hour sports car.
What is a good example of a forward-looking dive watch done right?
The Tudor Pelagos. They really thought it through with the ceramic bezel, the titanium case and bracelet, and the spring-loaded clasp on the bracelet that compensates for the compression of a wet-suit sleeve. It’s very sleek, very modern — sort of the analog dive watch for the 21st century.
In the end, is a dive watch just a fantasy object for most guys, like an aviator watch?
Pilot watches feel even more aspirational to me. You put on this big Breitling Navitimer, and no one even knows how to use the slide-rule function. I’m sort of an aviation geek as well, but if it’s one or the other, I’m reaching for a dive watch nine out of 10 times. Water resistance just trumps all other functions. You never know when you’ll have to jump in a pool to save a drunken party guest.
This interview has been edited and condensed.