As the big brands ventured ever deeper into the ocean’s interior they had no idea what may lurk in the darkness beneath. It never occurred for a moment that it might be another watch. This is the story of the dive watch that came out of the blue to beat the behemoths to the bottom of the sea.
The dive watch, as we now know it, can trace its advent back to the early 1950s. First, Blancpain developed the enigmatic ‘Fifty Fathoms’, with a depth rating of 91.44m (300ft), for French Navy special forces frogmen in 1953. Later the same year, Rolex unveiled the first iteration of its legendary Submariner, waterproof to 100m (330ft) and increasing to 200m (656ft) soon after. A new post-war era of ocean exploration, combined with increased underwater commercial activity, specialised military dive units and an exponential increase in the popularity of recreational diving, set a new course for the Swiss watch industry.
And so began a frantic race into the abyss which would envelop watchmaking for the next two decades. The horological establishment of Rolex, Omega, Blancpain, IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre obsessively competed to develop commercially viable dive watches capable of performing at greater depths than had previously been considered possible. R&D departments no longer measured success in seconds and minutes, it was now all about feet and metres and they left a slick of buckled case backs, failed gaskets and shattered crystals in their wake. By the 1960s, a dive watch that could safely function at 300m (984ft) was an incredible achievement and was a metric that still eluded many major brands. However, both Rolex and Omega were rumoured to be in advance stages of development on models that could achieve a staggering 600m — twice the depth accomplished until that point.
Unbeknownst to all, at the same time, two virtually unheard-of companies were working alongside each other, on an idea that would change everything.
Jenny Watches was a small, family-run business, which manufactured, produced, finished and assembled dive watches branded by other Swiss watch companies. It had been testing an extraordinary new type of ‘one-piece’ case, milled from a single block of stainless steel with an enclosed back. By dispensing with a conventional screw-down case back and associated gaskets they had effectively eliminated the parts of the watch most vulnerable to water ingress. A simple but brilliant concept which Jenny imaginatively trademarked the ‘Caribbean 1000’. Now all they needed was a partner to help introduce the innovation to the world’s oceans.
Ollech & Wajs, an independent, Zurich based watchmaker, was first to see the potential. OW had been working with Jenny for some time and although itself only having been founded eight years earlier, had already established its credentials as a maker of rugged and reliable dive watches. Jenny’s revolutionary ‘monobloc’ case would provide OW with exactly what was needed to meet the increasing demands of the dive community. OW quickly secured a licence to incorporate the case in a new line of ‘Precision’ dive watches, providing Jenny with the investment it needed to begin production. Appropriately, OW’s initial order was for ‘1000 cases’. A 17 Jewel ETA 2452 self-winding movement, topped with a black lacquered dial, was front loaded deep into the innovative new case and sealed with a 5mm domed acrylic crystal. In 1964 the ‘Caribbean 1000 Triple-Safe’ case, as it was called, was launched with a certified record-shattering depth rating of 1,000m (3,300ft).
The announcement sent the entire industry back to the drawing board. All talk of the mythical 600m mark dissipated like the last trickle of bubbles from a regulator. The single biggest leap forwards in the evolution of the dive watch came not from one of the established powerhouses but from an alliance of relative newcomers with a willingness to collaborate and pool their expertise.
There have always been two types of watch company — those inclined to collaborate with others and those that prefer a more insular ‘in-house’ approach. The aforementioned Blancpain openly worked with specialist dive watch case maker of the ’60s and ’70s, Squale. A version of the famous ‘Fifty Fathoms’ even bore the Squale brand mark on the dial. Ever since the day in 1956 when Joseph Ollech and Albert J. Wajs got together and consolidated their respective expertise to form a wristwatch company, collaboration has been in OW’s DNA.
Indeed, OW was not the only brand to license the ‘Caribbean 1000’ badge. Jenny worked with several companies to create different versions, but it is undoubtedly the OW configuration that made the ‘Caribbean 1000’ such a commercial success and an enduring icon. It was due in part to OW’s established mail-order business and expansive network of US ARMY PX stores that the watch became such a hit with military personnel, recreational, competitive and commercial divers alike.
Over 50 years on, many of those original watches are still fully serviceable and ocean ready. One or two may well be on the wrists of divers somewhere right now. However, given the majority of scuba divers never go below 40m (131ft) and even the most experienced saturation divers never exceed 300m (984ft), few if any of any of those ‘Caribbean 1000s’ have ever been within 700m of their limit.
More than just another dive watch, the ‘Caribbean 1000’ is a historical milestone, and its creation forced the industry to set its sights lower. There are two very valuable lessons we can take from the OW ‘Caribbean 1000’ story. Firstly, always be as concerned about who’s behind you as much as who’s ahead. Secondly, don’t focus on what the competition may be planning — focus on what they haven’t even dreamt of.