Cheap Badass Diver Watches
The most famous of diver watches are the Rolex Submariner and the Omega Seamaster, both worn by the relatively unknown (due to his occupation as a secret agent) James Bond. Those who started watching James Bond movies during the Sean Connery and Roger Moore years are probably familiar with another screen legend, Jacques Cousteau. He also wore Submariners and Seamasters, as well as many of the other dive watches available during his underwater career.
Cousteau wore the very first diver watch, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, which came out in 1953, in his 1957 award-winning underwater film “Le Monde du Silence” (The World of Silence). Fifty fathoms is equivalent to about 90 meters or 300 feet. Not very deep by today’s standards, but farther into the abyss than most people will go (including me).
That watch started the trend that would take watches deeper into the sea and inspire men and women to wear tough bulky tool watches throughout all walks of life, not just underwater.
However, those three watches (with automatic movements) range in price from $3,000 to well over $10,000. But we can get all of the functionality, most of the fine finishing and a touch of the horological pedigree for much, much less.
Here are some cheap badass dive watches that I own and recommend that look great, perform well and nearly anyone can afford.
The Mako and the Ray are made by the Orient Watch Company, which was founded in Tokyo in 1950 by Shogoro Yoshida and likely has the most pedigree of my recommendations. The two watches and their subsequent versions are frequently recommended by watch enthusiasts who wear the iconic watches mentioned before. The Mako and Ray have the same movements, the same case and band. The only difference is the dial. Rays have dots for hour indices, while Makos have 6, 9 and 12 numerals, with bars for the other hours. Both have day and date at the 3 o’clock position. The Mako’s bezel and dial are reminiscent of Seamaster Planet Oceans, while the Ray feels more like a Submariner. Both have an extremely high quality finish and the bezels have 60 crisp clicks, which are if anything, a little too tight when new.
I have the Mako with an orange dial and it not only stands out, it looks great and far more expensive than what it costs. The watch is as accurate as many Rolexes too. Mine gains only 3 to 5 seconds per day.
They are also super tough and water resistant to 200 meters (660 feet). There’s a YouTube video showing the orange Mako placed in a frozen meat locker, being dropped from a high bridge onto a gravel, put through an hour-long washing machine cycle, then the clothes dryer and finally run over with a truck in a gravel driveway — twice. The watch no longer looks new (or even “good” condition) but it continues to keep great time and is worn most days by the maker of the video. I left a comment thanking him for his video and he wrote back to say he was wearing it right then.
The original models are no longer made but some of them can still be found new on Amazon for about $115. I got particularly lucky and found mine new there for $85. Since then, Orient has released a second version of both the Ray and Mako with a new movement. They’ve also made a Mako USA, with a tougher sapphire crystal and a solid end-link stainless steel bracelet, and a second version with the new movement (Those version are only available in the USA). And there’s a Mako XL, which is significantly larger than the 41.5mm case diameter of the original, but with the same time-proven 21-jewel in-house automatic movement. I consider these to be the best made watches on my list and recommend any and all of these Orient dive watches.
My most recent acquisition is from the the second family of watches on my list, the Russian-made Vostok Amphibia. Designed during the Cold War and finished in 1967, the Amphibia takes a totally different path to achieve its 200-meter water resistance rating. While nearly every other dive watch uses an o-ring with a screw-down case back to seal out water, the Vostok uses a flat rubber seal and a two-piece bayonet style case back. The wide, flat rubber gasket lays in place and the case back is placed over it, held in position and kept from turning by two guide grooves. A separate ring is then screwed down over that to hold the case back tight and in place. The pressure from the water further squeezes the back against the gasket and the deeper the watch goes the more the harder it presses, further sealing out the water. It’s like using Judo on water pressure. The acrylic domed crystal performs a similar feat on the front of the watch. As water pressure increases, the specially engineered acrylic flattens and its footprint spreads slightly to better seal against water intrusion. Even the screw-down crown deviates from the norm. Rather than being rigidly attached to the stem and therefore to the movement, the crown is loose and wobbly when unscrewed. It is only engaged when pulled on slightly to hand wind the watch, or pulled out to the second position to set the time. This lack of direct attachment to the movement significantly enhances the watch’s shock resistance.
These are incredibly tough watches that were designed for the Russian military and have been on multiple submarine rescue missions, some at depths far greater than 200 meters.
Vostok makes ten or so different case styles for the Amphibia that range in size and weight, but they all use one of two automatic movements (with or without a date complication) and the same size dial, of which there are probably hundreds of different designs, with traditional faces as well as colorful militaristic and maritime themes, made by Vostok that fit, some of which can be bought on eBay or elsewhere for less than $10. Of the two more popular dials, one is known as the Scuba Dude and has a nifty little drawing of a scuba diver. The other is known as the Steve Zissou, after the fictional Jacques Cousteau-esque film character portrayed by Bull Murray. He and his entire Team Zissou are outfitted with Vostok Amphbias that have a ship’s wheel at 12 o’clock and an anchor at 6 o’clock.
Not quite as accurate as the Orient watches, but designed to be serviced only every 10 years or so — about twice as long as recommended for most automatic movements — mine gains about 20 seconds per day, or two minutes in 8 or 9 days. That’s plenty accurate for me for a watch as tough and cool looking as it is, and doesn’t need to be opened for 10-plus years. It has an automatic movement, either with or without a date complication, has hand winding and an unofficial ability to hack the seconds by twisting the crown slightly while engaged in the first position.
And I haven’t even gotten to the bezel, the namesake of this blog. I chose a model with a 12-hour bezel that allows you to use the watch as a dual time-zone watch. Set the time as you normally would for your time zone, then move the bezel so the hour hand is pointing at the correct hour for another time zone. I even switch the bezel back and forth between two different time zones where I have people I communicate regularly. Vostok makes several other bezels as well, such as increments of 5 minutes or 15 minutes, a pattern of dots and dashes and other original Vostok designs. They can be swapped out with only a knife and an optional plastic bag, to protect from scratching. This is a frequently modded feature of the watch, as there are a few independent manufacturers as well that make bezels for the Vostok that fit Seiko SKX bezel inserts, opening up a seeming endless variety of ways to personalize and customize the look and function (at least as far as a bezel and three hands can compute) of this inexpensive marvel of Russian engineering.
Yes, inexpensive — cheap and badass. Mine was less than $56 new, delivered from Russia to the USA. The more common price is closer to $75 or $85 delivered — but that’s still an insanely low price for a uniquely engineered underwater watch that was designed to take anything thrown at the Russian military.
The final watch on my list is the Casio MDV106, or as I like to call it the Big Marlin, due to the little marlin on the dial above 6 o’clock and the rather large 44mm diameter of the case. But it doesn’t feel too big. It feels not only just right, it feels like a watch costing easily 10 times its $41 price on Amazon. It has a unidirectional 120-click dive bezel, luminescent bars at 3, 6 and 9, big dots in between and a split chevron at 12, with a date complication at 3 o’clock.
This is the most accurate watch of the bunch because it has a quartz movement, which is accurate to about a second per month. An Omega Seamaster with a quartz movement costs about $1,900 vs. at least $3,000 for one with an automatic, self-winding movement, which, even if it is COSC-certified (which is the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres, the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute) can have accuracy of “only” +6 to -4 seconds per day. Many people consider some automatic movement to be engineering marvels or even works of art. Those little wheels and bridges, jewels and springs are sometimes hand-assembled and are far more costly to produce than a battery-powered quartz movement. For some watches it take over a year to polish, decorate, assemble and test the movement of a single watch — but not the ones on my list.
I got my Casio dive watch to wear as a beater when kayaking, fishing, etc., but it really is a good looking watch in its own right. It comes with a rubber strap that is perfectly usable, but I like to swap out a few different nylon NATO straps on it, as I do with the other watches in the list as well. It looks particularly classy with a black-and-grey-striped “James Bond” NATO strap or an olive drab strap for a more rugged look. Like the Orient, the Casio gets respect from most watch people, even those with thousand-dollar timepieces on their wrists.
All of the dive watches on this list are water resistant to 200 meters. They are not for-show watches with a dive bezel on them. They are serious workhorse tool watches with real horological pedigree that are a fraction of the cost of the more famous watches they hark back to. Some readers may wonder why I have not included any Seiko watches, particularly those in the SKX series. They are fantastic tough dive watches as well, but since Seiko has discontinued making them the cost has risen dramatically for those left on the market. Once a bargain, they are now at least a couple hundred dollars new. As a result, I don’t (yet) have one, which, besides being a cheap badass dive watch, is one of the criteria for my list. I love dive watches and will keep on acquiring them. A future article will detail the slightly more expensive badass dive watches I have on my to-buy list.
Vostok Scuba Dude photo courtesy vostokamphibia.com.
All other photos © 2016 Chuck Baldwin.