Why do so many watch brands have freedivers as ambassadors? After all, the dive watch came about, and was used for decades, to track elapsed bottom time while the person wearing it breathes compressed air, specifically to avoid overstaying no-decompression limits or to time deco stops. Yet for years we’ve seen many brands tout their relationships with such apnea luminaries as Carlos Coste (Oris), Herbert Nitsch (Breitling), Guillaume Néry (Ball and now Panerai), Tanya Streeter (TAG Heuer), Tudor (Morgan Bourc’his) and of course, Jacques Mayol (Omega). At first blush, it seems illogical. After all, freediving involves going deep on a single breath, in which the risk of decompression illness is negligible and elapsed time is typically less than a couple of minutes. Freedivers are also proud of their sports’ minimalism. Whereas scuba diving is all about the equipment – heavy tanks, buoyancy vests and regulators – freediving requires nothing more than a mask at its most basic, maybe a wetsuit and set of fins if you’re not quite as ascetic. I doubt most freedivers even bother to glance at the time while underwater, much less wear a watch.
The answer to my own question is likely that, since very few really use a watch anymore for scuba diving, watch companies might as well seek their underwater wrist models from the more aesthetically beautiful sport. Scuba diving is complicated, cluttered with unwieldy hoses and straps. Freediving is sleek and athletic, the human form in graceful silhouette against the blue. There is a purity of form that suits a well designed watch and the notion of stripping down to the basics – fins, a mask, a watch – has appeal to everyone from avid watersports enthusiasts to tropical holiday-makers, not to mention the confusing and arcane “rules” and training of scuba.
The latest luxury brand to sign an elite freediver as an ambassador, is Ulysse Nardin, with the Belgian, Fred Buyle, wearing their latest Diver Chronometer on his wrist. I was recently invited to the French Riviera to experience UN’s new trio of dive watches, meet Fred Buyle, and do some freediving in the Mediterranean.
Just last year, in Bermuda, I had a chance to dive with the previous iteration of Ulysse’s dive watch, the Marine Diver (in Artemis Racing Edition livery) and the new Ulysse Nardin Diver Chronometer doesn’t stray too far from its predecessor. Still present is the trademark bezel with oversized bezel rider tabs, the power reserve and small seconds, and the rubber strap with its uniquely integrated metal link. However, it has been streamlined, simplified, and cleaned up. Gone is the wave textured dial and the skeleton hands. The concave bezel hashes are bolder, more sporty, the crystal is domed, and the rubber strap does away with a folding deployant clasp in favor of a simpler and more “dive friendly” pin buckle. It is more evolution than revolution and Ulysse was smart not to reinvent what was an already recognizable design.
There are three versions: a blue or black dial “standard” version, a “Monaco Yacht Show” limited edition (with black surface treatment, and gold bezel and crown), and the all-white “Diver Great White” limited edition. The watches are all housed in 44-millimeter titanium cases and powered by the in-house UN-118 calibre, which is visible through a sapphire caseback on all but the Great White edition, which has a solid back engraved with the watch’s namesake Carcharodon carcharias. The chronometer-certified self-winding movement boasts 60 hours of power reserve and strong anti-magnetic properties, thanks to the silicon balance.
Of the new Ulysse divers, I found the blue and black versions most appealing. Though they all share the same basic form and movement, the simpler ones work best, in my opinion. Titanium is a smart choice for dive watches, especially at 44 millimeters, which pushes the limits of size. The concave bezel and domed crystal are cues seen on vintage divers, though overall this is a refreshingly modern take on the dive watch, in a sea of “heritage,” retro competitors. I used to wonder about the purpose of the integrated metal link on the rubber band, but after wearing it for a while, I realized that it articulates the strap past the bony side of the wrist. Many thick rubber straps on luxury divers can chafe at this spot, but the Ulysse divers are supremely comfortable. That said, I can do without the additional branding engraved on it, and especially the cheesy shark and “Monaco” that are found on the limited editions. Equally off-putting to my eye was the “Great White” on the dial of the white limited edition, and its caseback engraving reminded me of the smiling shark in “Finding Nemo.”
I’ve done a bit of freediving in the past, but I’m more comfortable exploring the subaquatic world with a tank on my back. My past experiences learning the finer points of the sport from those far better than me (Carlos Coste, Morgan Bourc’his) have involved lessons on yogic relaxation, breathing technique, and body position, all with the aim of going deeper down a weighted rope, pushing personal limits. But Fred Buyle, who once was a world record holding competitive diver, takes a more Zen approach. He left the competitive side of the sport behind and focuses more on using freediving as an unintrusive way to explore underwater, interact with marine animals, most notably sharks, and as a means to silently shoot underwater photography, all without the noisy gush of scuba exhalations. It’s refreshing, since that’s the way most of us mortals will freedive as well, dipping 10 or 20 feet down to explore a coral head while snorkeling, for example, not chasing a depth tag for a world record.
In the Mediterranean Sea off of Cap d’Antibes, not far from where Jacques Cousteau first dipped his toes into the “silent world,” I traded duck dives with Buyle, descending to a bed of sea grass 25 feet down to eye schools of tiny fish through the dappled sunlight that filtered down. I wore a wetsuit to ward off the chill of the autumn sea, and to counteract the buoyancy, a weight belt with enough lead to let me sink, but not enough to make floating on the surface difficult. I wore the blue Diver Chronometer, and glanced at it underwater a few times to assess its legibility. But let’s not kid ourselves, the merits of most luxury diving watches these days is as a beautiful companion that survives where you wear it.
During a press conference on the trip, Ulysse Nardin CEO, Patrick Priniaux (a keen diver himself) asked Buyle what purpose a watch has for a freediver. Buyle said that it is the minimalism of a mechanical watch that appeals to him. He doesn’t wear a digital dive computer, and said the sweep of a seconds hand more closely mimics the passage of time while underwater. Practiced sound bite? Perhaps. But I could relate to Buyle’s sentiments, with a slightly less tangible take. We watch enthusiasts wear divers because it lets us take our passion, our hobby, anywhere, even into harsh environments like deep under the salty sea. That little capsule of human ingenuity, dry and safe despite the pressure around it, evokes a sense of calm when the sweep hand is viewed through a dive mask 30 feet underwater when the lungs start to burn from the buildup of carbon dioxide. And then there’s the small thrill of stepping off the inflatable skiff, stripping off the wetsuit, and walking right into the bar afterwards with bragging rights on your wrist.
Ulysse Nardin chose to introduce the new dive watches in the Mediterranean to coincide with the Monaco Yacht Show, an annual showcase of mega-yachts in the world’s most famous marina and the day after diving, I was walking the docks ogling multimillion dollar watercraft, whose tenders likely cost more than my house. This was an appropriate place to debut the new watches. Though the Ulysse Nardin Diver Chronometer is a sportier take on UN’s underwater watch, it still feels more like a “dress diver,” better suited on a tanned arm holding a cocktail in a chair on the teak deck of a sleek yacht than strapped over a wetsuit sleeve tagging sharks.
As I strolled the show, passing 300-foot yachts with nine-figure price tags, I came upon a lowly tugboat, its aft deck strewn with rusty oil drums, a derrick and coiled lines. It felt out of place, a working boat among the idle rich, a Seiko dive watch among a marina of Ulysse Nardins. Truth be told, my tastes tend to run towards more “blue collar” divers, the Citizen Aqualands and Doxas of the world, with their no-deco bezels, depth gauges, and rippled rubber straps, but there in Monaco, I could see the appeal of something a little more refined. As the definition of the dive watch changes, there’s room for all kinds, and while the Ulysse Nardin Diver Chronometer likely won’t be strapped over my drysuit sleeve for my next Great Lakes shipwreck dive, I can respect it for expanding the reach of by far my favorite watch genre.