In Swiss watchmaking, there are still some extremely discreet brands with a rich and fascinating history that remain active to this day – diver’s watch specialist Doxa being a perfect example.
130 years ago, in 1889, the Swiss watch factory Doxa was founded in Le Locle under the name “Georges Ducommun, Fabrique des montres Doxa.” The future looked promising. The brand not only manufactured pocket watches, but also equipped the first automobiles such as the first Bugatti models, with a clock featuring the patented Doxa 8-Day movement, a watch specially designed for car dashboards.
The brand soon garnered awards, including the Gold Medal at the Milan International Exhibition in 1906. Patents were regularly filed. As of 1915, the company employed several hundred watchmakers, designers and engineers.
In 1925, Georges Ducommun, representing Doxa, was elected Vice-President of the International Horology Group and President of the Swiss Watchmaking Association at the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris (for history buffs: it is on this occasion that the “Art Deco” style was born; it owes its name to the exhibition). It should be recalled that when Georges Ducommun passed away in 1936, it was Jacques Nardin, grandson of another legendary watchmaker from Le Locle, Ulysse Nardin, who took the helm. Coinciding with Doxa’s 75th anniversary, the brand is awarded the 1st Prize at the Swiss National Exhibition in Lausanne in 1964.
The Doxa Sub Story
By the early 1960s, the space race is on. Yet, as the world looked up at the stars above, another universe beckoned below: the deep blue sea.
In 1964, Urs Eschle, head of product development at Doxa, saw where all these fascinating movie documentaries, TV shows and magazine articles about underwater adventures and mysteries were leading. Diving watches had been around for a decade, but for all intents and purposes, they were mostly worn by military and professional divers. And they were expensive.
Eschle envisoned a dependable and affordable watch, purpose-designed for the growing community of underwater explorers. He set up a team that includes professional divers like Claude Wesly, already a legend through his missions with Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Wesly was also one of the first two “aquanauts” participating in the “Précontinent I, II, and III” dive missions that began in 1962 – similar to the Sealab research project on underwater habitats which the US Navy would carry out a few years later. True to the spirit of “A top quality watch at a reasonable price,” the guiding principle of Georges Ducommun, Doxa’s founder, they got to work.
One Mission: develop the ideal diver’s watch
For Eschle, it was not just about making an attractive, affordable and watertight watch. Everybody on the team fully appreciated that diving is not without its risks, and that divers depend on their watch for their safety. It was with this sense of mission and precision that a three-year process of making the perfect diving watch began.
Every aspect of what makes a watch a true diver’s watch was explored, examined and thought through until the optimal solution was found. They chose an orange dial, as tests showed it offered optimum visibility even at 30 metres. A larger minute hand because it was easier to spot and because diver measures time in minutes, not hours. A case made from a single piece of steel to ensure absolute waterproofness. A bracelet with a ratchet mechanism built into the clasp so that it could be sized without having to remove links. A clasp designed to easily and quickly expand to the larger wrist diameter when wearing a wetsuit.
No doubt the most defining innovation of all was a bezel incorporating a decompression table. One of the greatest hazards for divers is not knowing exactly how long they can stay underwater without having to decompress on the way back. At the time, the US Navy’s no-decompression limit dive table was the absolute reference, enabling divers to monitor time underwater as a function of depth to ensure a safe return to the surface. Doxa’s engineers came up with a bezel integrating two separate scales, one using orange for the outer “depth” ring, the other black for the inner “minute” ring – a Doxa patent.
The Doxa Sub concept was launched
Unveiled at Baselworld and subsequently commercialised in 1967, the Doxa Sub concept was the first truly 100% purpose-designed, professional-grade diver’s watch available to the general public. The radical innovations it introduced soon established it as the benchmark for professionals, too.
It was the first diver’s watch to feature a patented rotating bezel to monitor dive time and ensure a no-decompression ascent back to the surface. The other reason why the Doxa Sub would become an easily recognizable legend in its own time was the hallmark orange dial instead of the conventional black or white background for diving watches. The prominent indices and oversized minute hand, which also featured beige-coloured Luminova inlays, enabled the most important information to be readily registered by the diver, even under extremely low-light conditions.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau, co-inventor of the Aqua Lung underwater breathing apparatus and originator of modern-day scuba diving, liked the Doxa Sub concept so much that he negotiated an exclusive distributorship for his US-based company, US Divers. Doxa diving watches retailed by US Divers in the Americas featured the Aqua Lung logo printed on their dials, characterized by the twin-hose Scuba tank design which Cousteau and fellow Frenchman Emile Gagnan developed and patented in 1942.
During the design and development period of the first series of branded models, a small batch of Sub models was produced with an Aqua Lung logo in black and yellow. After tests this version was abandoned in favour of a dial with better readability. However, a few watches of this pre-series, nicknamed “Black Lung,” were sold. In other words, they now represent the holy grail for Doxa Sub collectors.
Starting 1968, the orange dial became a token of recognition on the wrist of divers who jumped from the “Calypso” to take millions of TV viewers with them on their legendary weekly missions to explore “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” (as the show was named).
The Doxa Sub Concept perfected
In Switzerland, Eschle and his team kept refining the concept and in 1969 Doxa introduced the Doxs Sub 300T Conquistador, the first diving watch to feature a helium release valve (HRV) jointly developed with Rolex.
A helium release valve is a key feature when deep dives are involved which require time spent in a decompression chamber, where the diver inhales air that contains helium and hydrogen. Helium molecules are much smaller than oxygen or nitrogen and can penetrate the seals of a watch case. A sudden differential between the pressure inside the case and outside will cause the crystal to be blown out of the watch. The HRV addresses this problem, allowing the helium to be released while preventing any water from entering the watch case. Today the Conquistador is one of the most sought-after vintage diver’s watches ever.
1969 was also the year the Doxa Sub became the official watch of the Elite Diving Unit of the Swiss Army.
In the Grip of “Orangemania”
Very soon, Doxa Sub became synonymous with some of the most accurate and robust diving watches in the world, greatly contributing to the safety of professional and sports divers thanks to the many technical details they comprise.
The Doxa Sub concept was continuously refined and won over a growing following among both professional and amateur divers around the world. Heroes of fiction, too, would become fans. Dirk Pitt, the main protagonist in many a bestseller by the famous American author Clive Cussler, wears one. Cussler, a true friend and ambassador of the brand is also the founder of NUMA, the National Underwater Marine Agency, a private non-profit dedicated to preserving our maritime heritage through the discovery, archaeological survey and conservation of shipwreck artifacts.
Doxa was also to become part of Hollywood lore. Robert Redford is seen wearing a Sub 300T Sharkhunter in 3 Days of the Condor, which came out in 1975 and is a cult classic. Matthew McConaughey as Dirk Pitt, the intrepid hero created by Clive Cussler, sports a Sub 600T Professional in the 2005 film Sahara.
In 2014 Doxa was the proud sponsor of Mission 31, a project initiated by Fabien Cousteau, Jacques-Yves’ grandson. The 31-day mission at “Aquarius,” the world’s only undersea marine lab in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary set a submersion record for ocean exploration. Doxa produced a special limited edition of 331 timepieces with the famous orange face to commemorate the team’s feat.
To celebrate the 130th anniversary of the company, Doxa is launching a special series that announces the arrival of a new line that will be introduced at the end of this year. The Sub 200 “130th Anniversary Celebration” limited numbered 130-piece edition was presented at Baselworld. Just like the original model, this three-hand diver’s watch has an all-of-a-piece 316L stainless steel 42mm-diameter case. The latter is topped with a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal adopting the distinctive shape of the curved plexiglass of yesteryear. Water-resistant to 200 metres, this model features a unidirectional rotating bezel. The minutes indication, as well as the beige Super-LumiNova “Light Old Radium” luminous dot at 12 o’clock, accentuate the vintage character of this timepiece. Powered by the Swiss mechanical self-winding ETA 2824-2 calibre, it is teamed with the famous “rice grain” type mesh bracelet, also made of 316L steel and fitted with a folding clasp featuring a diving extension. This series is distinguished by the “130 Years” inscription engraved on its screw-down caseback.
Another anniversary model, the 18K gold Sub 200 T.Graph “130th Anniversary Celebration” 13-piece limited edition, is equipped with historical original 7734 Valjoux movements, which have been in stock and carefully preserved at Doxa for nearly 30 years.
July 11, 2019