‘BULOVA: A History of Firsts’ Exclusive Excerpt – The Bulova 666 “Devil Diver”
In this special collaboration with editor Aaron Sigmond and publisher Assouline, we bring you an exclusive excerpt of the forthcoming ‘BULOVA: A History of Firsts’ book. This may be our favorite section as it’s written by dive journalist Jason Heaton.
[Editor’s Note: This excerpt has been reprinted with permission of Bulova and publisher Assouline. The ‘BULOVA: A History of Firsts’ book retraces the extraordinary story of the BULOVA watch company. A truly special coffee table book comprised of exhaustive research, historical photography, and contributions from industry luminaries such as David Coggins, Matthew Hranek, Nile Rodgers, Stuart Elliott, Jack Forster, and all edited by Aaron Sigmond.]
Chapter: FIRST TO DIVE WITH THE DEVIL – The Bulova 666 “Devil Diver”
Lucifer didn’t make Bulova do it! During the period when scuba diving was emerging from its military origins to become a popular hobby, the first underwater wristwatches could go as deep as 300 feet. By the time Bulova decided to offer a watersports timepiece, the typical diver was capable of 600-foot depths without springing a leak. Bulova dared to go deeper, ultimately achieving water resistance of 666 feet—a superstition-freighted number that the company cheekily embraced, placing “666” on the dial of its subaquatic watches. The line’s Biblically inspired nickname, naturally, was soon to follow.
TWO HUNDRED METERS IS a long way down when you’re scuba diving. It was even more so in 1961. At that time, the deepest anyone had ever gone was 133 meters, and strange things happen to a man at that depth: Nitrogen in the compressed air becomes narcotic, and even ordinary oxygen becomes toxic. It is said that hell is a hot and fiery place, but it’s more likely that the Devil dwells in deep, dark water. Maybe this is why Bulova chose to set the depth rating of its first dive watch at 666 feet. That happens to be the equivalent of 203 meters—but also, more ominously, it’s the so-called “number of the Beast” in the Bible’s Book of Revelation. Bulova’s dive watches would retain this depth rating for almost two decades, earning each the nickname the “Devil Diver.”
Scuba was in its early days in ’61, when Bulova introduced its first purpose- built underwater watch, with a “Compressor” case supplied by the Swiss company Ervin Piquerez SA. This case style, used by several watch companies in the 1960s, was designed to seal more tightly as water pressure increased. While the standard Compressor case was rated to 600 feet, Bulova pushed its limit to 666 feet, a healthy measure of assurance for any diver, recreational or otherwise.
That initial Devil Diver would be the first in a long line of Bulova dive watches that continued until the late 1970s. These watches went by evocative names: Deep Sea, Snorkel, Surfboard. All became the trusted timing companions of divers, sailors, and sportsmen. Their appearance would change, evolving from that first watch with the internal timing ring and two crowns to a popular tonneau-shaped Snorkel with a rainbow of color options and finally to the angular case shapes and integrated bracelets that were popular in the seventies.
Of course, you can’t discuss Bulova without mentioning its near-obsession with accuracy. At first, Devil Divers were powered by self-winding mechanical calibres, but some later ones were fitted with quartz movements and, of course, the mighty Accutron 214 tuning-fork movement. What diving must have been like with the steady hum of an Accutron watch on the wrist, tracking bottom time with the same technology that was timing lunar missions in the Apollo spacecraft!
In 1968, Bulova released the most popular Snorkel, with a cross-haired dial and three-dimensional markers containing luminescent tritium. The bezel was made from acrylic resin with a bicolor design that put the first fifteen minutes in a red arc for ease of use when timing decompression stops. The next year, the name “Oceanographer” was added to the dial, and the watch would become the most recognizable of the Devil Divers—and the one most people associate with Bulova’s diving history.
Those vintage Oceanographers are now coveted by collectors and getting scarce. In 2018, though, Bulova reproduced this legendary dive watch, built to the same specifications as its historical forebear, as part of its Archives Series, which includes reissues of the Lunar Pilot Chronograph, and the Chronograph-C (originally released in 1970). A version of the Archive Series 666 Devil Diver sports an orange dial and was issued, limited—naturally—to 666 pieces. The Devil Diver returns for a new generation.
Bulova dive watches came of age with scuba diving itself and were emblems of an adventurous lifestyle, even out of the water. Those were the days of twin-hose aqualungs, rubber wetsuits and oval masks, when diving was still an extreme sport. A rugged watch would have been a necessary piece of kit, worn on the wrist alongside other gauges to keep track of time and depth. Staying too long, too deep, a diver risks not only running short of air but also getting a case of decompression illness, the dreaded “bends.” When you’re facing the dangers of the deep, sometimes it pays to dive with the Devil. Even if 666 feet is a hell of a lot farther down than you’re ever likely to go.