Diving watch history is inextricably intertwined with military diving. Timepieces designed for the underwater frontiers of warfare have, since the 1960s, driven innovation among Swiss watchmakers, and led to iconic designs now popular among collectors. Few better embody the form-follows-function ideal than CWC’s Royal Navy Diver series, which has, for decades, been standard issue for the hard-charging specialized diving units of Great Britain’s Ministry of Defense (MOD).
Great Britain’s Special Boat Service, a shadowy (and I’d like to think mustachioed) force of tea-drinking aquatic operators, has their own subdued version of the CWC Royal Navy diver, designed with direct input from the unit itself. Here, in a Wrist Time Review, we’ll dive deep with the recently updated CWC SBS Diver Issue, a currently issued tactical tool diver. While not as high-speed as the operators for which the watch was designed, I am a commercial diver and can at least put the watch through its underwater paces.
A Wee Spot of History
Starting in the late 1950s, powerhouses of Swiss watchmaking like Rolex and Omega produced special versions of their iconic diving watches for use by military divers and amphibious special operations forces. Most famously, Rolex’s Military Submariner, initially designed for use by Great Britain’s Royal Navy divers, has become a cult classic and collector favorite, often selling to collectors for staggering sums in storied auction houses.
Many of these watches saw action in international conflicts on the wrists of clandestine operators, as well as salvage and explosive ordnance divers above and below the water’s surface. The cool points are, frankly, off the charts. But by 1980, as Rolex and Omega quickly ascended to become the legends we know today, budget-conscious MOD supply officers were forced to cancel their once fruitful collaborations with the Swiss giants.
For the British military, the loss of Rolex as a diving watch supplier left a void eventually filled by a more modest heir in CWC or Cabot Watch Company, a then military-only supplier which had already been supplying the British Army, Air Force, and Navy with capable field watches since 1972. In 1980, CWC responded to a Ministry of Defense (MOD) specification for diving watches with an ETA 2783-powered, M.R.P.-cased diver with a highly legible dial reminiscent of the Omega Seamaster 300, a watch also employed in previous years by the MOD.
After 1981, CWC’s military diver’s watch, mirroring industry-wide trends, shifted to a quartz movement and was continually though subtly updated through the years. While the majority of the military diving community around the world made the switch to inexpensive Casio G-Shock watches and other digital models during the 80s and 90s, the MOD, likely cuppa in hand, kept right on issuing their divers — simple, dependable analog watches still made in Switzerland.
Legend says Special Boat Service members operating in low light conditions requested a special version of the CWC Royal Navy Diver’s watch to meet their subdued yet moist operational requirements. Specifically, the SBS called for an all-black watch case, as well as the addition of a day/date function. The CWC SBS Issue watch was born.
A Classic Diving Dial
As mentioned, the CWC SBS Issue model and the standard Royal Navy Diver share a dial design, borrowed (stolen is an ugly word) somewhat directly from the Omega Seamaster 300 of the era. With rectangular, lume-inlaid hour markers and a disproportionately large triangular lume plot at noon, along with simple hash marks for minute markers, the CWC SBS dial is clearly focused around nighttime luminescence and legibility in all conditions.
Sword hands, also featured on the Rolex Military Submariner, aid in the highly legible package. At 3 o’clock, a vexing day/date function, supposedly requested by members of the SBS, differentiates the SBS dial from its more pedestrian non-date diving sibling. You don’t see many day/date diver’s watches out there, and opinions are mixed, but it does provide some utility.
Dial text is pleasantly minimal on the SBS. CWC’s signature at 12 o’clock is simple, tastefully-sized white-on-black print, with the MOD required “L” (formerly a “T” for tritium) just below to indicate the presence of Super-LumiNova. At 6 o’clock, “quartz” is printed in simple block letters. Interestingly, CWC has not taken the bait of printing the water resistance on the dial, despite the respectable 300-meter figure to which the watch is resistant to the ingress of the salty depths.
The CWC SBS dial is among the most legible I have worn for actual diving, while still being really aesthetically pleasing. While CWC can’t (and wouldn’t) claim credit for the design concept, its decision to utilize Omega’s design demonstrates a fundamental understanding of what it takes to tell time underwater, as well as a willingness to borrow from a brand with a better design department in the interest of utility.
The thickly applied Super-LumiNova on the dial and hands also all but guarantees time-telling ability in dark or deep water. I can personally attest to the underwater visibility of the watch in the murky waters of the American South, as well as clearer, deeper water in the Great Lakes. Having worn the watch as a diver and not only a watch enthusiast, I understand why the design has survived and continues to be issued to this day. It just works.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the SBS Issue watch is the Monnin 844 (style) case, also used by Tag Heuer as well as countless smaller brands in the 70s and 80s such as Chronosport. While I can’t be sure of CWC’s current case manufacturer, and they aren’t telling, it appears the exact same as other Monnin-cased watches I have owned other than the MOD required fixed lug bars. Frankly, at least on my wrist, the 41mm-wide (45mm with crown) by 47mm-long SBS Issue case wears close to perfect, especially given the modest 12mm thickness.
Early examples of the SBS Issue watch appeared to sport a more thinly applied PVD coating, almost gunmetal in color, which accrued an excellent patina over time and with rough use. The current coating feels much thicker, more robust, and is much darker black, almost like some DLC coatings I have seen. I can attest to the durability of the SBS Issue watch’s coating, whatever it is.
I gave the watch no special treatment over the course of dozens of commercial working dives, repetitively banging it into underwater structures and razor-sharp zebra mussels, and it looks just about the same as when I received it. There were even a few underwater knocks that caused me, a watch nerd, some pause, as I was sure I’d really marred the watch. However, on the surface, all appeared as new each and every time. This is a real tool diver’s watch for those who appreciate the subdued tactical look.
As on other CWC watches, the case back on the SBS is simple and straightforward, with numerical markings indicating the MOD supply code, equipment type, and issue or manufacture year, as well as the pheon or broad arrow to indicate MOD ownership.