Timepiece Chronicle

In-depth, passionate and entertaining articles that explore the stories behind great watches

Glory under the Seas: The Doxa Sub 300T

Glory under the Seas: The Doxa Sub 300T

The Doxa Sub 300T is the purest expression of horological form following function that exists. It is the very epitome of purpose built design. 

Urs Eschle, Operations Manager for Doxa from 1956 to 1968, wasn't concerned about traditional aesthetics when he started designing the Sub 300T in 1964. All he wanted was to build a watch that had just one purpose, to dive. 

There had been great diving watches before, the Rolex Submariner (1953) and Omega Seamaster 300 (1957) for example, but there had yet to have been a watch that eschewed traditional design to focus solely on delivering an uncompromising experience. Less of a piece of art, more of a technical instrument. Eschle brought together a team of watchmakers, engineers and divers (Including Claude Wesly, the first man in the world to live thirty three days underwater) to start designing and testing a new species of watch. 

With no coastline for hundreds of miles Eschle and his team traveled forty miles south of their workshop in Le Locle to Lake Neuchatel, then polluted and murky, to test the visibility of different colored dials underwater. The story goes that the team tested turquoise, orange, yellow, red and black dials at a depth of 30 meters with orange being the most visible. I've seen criticism online of the efficacy of testing and the result; even Jason Heaton said that the orange dial turns a dull gray below twenty feet with the black dial 'Sharkhunter' being far more visible. However It is the orange 'Professional' dial that has remained the most iconic of the Sub 300Ts

Image courtesy of analog/shift.

Image courtesy of analog/shift.

Despite the concept of a dedicated diving watch being relatively novel, a design constant had emerged amongst companies making such watches, the rotating bezel. These bezels allowed divers to mark their start diving time and approximate their end time. Divers still had to remember the relationship between recommended dive time and diving depth as by staying at certain depths they would then have to return to the surface in stages in order to decompress. 

Every millimeter of this watch was designed with diving in mind with no consideration for what it would look like above the waves

What Eschle did was to combine the traditional time-only diving bezel with the US Navy Dive Table limits for no-decompression dives. As long as a diver knew their start time and their depth they would know how long they had before needing to rise without the need for decompression. The interior scale is similar to most diving bezels however each of the sixty minutes were marked rather than just the first fifteen. The exterior bezel showed the depth ratings and were aligned next to the recommended amount of time spent at that depth. 

For example, if you were going to dive to a depth of 100ft you would turn the bezel so the two luminous dots aligned with the minute hand at the beginning of your dive. By reading off the bezel you would see that the recommended dive time at 100ft is twenty five minutes. As you are diving you check the watch and once the minute hand has elapsed the twenty five minutes and past the 100ft marker you know that it is time to begin your ascent. Today a dive computer can do this automatically however the ultra low-tech simplicity of the Sub 300T is hard to beat. 

Eschle travelled to the United States with several prototypes and got the most famous diver of the time, perhaps ever, to help test it, Jacque-Yves Cousteau. Cousteau wore several great dive watches over the years including a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, several different Rolexes and the Omega PloProf however he was so impressed with the performance of the Sub 300 prototypes that he lobbied Eschle for the exclusive U.S importing rights to the watch and subsequently ordered 4,000 units to sell through the U.S. Divers Company. 

James Lamdin's Doxa sUB 300 'bLACK lUNG'. Image courtesy of Watch Patina.

James Lamdin's Doxa sUB 300 'bLACK lUNG'. Image courtesy of Watch Patina.

It is a myth that Cousteau himself wrote the US Patent for the Sub 300 design. It was actually Eschle who submitted it under his own name whilst in the states and upon his return to Switzerland he sold the rights back to Doxa for $1.00. These early prototype Sub 300 (No T just yet) are probably one of the most sought after Doxas yet there is something even rarer. Some early Subs were made with a different dial with the U.S Divers Company logo painted in with black paint. Whilst visually distinctive, underwater these black logos temporarily hid the black hands as they passed over so aesthetics were again compromised and the logo changed color. Around fifteen to twenty of the "Black Lung" Subs found their way to market with one of them eventually finding a home on the wrist of James Lamdin, the founder of analog/shift. I highly recommend reading the whole story of James' acquisition of this watch over at Watch Patina.

James Lamdin's personal Doxa Sub 300 'black lung',. Image Courtesy of watch patina.

James Lamdin's personal Doxa Sub 300 'black lung',. Image Courtesy of watch patina.

The Doxa Sub 300T was presented to the world at the 1966 Basel Watch Fair and was available for purchase in 1967 as the first Swiss commercial diver's watch. Over the years there were multiple versions of the Sub 300T with a variety of cases, dials and logos. The first prototypes were fitted in a thin case that was bulked up for the 1st generation commercial release of the 300T with the classic orange dial. Later Doxa released a black dial version called the Sharkhunter, a silver dial Searambler and the very rare yellow Divingstar.

During the quartz crisis Doxa joined forces with a multitude of Swiss watch companies and created the Synchron group in an attempt to keep themselves afloat in troubled financial waters. The 1st generation Synchron Sub 300T had an even thicker case and saw the Synchron logo above the Doxa name. The 2nd gen. Synchron Subs were fitted in the same case but without screw-down crowns and had a caseback engraving of the Synchron logo. The 3rd generation of Synchron Subs saw the return of the screw-down crown fitted on an even larger case.

Recently on This Week in Time, I showcased a very special Divingstar that was issued to the Marine Nationale, a military organisation with some brilliant tastes in watches. Not only was the watch worn by real military men but also fictional ones as it is the black dial Sharkhunter that can be seen on the wrist of Robert Redford in the 1975 classic, Three Days of the Condor. Thankfully the watch has endured the years far better than the leather cuff it is fitted on in the film has. 

In 1969 Doxa made a very limited run of watches called the Sub 300T Conquistador, the first dive watch to be fitted with a helium release valve. Those who read my article last year about the Omega PloProf and the Rolex SeaDweller will remember I said that it was the SeaDweller that was first fitted with the HRV. What I have since learnt is that Rolex and Doxa worked in partnership to developed the HRV. Rolex's name appears on the patent information but they allowed Doxa use of their design in response for Doxa's aid in developing it. Rolex would fit special Submariners with the HRV however these were not sold to consumers and it wouldn't be until 1971 that a commercially available Rolex would be for sale. The Conquistador is by no means a common watch with numbers thought to be in the single digits however it was the first and should be heralded as such. Infact there was a very very early HRV test watch from 1964 that is perhaps one of the rarest Doxa Subs ever.

During the 1970s and 80s Doxa tread watch in the attempt to stay afloat whilst dozens around them were sinking. They experimented with a diving chronograph, the 200T graph, yet the light of Doxa began to fade. However one man boldly wore his Sub 300T through the darkness of the quartz crisis and his adventures helped preserve the legend, that man was Dirk Pitt. 

Admittedly Dirk Pitt isn't a real man however his creator, Dr. Clive Cussler, very much is and his fondness for Doxa might have saved the brand from appearing next to names lost to time like Universal Geneve, Enicar and Wittnauer. Working in a dive shop in the late sixties Cussler acquired a Doxa Sub 300T and loved it so much that he wrote it onto the wrist of his iconic hero. 

Cussler's fanatical devotion to the Sub was infectious and soon divers and watch fans grew to know the Doxa Sub 300T and develop an amazingly dedicated community. After Doxa was revitalized in the early 200s they acknowledged Cussler's part in their survival by gifting him number 0001/1000 of the re-released Sub 300T Sharkhunter.

As these watches were built for a purpose and never developed the value of the similar period Submariners, vintage Doxas today are a rare breed. Those still around are show the signs of loving use with worn bezels, faded dials and scratched cases. You'll be able to find a pristine vintage Doxa dress watch no problem but finding an unworn, unloved Sub 300T might prove to be more of a challenge. 

Frankly I wouldn't want a Sharkhunter that wasn't beat up after spending countless hours jumping in and out of boats. Earlier this year Hodinkee published an article showcasing the re-finishing of a Searambler case and I don't think I'd be alone in saying I prefered it before it was touched up. The craftsmanship behind the soldering and re-finishing is to be commended and might even have a place if used correctly on other watches; yet seeing the beautifully aged patina on the dial clash with the newly finished case just doesn't do it for me. '

Currently Doxas Subs are still underappreciated and undervalued compared to the dive watches from Rolex and Omega from the same period. That relative anonymity is what is keeping prices low but that can't be the case forever. As analog/shift have said in the past, the Sub 300T "is the most important dive watch you've never heard of". So go and buy one now before Doxa becomes a household name.

I'd like to give a huge thank you to James Lamdin and Atom Moore of analog/shift and Nick Federowicz of Watch Patina for their permission to use their Doxa photographs. I highly recommend Doxa300T.com by Dr. Peter McClean Millar, one of the most informative websites solely about the Doxa Sub 300T.

Sources

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