Timepiece Chronicle

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

Designed to go where we at not: The Vulcain Cricket Nautical

Designed to go where we at not: The Vulcain Cricket Nautical

The Vulcain Nautical Cricket circa 1961. Photo courtesy of Antiquorum.

The Vulcain Nautical Cricket circa 1961. Photo courtesy of Antiquorum.

Humans were never made to explore the great peaks and troughs of this world

Our limbs stop working at dizzying heights and our lungs burst at staggering depths. Yet generation after generation have continued to push technology and their own bodies to the limit. One of these pioneers was Hannes Keller, a Swiss born diver who pioneered deep sea diving and helped design the Vulcain Cricket Nautical.

I've written at length about the Vulcain Cricket before, but here is a short summary to get everyone up to speed. Vulcain was a award winning manufacturer founded in 1858 by Jacque Ditisheim and his three sons. In 1942, Vulcain produced the first prototype wristwatch alarm caliber. Five years later they had perfected it and released it as the Vulcain Cricket Caliber 120.

The Vulcain Caliber 120 as seen on the original Vulcain Cricket. Photo courtesy of Those Watch Guys.

The Vulcain Caliber 120 as seen on the original Vulcain Cricket. Photo courtesy of Those Watch Guys.

By 1959, Vulcain wanted to expand their cricket range into a dive watch so reached out to Hannes Keller for help. Keller advised Vulcain that if a watch could display the decompression stops then it would help professional diver's like him ascend safely.

Decompression was necessary for divers like Keller who descended to unfathomable depths as it allowed them to safely return to the surface without the negative effects of nitrogen. It wasn't the depths that got you, it was the nitrogen as the further a dive went, the more nitrogen from compressed air is absorbed into the body.

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As a diver ascends,the nitrogen gas inside of them expands and can lodge in joints, arteries, organs and in worst cases the brain and spine. This can lead to serious injury or even death. Doesn't sound as fun as when your favorite cartoon character's limbs twist and go loopty loop around each other, does it? By ascending slowly and to predetermined depths, divers were safely able to return to the surface.

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Vulcain took Keller's advice and placed these tables on the watch dial itself. By combining the alarm, the rotating dial and the compression times, diver were able to know how long they should stay at certain depths to fully decompress.  When the  Nautical Cricket was released in 1961, Keller wore it on several dives and said that the alarm was clear even 730 feet beneath the waves. This clarity of sound was down to the triple case back that the Nautical had the ensured water resistance and optimal sound.

The case was made by Ervin Piquerez and was used by two other famous dive alarm watches, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Deep Sea Alarm and the Polaris. An extra case back had a vertical pin connected to it that ran through the main case back and into the movement. When the alarm time was reached, a hammer struck this pin and the sound reverberated up and out through all the case backs. Sixteen holes were placed on the final case back so the sound could be heard even clearer.

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The Nautical Cricket was absolutely huge for its time. Most watches in the 1960s were 30 to 35mms, the Rolex Submariner at the time was 39mm, and the Nautical Cricket was a huge 42mm. That's not so big today but in 1961, it was monstrously large. This makes these vintage pieces so desirable today as they are the perfect modern size for a tool watch.

So the watch could be used time and time again underwater, Vulcain used a plastic crystal over a traditional mineral glass. This meant the crystal would flex ever so slightly under pressure, rather than crack. The watch was sold with a tropical rubber strap with 'racing holes' so it could dry out faster.

The Vulcain Nautical Cricket from the 1970s. Photo courtesy of Hodinkee.shop

The Vulcain Nautical Cricket from the 1970s. Photo courtesy of Hodinkee.shop

In the 1970s Vulcain released a new version of the Nautical Cricket, complete with obligatory 70s orange highlights and cushion case.

You may have noticed that I glossed over exactly how the 1961 Nautical Cricket's dial worked. Well the truth is I can't work it out. What little there is written about the Nautical Cricket online doesn't go into great detail about how it works. In 2013, Hodinkee published a video that was meant to explain how it works but I come away from it even more confused that before.

Luckily, I am able to explain the 1971 dial which removed the rotating inner dial in favor of a rotating bezel. At 12 o'clock there are two charts with depths written on them, meters on the left and feet on right Say you want to descend to a depth of 85 feet. You need to know how long you can stay under the water without having to decompress so you follow the track clockwise from 25m/85ft till you reach the orange 0. By reading off the scale you have a a total time of 34 minutes. This is how long you can stay under without decompressing.

Another Vulcain Nautical Cricket circa the 1970s. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

Another Vulcain Nautical Cricket circa the 1970s. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

Now if you wanted to stay longer than 34 minutes you would need to have a decompression stop on the way up, which is usually at a depth of 15 feet. Say you wanted to spend 50 minutes at 85ft , so you follow that same track to read off at 50 minutes which is 20. So after 50 minutes at 85ft you would ascend to 15ft and decompress there for twenty minutes. Simple...right?

It's easy to see why the era of mechanical watches being crucial to dive safety ended with the popularisation of computers. It's easier in every way.

Vulcain have since released a few different heritage versions of the Nautical Cricket over the years. Those released in 2002 and 2013 was identical to the original 1961 released except for the new in-house Caliber V-10 instead of the Caliber 120. A few others have been released including several in precious metals but their use underwater is now questionable. Whilst writing for Hodinkee, Jason Heaton said that whilst the alarm is clearly audible, the rotating bezel is tricky to control and difficult to read whilst underwater.

Whilst desire for modern Nautical Crickets has waned, there is still a huge demand for those from the 1960s. Like most tool watches from this era, there are very few left in original condition so collectors are willing to pay high prices for those that still exist. The most desirable Nauticals are those from 1961 as they share the same case as the more expensive Jaeger-LeCoultre dive alarms and have a more appealing design, namely the 3-6-9 'Explorer' layout. Whilst dress Crickets will set you back at least $1000, expect to pay upwards of $4000 for the Nauticals.

That might seem expensive, but it's worth remembering that the Vulcain Nautical Cricket was among the best dive watches of the 1960s. 

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