Lac Supérieur was so named by French explorers, not because it is the largest freshwater lake on Earth or for its picturesque rugged coastlines, but because it is the northernmost of the five Great Lakes. Spanning almost three degrees of latitude between 46 and 49 degrees north, it’s no wonder Superior never really warms up. Sure, the surface temperature can get tepid in late summer, prompting shrieking kids to cavort at its rocky beaches, but descend a few feet, and it’s barely above the freezing point. In late August this year, at 76 feet deep, it was 9ºC (that’s 43ºF for those of us that trade in old money). And my hands were going numb.
I was exploring the wreck of the Madeira, a 436-foot steel schooner barge that wrecked against a cliff on Lake Superior’s north shore in November of 1905. The Madeira has become an annual adventure for me ever since I started diving. Great Lakes diving is world class, thanks to the number, and extraordinary condition, of its shipwrecks. The Madeira site is only three hours up the highway from my home, making it an easy weekend adventure. Best of all, the wreck is accessible, via a long swim, from shore. She was first explored in 1955 by a tough Duluth, Minnesota-based dive club that called themselves the “Frigid Frogs.” And by tough, I mean guys that were diving in all seasons in rubber wetsuits, thin gloves, single tanks, and no dive computers. The risks of hypothermia, frozen regulators, and the bends were very real back then, and I think about these early diving pioneers every time I’m kicking around the crumpled stern of the Madeira in my cozy drysuit.
Diving is a sport of technology but also of traditions. Like rock climbers on the north face of the Eiger traversing sections named for climbers who pioneered routes, diving a historic shipwreck ties me to those who came before in their oval masks, twin-hose aqualungs, and dive watches. So though I wear a digital dive computer that tracks my depth, bottom time, ascent rate, and decompression stops, I still like to wear an analog dive watch. It’s the single most nostalgic piece of gear I can use, and for this year’s Madeira dive, I wore a new watch that oozes nostalgia: the Aquastar Deepstar.
Aquastar might not be a name familiar to many, but it was perhaps the single most innovative dive watch brand of the 1960s, with over a dozen patents for everything from bezels to depth gauges. The company had its genesis within the venerable Jean Richard brand, one of the oldest Swiss watch brands at the time. The first dive watch from Jean Richard was the Aquastar 60, debuting in 1958. It was a modest time-only diver in a case that would become one of the archetypal shapes of the next decade: what we’ve come to call the “Skin Diver,” with long arching strap horns with a flattened case surface between them, no crown guards, and a thin, curving profile. It’s a case style that went on to be used by countless brands, and its popularity endures to this day, as evidenced by Seiko’s SPB14x releases this year, which use a version of it. It’s uncomplicated, comfortable, and evokes the ’60s with its primordially simple form factor.
The Model 60 was worn by Captain Don Walsh inside the bathyscaphe Trieste in 1960, when he and Jacques Piccard descended to the bottom of the Marianas Trench for the very first time. Yes, the Rolex Deep Sea Special strapped outside got all the fanfare, but the man inside the bathyscaphe was wearing an Aquastar.
In 1962, Jean Richard, seeing the success of its Model 60, formally launched the Aquastar sub-brand, which was overseen by Frédéric Robert, who was the son of Jean Richard’s then-owner, Jean Robert. Frédéric was a keen scuba diver and sailor, whom we nowadays would call a “waterman,” and threw his passion into developing watches and instruments solely designed for use on, in, or under the surface of the sea. Within a few years, the Jean Richard name was dropped entirely, and Aquastar became a standalone brand, by then producing not only dive watches, but also wrist compasses, thermometers, depth gauges, and an innovative sailing timer known as the Regate. The Aquastar 63 had a novel internal timing ring under the crystal that was manipulated by the same crown that wound and set the watch, a feature that Aquastar patented. This is the dive watch that really put Aquastar on the map and was used by navy divers and explorers, including those participating in the US Navy SEALAB program, some of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s merry band of aquanauts during his Conshelf expeditions, and by divers on the Australian-led expedition that discovered the infamous wreck of the Dutch frigate, Batavia, (look that one up, it’s fascinating). But it was another watch that would become Aquastar’s most iconic and one sought after by collectors today: the Deepstar.
The Deepstar was introduced in 1965 as a hand-wound chronograph with a single 30-minute register. It is immediately recognizable in old photos by the oversized white subdial, the elegant Skin Diver case, and the angular applied markers. But it wasn’t really the dial that was groundbreaking about the Deepstar. It was its bezel. Designed by Belgian diver and scientist Marc Jasinski, its dual scale, engraved on a steel ring, not only tracked elapsed dive time, but also allowed a diver to estimate required surface intervals between dives and decompression times for subsequent dives. This latter feature was done in coordination with a dive table created by Aquastar and based on decompression schedules developed by the French navy. The accounting for repetitive dives was entirely new to watches and a function, incredibly, not seen again until the advent of the dive computer decades later.
The Deepstar was worn by Cousteau and his team during countless expeditions throughout the 1960s and seen on their wrists in photos until the mid-70s. French freediver Jacques Mayol wore a Deepstar for many years, not for its decompression bezel, but for its chronograph, which he could use to time breath holds on his deep apnea dives. He was wearing the watch when he set the depth record of 75 meters on a single breath in 1968.
Frédéric Robert was wooed away from Aquastar in the early 1970s by Omega, where he became the father of many of that decade’s avant-garde tool watches, including several well-known Seamasters and, most notably, the Flightmaster. Aquastar continued to build its niche line of watches, further evolving the Regate and its second-most well-known diver, the Benthos. As the Quartz Crisis unfolded, Aquastar shrunk from its prominence, resorting to some forgettable quartz pieces before ultimately becoming a niche producer of electronic regatta timers. Then, in 2018, Rick Marei, the man who resurrected Doxa’s SUB line of dive watches in the early 2000s, approached Aquastar’s owners about recreating its iconic divers for a new generation. The first watch in this reborn brand is the Deepstar.
There’s just something about a dive chronograph. Though not the most practical tool for diving, with its additional holes in the case and a less legible dial than a time-only watch, a dive chrono bristles with instrument bravado. Sub-registers, prominent pushers, a rotating bezel, and a long rubber strap combine to lend just a bit of extra swagger. This Deepstar, with its very 1960s shape, script writing, steel bezel, and almost Art Deco markers, tempers the burliness of a dive chrono with a panache more typical of topside timers like old Heuers or a Speedmaster. It even looks good on — the horror! — leather.
The 1960s Deepstar was 37mm in diameter, small by today’s dive-watch standards. The modern re-issue has grown to a still-reasonable 40.5 clicks across the case. Long lugs clock in at 51mm across the wrist, and now with an automatic movement inside instead of a hand-cranker and a doubled water resistance of 200 meters, the thickness is just shy of 15mm, without the domed sapphire. The first impression upon strapping on the new Deepstar is that it is not some dainty lightweight but a substantial watch. It’s a credit to some thoughtful upsizing, and the inherent architecture of the skin diver case, that it doesn’t feel top-heavy or look awkward. The watch was grown with proportions in mind. To that end, lug width was increased from the vintage watch’s 20mm to 22. This keeps the curve of the strap horns and the width in proportion to the rest of the watch.
Speaking of that self-winding movement, Aquastar turned to Swiss manufacture, LaJoux-Perret for a column wheel bi-compax chronograph motor that boasts 55 hours of power reserve, bi-directional winding and, thankfully, no ghost date position to its crown. It is a worthy movement for such an iconic re-issue, and its pusher action during chronograph use is predictably smooth and responsive. Timekeeping is impressive too. The example I wore only needed resetting once after daily wear for over two months. The movement is modestly decorated and finished with a skeletonized rotor sporting the famous star logo of Aquastar. None of this matters though, since it is smartly hidden (as it should be on a proper diver, in my mind) behind a solid case back that has the historically correct Aquastar script logo and geared tool grip pattern.
This movement, along with the exacting recreation of what is a beautiful chronograph, in a limited edition (300 each color) might make you think this is going to be a pretty expensive watch. But the pre-order price for the Deepstar is $ 2,790 ($ 3,590 after the pre-order period ends), which is on par with one of Longines’ well-priced Heritage chronos and well below Tudor’s Black Bay Chrono at $ 4,900. Doxa’s SUB 200 T-Graph re-issue, with a far less refined movement (Valjoux 7734) sells for an eye-watering $ 4,860 on rubber. So, while the Deepstar doesn’t exactly have 1965 pricing, it definitely has 2020 launch-in-the-middle-of-a-pandemic pricing.
Let’s talk about the bezel, because without it, this might as well just be a cool motorsports or astronaut’s watch. Aquastar did offer a number of different configurations, such as simple elapsed time and even a “rally” version with a tachymeter scale, but it is this repetitive dive version for which the Deepstar is best known. It’s perhaps easiest to compare it with another famous dive bezel. The Doxa SUB 300 was best known, aside from its orange dial, for its dual scale “no-deco” bezel. The markings on that bezel allow a diver to determine how long she can remain at a given depth without having to decompress on her way to the surface. Handy, for sure, but only for the first dive of the day. What if you want to get back in the water in an hour or two? Sorry, the Doxa bezel won’t help you then. That’s because your body tissues and bloodstream still have residual nitrogen in them from your first dive, and if this isn’t taken into account for a second dive, you stand a heightened risk of that nitrogen “fizzing” out into your joints, your organs, or your spinal column and causing illness, paralysis, or even death: the dreaded bends.
The Deepstar bezel takes into account this residual nitrogen and cleverly helps to calculate a new dive time for a second dive depending on your surface interval; i.e., the amount of time you spend on the surface between dives. It does this using the hour hand of the watch. Once you surface, you set the bezel opposite the hour hand according to the correct number on the table (1.5, 1.4, 1.3, etc.). As time passes and the hour hand moves, the bezel indicates the decreasing “co-efficient” of nitrogen in your body, which can then be used in conjunction with the Aquastar dive table to determine a new decompression time for the second dive. One note: Aquastar does not provide this dive table with the new Deepstar. The French navy deco tables upon which the original chart was based are now obsolete, and it would be not only irresponsible but also legally risky to include it with a 2020-issued watch. But it’s easy enough to find photos of the table online, and I dug one up and used it anyway, all in the name of thorough watch journalism. Don’t worry, I also wore a dive computer.
My first dive on the Madeira was to a depth of 27 meters. I timed the dive using the inner scale of the Deepstar’s ratcheting bi-directional bezel (don’t get me started on how overrated uni-directional bezels are), my bottom time finishing at 32 minutes. Now, according to the Aquastar table, I should have made a decompression stop at 3 meters (the common deco depth back in the Sixties) for about 4 minutes. My Garmin dive computer took into account the fact that my entire dive wasn’t spent at that full depth and “rewarded” me for time spent shallower, so I technically didn’t need to decompress. But it is common practice to perform a three-minute “safety stop” at 5 meters. So, in essence, I was still fairly aligned with both Aquastar and my Garmin Descent.
Upon surfacing, I reset the bezel so that the “1.5” mark on the outer scale was aligned with the hour hand. This setting is derived from the table once again, based on the depth and the length of my dive. In about two hours, after which I could finally feel my fingers again, the hour hand on the Deepstar was now opposite “1.3” on the bezel scale. If I were to repeat my previous dive to 27 meters for 32 minutes, I would need to multiply the normal decompression stop time by 3, which would mean 12 minutes of deco. A 44-minute dive in 9ºC water with a threadbare glove seemed ill-advised. Besides, the sun was starting to set and a good lunch and the warm rocks lessened my desire for another half-mile swim. Six hours roundtrip driving for a single 32-minute dive seems like bad math, but discretion is the better part of valor, and I packed up my gear and headed south towards home. Another Madeira dive in the books.
I’ve been wearing the Deepstar since mid-July and was actually able to dive a different wreck with it first, before the Madeira, also in Lake Superior (pandemics tend to change dive travel goals). The maiden dive with the chronograph was in another part of the big lake, off of Grand Island in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The wreck couldn’t have been more different from the Madeira. Whereas the former was a steel behemoth, the Bermuda was a wooden sailing ship from an earlier era, hauling a heavy load of high-grade iron ore. The wreck is also resting in far shallower water than Madeira, with a maximum depth of 10 meters. This means warmer temps, good light penetration, and long bottom times. The Deepstar’s deco scale wasn’t needed for this dive; in fact, the Aquastar dive table doesn’t list anything above 21 meters, mere snorkeling depths. Still, it made for an adequate bottom timer and photographed well as I descended into the collapsing hold of the ship where chunks of orange iron ore still litter the bottom.
The Deepstar re-issue comes in three liveries: Vintage Black, Blue Ray, or the one I’ve been wearing, Steel Grey. The black and grey have historical antecedents, and vintage examples command big money these days, many of which have patinated to rich tropical brown hues. There never was a blue version in the 1960s, but based on the photos of the new one, I think it fits the vibe and hey, blue watches are hot these days. The Deepstar comes fitted on a soft Tropic rubber strap, color-matched to the dial, and is packaged with an additional shell cordovan strap. Both bands come with an Aquastar-branded pin buckle.
Can one find fault with a watch whose aim was to recreate, as closely as possible, its vintage inspiration? I’m not a huge fan of polished surfaces on dive watches, so I find the Deepstar bezel a bit hard to read in combination with the small text. The sweep hand could use a bit more visibility, possibly even a lume flag. And really, with pushers that shouldn’t be used underwater, a 30-minute register isn’t terribly useful for diving. But these are small quibbles, and what’s the use of even criticizing a watch made in the mid-1960s, when dive watches were actually designed for, and used by, divers like Captain Cousteau, Jacques Mayol, and maybe even the Frigid Frogs? Who am I to argue with them?
So then, if you’re after a Deepstar, you embrace the aesthetics and function, and critiques must be limited to fit and finish. And in all respects, I find this watch possibly the best re-issued dive watch of the past decade. And that is not written lightly, given all the great ones we’ve seen, from Seiko, Doxa, Longines, and numerous other brands. Perhaps I’m biased since I’ve long wanted to add a vintage Deepstar to my collection. To look down and see a new one on my wrist while diving a deep, cold wreck was something special. Call it nitrogen narcosis, but it was actually a bit disorienting, like looking in the mirror and seeing your grandfather looking back. Only he’s younger, fitter, and more handsome than you remember him.
Now it’s well into autumn, and Lake Superior diving season is drawing to a close. Water temperatures dip even colder, the days are short, and the lake gets rougher. It’s no wonder November has always been the cruelest month for mariners. Of course, that didn’t stop the Frigid Frogs, who were known to cut holes in the ice to dive the wrecks around Duluth. Have we gotten smarter, with our high-tech thermal dive suits and digital wrist computers? Or softer? They say there are old divers and bold divers, but no old, bold divers. The new Deepstar begs to differ.
The Aquastar Deepstar has a pre-order price of $ 2,790 ($ 3,590 after pre-order period ends October 31) and is available in Vintage Black, Steel Grey, and Blue Ray. More information can be found on Aquastar’s website.
Photography by Gishani Ratnayake