“If you’re not a little nervous, then there might be something wrong with you,” Jeff Milisen, the divemaster, says as our dive boat cruises out from the Honokohau Harbor under the cover of darkness, toward our dive site about five miles off the coast of Hawaii’s Big Island. “This is meant to get you out of your comfort zone, and we have self-preservation mechanisms for a reason. It’s okay to be apprehensive.”
And I am. Three other divers and I are about to perform a “blackwater dive,” where we’ll be attached to a 60 ft. tether and drift above 4,000 ft. of pitch-black water.
One of the world’s most magnificent migrations happens every single night, but without the charismatic megafauna and supporting documentaries by streaming services, it goes unnoticed. The billions of sea creatures that populate the ocean’s mesopelagic zone (660 to 3,300 ft.) move vertically up the water column to the surface to feed. A blackwater dive might reveal anything from siphonophores, an often massive colony of stinging organisms that looks straight out of a horror movie, to the elusive cookiecutter shark, a one-foot-long predator that, like a circular drill press, suctions out round plugs of flesh from any organism large enough to bore into.
Prior to the blackwater dive, I’d spent ten days exploring Hawaii’s reef systems and hiking through its tropical broadleaf forests with a Certina DS Super PH500M on the wrist. The watch was a 2020 reinterpretation of one that played an important role in the 1969 Tektite I and Tektite II experiments carried out in an underwater living habitat, a joint project between the Office of Naval Research and General Electric. The original DS-2 Super PH500M was supplied to aquanauts who lived in the undersea habitat and pushed the boundaries of saturation diving with 58 straight days conducting marine scientific studies. I figured wearing the modern reinterpretation while pushing my own personal boundaries when it came to aquatic experiences would help me get closer to understanding what sort of watch the ’60s DS-2 Super PH500M(ref 5801 123) was, and what the 2020 iteration is meant to be.
When the DS-2 Super PH500M was introduced in ’67 it was Certina’s top-tier dive watch offering, selling for significantly more than a Rolex Submariner or Sea-Dweller. The Certina and the Rolex Submariner and Sea-Dweller were supplied to the Tektite aquanauts in 1969. One aquanaut who participated in the Tektite program, Ian Koblick, told the blog Vintage Certinas that “he would wear the Rolex mainly for the prestigious occasions, but his main working watch, which he used in the diving missions of Tektite I and II was the DS-2 Super PH500m.”
The model from the late ’60s had supreme technical chops at the time and the real-world use by professionals to back it up. But is the 2020 reissue worthy of reviving the name of one of Certina’s greats? Over a few weeks in the Pacific tropics, I’d reach a conclusion.
We jump in, clip to the tether, and descend to a depth of 70 ft. to start the dive. In complete darkness, there are no visual reference points to orient myself during the descent, so the best I can do is track the depth gauge that features a fully lumed dial akin to some Citizen and TAG Heuer divers from the ’90s. It makes me wonder why more divers didn’t feature a fully-lumed dial. I fiddle with the buoyancy control device until the gauge stabilizes at around 70 ft. and try my best to slow my breathing before taking an hour to slowly ascend and observe nightmarish creatures glowing with bioluminescence whiz by.
Reviving a Diving Legend
The DS-2 Super PH500M from the ’60s came with two dial executions – both in black. One was completely monochromatic and featured white markers and hands against a black dial, and the other incorporated bright orange for the minute hand and markers. The 2020 DS Super PH500M is somewhat of an amalgamation of both designs, but the most striking update is a bright orange dial that never appeared on the original. So where exactly did such a loud dial color come from when the original watches were relatively conservative?
When Certina set out to re-introduce such a historically important watch, it turned to the Verband Deutscher Sporttaucher (VDST), a German diving organization much like PADI, to provide input on the watch and collaboratively launch it. The watch is an unlimited “special edition,” so they emphasized case-specific usability over mainstream appeal. They designed it with diving in mind, so why not have divers weigh in during the design phase?
A VDST panel chose orange for the dial color because they believed it’s easiest to read underwater. Jason Heaton once wrote that orange doesn’t necessarily offer the best visibility underwater, but I think there’s something about the bright orange dial that thematically works with the new DS Super PH500M, even beyond its supposed enhanced visibility. Many dive watches today are conservatively designed, because manufacturers know that very few end users ever get them wet. This Certina is the opposite. With such a highly specialized watch with a narrow target market, it’s acceptable – in fact, preferred – to take design risks. When I spoke with Certina CEO Marc Aellen and product director Martial Bringolf, they made it clear that since this watch was part of the heritage collection, which accounts for less than 15 percent of Certina’s global sales, they actively encouraged VDST to take liberties with the design and come up with something that they would use specifically for diving. They chose orange, and the divers had the final say.
The new watch also maintains the double-security (or DS) technology upon which Certina built its sterling reputation during the ’60s. The system is made up of a thick O-ring that fills the space between the movement and the case, protecting it from shocks. The movement essentially “floats” inside the case and cushions any blows.
Certina and the U.S. Market
The DS Super PH500M was the second Certina I’d ever had on my wrist. The first was a handsome DS-2 PH200M from 1974 that I bought at a vintage market in Bangkok. I’d never seen a modern Certina in America, and there’s a reason why. As it stands, Certina is not present in any significant capacity in the North American market. There are no physical boutiques or ADs to visit to see any of Certina’s wares. Head to Certina’s online store locator, and you’re met with the message that “CERTINA is not currently represented in the USA.” To get one, you have to order from Switzerland and have it shipped.
Aellen explained that during Nicolas G. Hayek’s restructuring of Swatch Group in the ’80s, he “put Omega and Longines out front, because it was impossible to restart all the brands at the same time. While Omega and Longines led, Certina never followed them to the U.S. because it takes a very high marketing investment.”
The strongest markets for Certina today are Europe and China. “Staying focused on fewer markets has allowed Certina to offer the best price-to-quality ratio in the entire industry,” Aellen said. He added that most likely no one in the U.S., or even France, would know what VDST is, but that it didn’t really matter since the watch wasn’t built for mass global appeal. I myself hadn’t heard of VDST before seeing the watch, and in a funny way, its foreignness made the watch appeal to me even more. A bright orange dial linked to an obscure diving organization is proof that Certina isn’t watering designs down in order to reach more consumers. And, after all, part of the joy in collecting watches is in discovering something new.
A Report From the Blackwater
On dive watches, Jack once wrote, “A dive watch works or doesn’t, on its most basic level, in terms of how successful it is functionally.” The Certina works. Beyond telling the local time, it accurately displays the elapsed time of my blackwater dive with its push-to-turn bezel. Zero water ingress occurs. The deepest max depth I record in the blackwater is 76 ft., nowhere near the 500-meter depth rating.
The Certina also holds its own against the Titan of the dive watches, the Rolex Submariner. They were both issued to Tektite Aquauats in ’69, so it’s a fair – and interesting – comparison in 2020. Don’t believe me? It’s all in the numbers.
The stainless steel DS Super PH500M is 43mm wide and 15mm tall, comes on an accordion rubber dive strap (these straps are meant to be pulled tight enough to stretch out the “waves” on the surface, and they take up slack when a wetsuit compresses at depth), and is water-resistant to 500 meters. Inside is an ETA Powermatic 80.611, complete with 80 hours of power reserve and an anti-magnetic Nivachron balance spring. The watch features a spring-loaded 60-click elapsed-time bezel in aluminum. It’s built to ISO 6425 specs.
The Submariner’s 904L steel case is 41mm wide and a tad over 12mm tall, slightly smaller than the Certina. And the power reserve is smaller, too, at 70 hours, although it does feature a paramagnetic blue Parachrom hairspring. Lastly, it’s water resistant to 300 meters. That’s 200 meters less than the Certina.
And yet, the Submariner costs eight times more. The Certina sells for CHF 895 at retail, while the Rolex – when it can be had at retail, which ain’t often – sells for CHF 7,700.
Sizing the Certina up next to a benchmark dive watch underscores its value proposition. But there’s one other intangible that can’t be measured: It’s the kind of watch that makes you want to get out there and do something far outside your comfort zone. A bright orange dial and a rubber dive strap don’t exactly scream, “Wear me to the supermarket!” but instead, something like, “Strap me on and jump in 4,000 ft. of pitch-black ocean. Forget about the sharks!”