Half a mile offshore and 80 feet deep in the Gulf of California, I hover transfixed by a seven-foot bull shark that circles in and out of the murky near distance. My dive buddy and I had intended to explore a steep rock pinnacle here, but the toothy predator has held our attention since we dropped in 30 minutes earlier. A glance at my pressure gauge tells me I have plenty of air in my scuba tank. But at this depth my time is limited unless I want to pause for decompression stops on my return to the surface, and the thought of hanging out above an active bull shark isn’t appealing. I check my wrist dive computer to see how long I have until I need to start ascending. The LCD screen is blank.
A failing dive computer is both an annoyance and a reminder of the merits of the mechanical wristwatch, the triumph of springs and gears over silicon circuit boards and lithium batteries. Despite the many features offered by smart watches—activity tracking, notifications, heart rate, GPS navigation—the hard truth is that batteries fail, electronics don’t like cold, and screens can go dark at the worst-possible moments. An analog dive watch won’t suddenly quit on you while you’re gawking at a shark. And yet, if you believe the hype, traditional wristwatches, despite their many practical advantages, are a fading relic, made obsolete by the connected devices that now seem to rule our lives.
This isn’t the first time we’ve been told classic timepieces are facing extinction. In the early 1970s, the established watch industry, dominated by the Swiss, came under attack by a new technology—the quartz wristwatch. Coming from Asia, these inexpensive, highly accurate, battery-powered tickers were all the rage. Even James Bond swapped his Rolex for a Seiko that spit out messages from headquarters. The onslaught did in fact come close to driving the Swiss brands into oblivion. But by the 1990s, the pendulum was swinging back, thanks largely to the popularity of Swatch. The Swiss industry re-invented itself by pivoting to simpler watches, many incorporating plastics in the watch cases.
Today, despite our increasingly digital world, mechanical watches are not just enduring, they are thriving. In May, sales of Swiss watch exports were up 5.3 percent to $1.8 billion, which made it the 13th consecutive month of increased exports. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Human are largely analog creatures. We have an intuitive preference for reading time or velocity on circular displays with moving hands. This is why so many of today’s top-selling smart watches offer analog faces and why even Tesla dashboards present speed and RPMs with digital renderings of old-school gauges. A blur of lit-up numerals just isn’t the same as watching the needle move. It’s the same pleasure you get turning a Nest thermostat or using an analog stopwatch to time race splits, especially a mechanical one that jumps to life with a satisfying “click”.
Then there’s the fact that digital tools are, almost by definition, built for obsolescence. Circuit boards have a lifespan, batteries leak, LCD screens burn out. The next version is always the better version. No one ever repairs them; they’re simply replaced. A well-made mechanical watch, however, will last for generations, and many can readily endure conditions that would destroy high-tech tools. Sir Edmund Hillary, Jacque Cousteau, and Amelia Earhart summited peaks, discovered shipwrecks, and flew across oceans with mechanical watches on their wrists.
To wear a proper watch, especially while adventuring, ties you to that long lineage of derring-do. Strapping on a trusty field watch to scale a 14er can add to the experience and provide a tangible memento. When you’re back at your desk Monday morning, there’s something gratifying about looking down at your wrist and seeing the same piece that was with you on the summit. You just don’t get the same satisfaction from downloading your elevation profile to an app.
Back in the Gulf of California, with my dive computer kaput, I signal to my dive buddy that we need to head for the surface. On my right wrist, an old Navy surplus analog depth gauge tracks my ascent—80, 75, 70 feet—on up to 15 feet, where I pause for a standard three-minute safety stop. On my left wrist is the Rolex Submariner my wife gave me for my 40th birthday. I watch the steady sweep of its seconds hand, while the minute hand tracks elapsed time on the rotating outer ring. Stripped of the passive reliance on a computer to tell me what to do and when, I am a more active participant in the moment, highly aware of the passage of time.
Today, three years later, I’ve replaced the faulty dive computer but am still wearing the same Rolex on my wrist now as a I type. It’s a collector of my past adventures and an inspiration for more to come. And that might just be its most important function of all.