It can be notoriously difficult to pin down the exact release date of watches from the 1970s and before. In a time before the internet, things were released slowly, sometimes at trade shows, sometimes not, and since all records were kept on paper, if at all, many have been lost to the sands of time. Early dive watches, including those made by Aquastar, further muddied the waters by sometimes being sold at dive shops or in dive catalogues for years before being seen on your local horologist’s shelf. The Aquastar Benthos 500 was one of those elusive watches. And it’s now back.
Named for a Greek word meaning “bottom of the sea”, I have seen its release date claimed as early as 1962 and as late as 1970. Noted Aquastar historian Dr Peter Millar narrowed it to between 1966 and 1970, so we will go with those numbers until shown otherwise. Regardless of the exact date, the Benthos was a groundbreaking release for both Aquastar and the diving community. Firstly, even though dive watches had been trending larger for a few years already, the Benthos was a big chunk of kit. At 46mm across and 16mm thick, it was massive for its day (and would still be today). This sizing was necessary for the Benthos to achieve its claim to fame, being the first commercially available non-monobloc watch to have a depth rating of 500 metres. You could make an argument that Aquastar kickstarted the wristwatch race to ludicrous depths that no human could ever survive, a race that has led us to at least 11,000 metres of claimed depth, a number that seems to increase every other day.
The second innovation of the Benthos took a timing cue from the earlier Aquastar Deepstar chronograph and incorporated a 60-minute monopusher chronograph counter – it is the watch you can see above, with an additional pusher at 4 o’clock. Powered by a modified A. Schild 1902 movement, the Benthos 500 had a fourth, centre-mounted hand that looked like a GMT hand but actually counted up to 60 minutes when actuated with the pusher, to be used in congruence with the standard timekeeping for various dive timing applications. The very slow movement of this hand has earned this complication the fitting nickname “minute creeper”.
As a deep cut, even in the already esoteric world of 1960s dive watches, the Aquastar Benthos is the watch that fans have been clamouring for a new version of ever since the relaunch of the Aquastar brand back in 2020. Well, clamour no more, my esteemed comrades, for that day has finally arrived.
The return of the Aquastar Benthos
2023 marks 60 years since the beginning of the Aquastar story, and the Swiss toolwatch maker is capping off its celebration in style, releasing a tribute to that iconic Benthos 500… With a few differences, however. The Aquastar Benthos Heritage H1 is a 42mm large, 16mm thick, tonneau-shaped dive watch in a 3-hand, no-date and no chrono configuration. It’s rendered in 904L stainless steel, which stands up better to corrosion than the standard 316L steel, even if that difference is largely academic for most watch enthusiasts. The dial is a subdued, semi-gloss black with applied hour markers that are filled with a high-density Super-LumiNova for a very bright lume. It’s surrounded by a 120-click, unidirectional ceramic bezel. There’s a large chapter ring which slants down towards the dial at a more obtuse angle than usual, giving the dial a smaller appearance than you would expect from a 42mm watch, and increasing the vintage vibes.
To keep things watertight to 500 metres, you will find a thick, flat sapphire crystal, a screw-on stainless steel caseback, and a screw-down crown positioned at 2 o’clock, just like it was on the original. Pop the hood, and you will find the watch is powered by an élaboré-grade ETA 2824-2, that solid, 28,800vph workhorse movement that is becoming rare to see outside of Swatch Group watches. The élaboré grade is adjusted in 3 positions, rated to +/- 7 seconds per day, and has a power reserve of 38 hours.
Now let’s talk about that chronograph hand, or the lack thereof in this case. Being one of the hallmarks of the original Benthos, one would have certainly expected to find such an important bit intact in a reissue. While the motives for not including it may never be known to us, one can assume it has something to do with the fact that no off-the-shelf movement currently exists to power such a complication. Perhaps the time or R&D or some combination of factors were deemed too much or would have pushed the Benthos outside of the price bracket where Aquastar wanted it to live. Whatever the reason, the feature is certainly missed, but I don’t personally find it to be a deal-breaker. In a modern diving context, I cannot think of many situations that would necessitate a secondary 60-minute counter, as the modern dive computer does that and more. For above-water timing needs, the standard 60-minute bezel will work just fine too. The loss of the chronograph certainly takes away a bit of the fun and charm of the original, but if it was necessary to keep costs down and get a Benthos into more modern hands, I think it’s an understandable trade-off.
On the wrist, this Aquastar Benthos wears like a chunky dive watch should. It is heavy and creeps right up to the edge of feeling oversized, then backs off a bit into a nice Goldilocks zone. You certainly won’t forget that you’re wearing it, but you won’t regret wearing it either. Even on dry land, glancing down at it makes you feel like you should be on a boat or in the water, exploring things and adventuring. That’s the magic of the vintage dive watch, and it is quite strong with this one.
While I did not have time to actually take the Aquastar Benthos in the water like I often do in my reviews, my experience diving with many dozens of watches tells me that it would perform like a champ. It straddles that fine line between old-school fun and modern functionality. The simple dial is very legible, and the lume is just monstrous. The bezel also reaches nearly all the way to the edges of the case, which would make gripping it, even with neoprene-gloved hands, a simple task. The ISOfrane rubber strap rounds out the list of solid diving credentials on offer here.
Thoughts, availability & price
While one might lament the missing chronograph, to do so would be to miss out on a really fun, and very nicely specced dive watch. It’s a whole lot of bang for your 1970s diver buck. And considering that the H1 in the name is short for “Heritage Chapter 1”; who knows what Chapter 2 might have in store for us someday?
The Aquastar Benthos Heritage H1 is a limited edition of 500 pieces, available now for pre-order at USD 1,090. The future retail price will be USD 1,390. Exclusively available at www.aquastar.ch.