A look back at the history of a model that, despite its name, has been associated with almost every type of watch, including some true classics along the way
PDF at the bottom…
“During my diving work, my watch is constantly subjected to the worst conditions: water, oil, sand and mud,” wrote an American diver and photographer, a Mr Kendall, to Omega in 1962. “In spite of this, its accuracy is undefeated and its stainless steel case remains in good condition.”
Kendall, who apparently wasn’t one for the quiet life, went on to explain that he’d recently had to crash-land a damaged seaplane on the ocean, which had promptly sunk. “Several days later, we dived at a depth of 45 meters to look for what was recoverable in the cabin. The only objects still functioning were my underwater cameras and my Seamaster 300, which started to tick again as if nothing had happened.”
This letter, as recorded by the brand’s former museum curator Marco Richon in his doorstop book Omega: A Journey Through Time, could be seen more or less as a manifesto for Seamaster watchmaking. Through the myriad styles, references and watch genres the Seamaster name has encompassed, from hardcore dive watches like Mr Kendall’s to dress watches, funky chronographs, bracelet all-rounders and all manner of curios and classics in between, water resistance, robustness and precision have been the defining characterstics.
“Overall, the evolution of the Seamaster family has always tied into the evolution of customer’s needs,” Raynald Aeschlimann, Omega’s CEO, told QP. “That original ‘all-rounder’ spirit has taken the collection through dressy models, diving models, sailing models and much more. It’s always been a collection for experimentation and pioneering design so it has naturally gone in many different directions.”
Usefully, two contrasting sets of watches being released this year offer neat bookends to the Seamaster story, and show just how broadly the name has been used. On the one hand we have the head-to-toe revamp of the the Diver 300 line: the Bond watch (or the Prince William watch, if you prefer), now upgraded with ceramic dials, laser-engraved wave patterns, prominent helium escape valves and the METAS-certified Master Chronometer movement. It’s the glossiest, most full-bodied and maximalist version yet of what I’d argue has been – thanks in part to 007 – the definitive modern Omega since its introduction 25 years ago. One might well carp about the redundancy of the helium escape valve (for the bazillionth time, you only need it if you’re saturation diving), or the fact that making such a literal mountain of a molehill component is somewhat boorish, given it’s a Rolex invention.
However, Aeschlimann reasons its presence on the watch thus: “We realize that a helium escape valve or bi-directional bezel will only really benefit a very small number of people. But these elements are an essential part of the design spirit. They tell the story of the watch. So we’ve created diving watches, especially the Diver 300M, that work equally well in the ocean or in the office.”
Either way, the reborn Diver 300M completes the wholesale overhaul of the contemporary Seamaster collections, following the recent redesigns and technical upgrades for Planet Ocean, Aqua Terra and PloProf; and the revival of the Railmaster and Seamaster 300 as complete ranges in their own right. The Seamaster collections can now be said to collectively represent what the name was always meant to stand for: the deployment of Omega’s most sophisticated engineering in its most versatile watches.
Having said that, aiming for waterproofness, robustness and precision could seem almost trivial ambitions by today’s watchmaking standards – what credible watch brand would now aspire to anything less, least of all Omega? But when it first appeared in 1948 the Seamaster represented a quantifiable step forward, and the embodiment of these qualities as achievable values in mass-market watchmaking. In other words, you might say it represented for Omega what the Oyster did for Rolex, even if it differed by allowing rather greater stylistic variety – something that could have been seen as a virtue back then, but rather confuses the issue now. Aesthetically, the Seamaster is almost impossible to pin down.
Nevertheless, the other key Seamaster launch this year provides a window back to the Seamaster’s first appearance, and the pre-diver era in which Seamasters would be higher-tech variations on the all-rounder dress watches that Omega was turning out in huge volumes. The Seamaster 1948 limited editions recreate the two original Seamasters, references CK 2577 with central seconds, and the small seconds chronometer version, ref. CK 2518. With 38mm steel cases and an impressive exactitude of detail, these follow last year’s perfectly exact recreations of 1957’s Speedmaster/Railmaster/Seamaster 300 triumvirate. Inside is the contemporary Master Chronometer movement, behind a display caseback. The crystal is engraved, in a somewhat random act of lily gilding, with a picture of a Chris Craft luxury speedboat and a Gloster Meteor aircraft, the RAF’s first jet plane. Would that the watches might herald the return, instead, of the seahorse – or ‘hippocampus’ – logo, inspired by sculptures found on Venetian gondolas, that used to adorn Seamasters as an affirmation of their waterproof qualities; a logo that has mysteriously vanished from modern Omega.
In 1948, the original versions of these watches were the front line in watchmaking. As in other areas, World War II had ushered in a host of technological advances which in Omega’s case had gone into the watches it made for the British military, in particular the highly-engineered “W.W.W.” (Watch Wrist Waterproof – the M.O.D. designation) watches supplied to the RAF in the latter stages of the war. Water-resistance being one of the key requirements (along with high precision, easy servicing and superior robustness), the verification process for these included immersion in water for 72 hours under different pressures and temperatures.
Omega produced almost 26,000 W.W.W. watches, and over 110,000 watches in total for the British military, putting it in a prime position to transfer this engineering to the civilian market, and to shout loudly about it. Instead of snap-back cases, the first Seamasters had screw-down cases that included another innovation that had proven its worth during the war, the O-ring gasket. Deployed successfully everywhere from submarine hulls to aircraft fuel tanks, the rubber O-ring was a far more effective seal than the lead or shellac gaskets found in most watch cases of the era, and along with a reinforced crystal, enabled – like Rolex’s Oyster – a more reliably water resistant watch.
Additionally, Omega had the movements to contend with those of the Oyster Perpetual: automatic calibres 30.10 and 28.10, developed in 1942, were sophisticated and robust engines, produced in standard or chronometer versions, with interchangeable components and a frequency of 19,800 vibrations per hour (compared to the more usual 18,000). They belied the fact that Omega had been late to the self-winding party: in the 1920s, as others (notably Rolex) were pressing ahead, Omega’s president Paul-Emile Brandt had proclaimed that “If our clients are too lazy to wind their watches each day, we should stop producing watches!” So much for Brandt’s estimation: Omega would produce 1.3 million of these movements up to 1955, half a million of which were chronometers.
A watch-world newby would be forgiven now for assuming that, given the maritime name and the modern collection, the Seamaster is just a diving/sports label for Omega. But the early generations provide a fascinating contrast, and represent a particularly worthwhile investment for the nascent collector, given that they can still be found for a few hundred quid. Dress watches by today’s standards, at the time their accuracy and resistance to dust and magnetism, besides water, saw them presented as the ultimate watch for any situation. As an Omega ad of 1956 put it, “The Seamaster was deisgned to share with you the zest of high adventure and the stresses and strains that go with it… There is more ruggedness built into the Seamaster than you are ever likely to call for. It feels good, though, to know you can count on the extra stamina and extra precision wchih set the Seamaster apart from other watches.” Sportsmen, airline and navy personnel, golfers, skin-divers, navigators and pilots were listed as the typical Seamaster wearers.
That might apply to versions in steel or gold, hand-wound as well as automatic, the watches characterised in particular by elegant dials featuring pointed applied markers, often interspersed with 12, 3, 6 and 9 numberals. The introduction of Omega’s first automatic calendar in 1952 added further sophistication, while Deluxe versions in 18k gold cases took things up to a higher evels of luxury.
“You can see that they were putting a lot of thought into the models they released, and they were clearly experimenting with different styles,” says the dealer Alex Barter, formerly of Sotheby’s and now of Ludlow’s Black Bough (blackbough.co.uk), who has developed something of a speciality in early Seamasters and their ilk. “The build quality for the time was remarkable too. The movements from the 1940s can be within five seconds a day when serviced, which is remarkable for a non-chronometer from 70 years ago.”
If one wants to understand the benchmark of engineering quality the Seamaster name would quickly become, then consider this: when the company launched the Speedmaster chronograph in 1957 (alongside the Seamaster 300 and the Railmaster), it was the imprimatur of the Seamaster, in the form of the Seahorse logo, that it used to affirm its rugged capabilities. The logo appeared on the back of early Speedies and in catalogues, while one 1959 catalogue even classes the Speedmaster as a Seamaster:
“As a member of the Seamaster family, the Speedmaster has the same triple-sealed, high pressure proof case as the rugged Seamaster sports watches, waterproof even at 200 feet below the surface.”
Incidentally, while they may not share the Speedy’s mystique or style, Seamaster chronographs from the same era (refs CK 14.360 or 14.364), bearing the same legendary hand-wound calibre 321 and all the benefits of Seamaster construction, must represent some of the finest value in the ever-exploding vintage chronograph market, going for under £5,000. Through all its styles, families, variations and revisions, the Seamaster has always represented an awful lot of watch for the price, and it continues to, whether you’re buying vintage or new.