In-Depth: The History of the Omega Seamaster

An Omega Seamaster 300 CK2913 with service sword hands. Photo courtesy of Watches of Knightsbridge.

An Omega Seamaster 300 CK2913 with service sword hands. Photo courtesy of Watches of Knightsbridge.

The Seamaster is the oldest and most varied collection of watches still made by Omega

When Omega released the Seamaster in 1948, they had no idea of what the future would bring for the collection. For the past 69 years, Omega produced a staggering array of Seamasters to suit a variety of needs; from solid gold dress watches to solid blocks of stainless steel used for dive watches, from soccer timers to world timers, the Seamaster has seen them all. And it all started in 1948.

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1948 was the first year that London hosted the modern Olympic games and it was a ramshackle affair. London's skyline had been ravaged by the Blitz and the country's economy by the total war production of World War II. There was no new Olympic village to house the athletes. Bedding was provided but towels were not. Omega would be the official timekeepers of the Olympic games for the third time and, by coincidence, the year of the Olympics also marked Omega's 100th anniversary. What started as a cottage business in the Swiss alps had grown to be one of the most respected watch manufacturers in the world. Back then, watch companies liked to celebrate anniversaries with the release of new collection (A novel concept today). Rolex's 40th birthday present to themselves had been the Datejust and Omega's present would be the Seamaster.

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The Seamaster was a watch for customers who wanted something for town, sea and country and took inspiration from the watches Omega produced for the British military in World War II. These 'watch wristlet waterproof' or w.w.w watches were more utilitarian in design than the first Seamasters but the basic elements remained the same: Solid case construction, legible dials and a world class movement inside. The tradition of Seamaster dress watches continued throughout the 1940s all the way to present day, but I won't be talking about them here. There are too many different cases, dials and references to fit in one article and cataloging them would be a task worth of a 300 page coffee table book, not a 3000 word article. One day I'll write an article about the dress Seamasters (Including the Aqua Terra range), but today I've focused on the impressive collection of dive watches that fall under the Seamaster banner.

In the hierarchy of Omega dress watches, the Seamasters were somewhere in the middle; above the Geneve but below the Constellation. The Constellation remained the pride of Omega for many years and new technologies were first introduced into that line first. Seamasters and Constellations did share a lot of the same movements but Seamasters were not chronometer tested and were not as elaborately finished. The De Ville started as a sub-brand of the Seamaster but in 1967, it became its own seperate brand.

Even though it was a dress watch, the first Omega Seamaster was still quite impressive water-resistance as it was one of the first watches that Omega used a rubber O-ring gaskets on. Most watches used solid lead or shellac (a type of resin) for sealing off case backs and crowns but these degrade over time. Rubber doesn't change size under temperature and was far more resilient to pressure testing than previously used materials. In 1955, the Swiss Laboratory for Watch Research tested 50 Seamaster cases down to a depth of 60 meters, all with rubber O-rings. All passed the tests with no water infiltration (It is worth noting that Omega were not the first to use rubber gaskets, Rolex had been using them since 1928 in their Oyster cases). It is these experiments and tests with new materials that led Omega to develop a series of three tool watches in 1957 that would be the masters of their domain.

 
A French advert for the 1957 Rail-, Sea- and Speedmasters. Photo courtesy of Omega.

A French advert for the 1957 Rail-, Sea- and Speedmasters. Photo courtesy of Omega.

 

Masters of the Universe

The Speedmaster and Seamaster (Reference CK2914 and CK2913) remain two of the most recognizable names in watchmaking (The Railmaster not so much). The Speedmaster would become a lunar cash cow for Omega (as having astronauts wear your watches is a marketing campaign that keeps on giving) and the Seamaster 300 would go onto inspire the designs of nearly all dive watches from Omega for the next 50 years.

Omega had made watches to be worn whilst diving before, but the Marine from 1932 wasn't a 'dive watch' as we define them today. It wasn't very legible, it was small and was marketed more as a waterproof watch, not a watch for diving professionals. Blancpain were the first brand to release a true dive watch, the Fifty Fathoms, in 1953 with Rolex not far behind with the Submariner in 1954. Omega were a few years late, but the Seamaster 300 still deserves its place in the history of dive watches.

The Omega Seamaster 300 CK2913 with forward count bezel. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

The Omega Seamaster 300 CK2913 with forward count bezel. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

Despite being called the Seamaster 300, it was only rated to 200 meters. I have heard two different stories about this discrepancy; one is that the equipment used for testing was only able to test down to 200 meters, despite the capability of the watch to survive past 300 meters. The other, which I heard on an tour of the Omega Museum in Bienne, is that Omega thought that 300 sounded better than 200 so they just went with it. I like the second one.

One of the defining aspects of the Seamaster 300 was its crown

Rolex still had the patent for screw-down crowns in 1957 so Omega invented the Naiad crown (Naiad meaning water nymph in Ancient Greek). This crown was mounted on a special spring inside the barrel so as a diver swam deeper, the increased water pressure pushed against the crown to create an ever tightning seal. For long dives at deep depths, this was fantastic but it meant the watch was prone to leakage in shallow waters.

Inside the 39mm stainless steel case was the Omega Caliber 501 which was produced between 1956 and 1960. It beat at 19,800bph/6 beats a second, was fitted with 19 jewels and had a power reserve of 46 hours. The Seamaster 300 Ref. CK2913 was produced with 7 variants, each with its own post-references suffix: Variants 1 and 2 had a back count bezel (The markers reading 50 through to 10 running clockwise), Variants 3 to 6 had a forward count bezel (Markers reading 10 through to 50 clockwise) and Variant 7 had a lollipop seconds hand. Over the years, these bezels were replaced during services so it's very difficult to find watches in original condition with the correct parts for the variant. The design of the Seamaster 300 CK2913 would influence the look of future dive Seamasters, especially the 12-3-6-9 hour markers, coin edge bezel and bracelet design.

In 1960, the new reference CK14755 was released which was essentially the same Seamaster 300 but with the updated Caliber 552 in it. In 1962, Omega changed their reference number system and the CK14755 became the Ref. ST 165.014.

Omega Seamaster 300 2nd Generation Ref. 165.024.

Omega Seamaster 300 2nd Generation Ref. 165.024.

In 1964, there was a new Seamaster 300

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The two references, 165.024 with no date and 166.024 with date, were very different beasts to the original design. The case size was upped from 39mm to 42mm, the broad arrow hands were gone and there were 5 different bezel variations that changed the size of the font and minute markers. The now iconic broad arrow hands were changed because the thin taper of the minute hand proved hard to read at depth. There were two types of hands available on the new Seamaster 300: sword hands or baton/candlestick hands. The candlestick hands were used on the early models and the sword hands on the later models, but Omega liked to deplete spare stock when servicing watches so a lot of these watches were fitted with the 'incorrect' hands. (I do wonder what a customer in the 1960s would say when they saw their watch return with a different set of hands?!). Rare examples of Seamaster 300s with dauphine hands exist, but they were only released in Italy and the chances of finding a genuine one of these watches is slim.

It was shocking to learn that it is these later watches, not the original CK2913s, that collectors desire. I wasn't familiar with the 2nd generation Seamaster 300 and assumed (incorrectly) that  the original would be the most desired. These new Seamasters were chosen by the British Royal Navy to be supplied to their combat divers, and the watch community goes gaga for military watches. These mil-spec Seamasters had all the hallmarks of military watches; welded lugs, military engravings on the case back and a 'circle T' logo on dial to indicate the presence of tritium. These watches were only issued for a years to the British Royal Navy as the leaky/Naiad crown at shallow depths proved an issue that the new Rolex Twin-lock crowns didn't have.

Omega continued to innovate with their diving Seamasters and created a beautiful monstrosity of steel; the Seamaster 600, aka the PloProf.

The PloProf, Ref. 166.077, was launched in 1970 after 4 years of testing and it is a polarizing watch. It's big. Really big. 54mm wide, 45mm long, 15mm thick, 24mm lugs and 175g on the steel mesh bracelet. It is a hulking metallic beast, but there is method behind the madness. Omega wanted a watch that would be worn at all depths by divers and in all conditions, including in helium enriched environments.

The Omega Seamaster 600, aka the PloProf, circa 1975. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

The Omega Seamaster 600, aka the PloProf, circa 1975. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

In the late 1960s, professional diving organisation like COMEX pioneered the new technique of saturation diving. During these saturation dives, divers could live in an underwater, pressurized environment for days or weeks at a time and, inside these underwater containers, the divers breathed the same mixture of hydrogen, helium and hydrogen as was in their diving tanks. Helium molecules are very small and were able to squeeze through traditional watch seals, only to expand and damage the watch upon resurfacing. This was a time when a mechanical watch were tools for professionals so three watchmakers set their sights on beating helium: Omega, Rolex and Doxa, with the later two working together.

What Rolex/Doxa created was the helium escape valve. This valve on the case side allowed the minuscule helium molecules to escape before they could cause trouble to the watch. It was an elegant solution but Omega decided to brute force a solution instead. Why allow helium to flow out of the watch when you could just stop it from entering in the first place? Initially Omega wanted to make the PloProf out of titanium but it was too expensive and difficult to get hold of as the United States Government had labeled it a "strategic metal' and had been hoarding it for ever. Instead it was made out of a single block of stainless steel. The crown had a double screw-down feature and the crystal was 4mm thick in order to stop any helium from entering.

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Omega designed the PloProf to serve the unique needs of professional divers. The crown was placed at 3 o'clock so divers could swim without having it dig into their arm (There are left-handed variants but these are considerably rarer). 1mm grooves were cut into the case back to grip better against a wet suit. The bi-directional bezel would lock in place and only could be adjusted whilst depressing a button on the case side. Ultimately though, it would be the Rolex Sea-Dweller that would become the choice of divers as the PloProf was too large and cumbersome, despite the innovative method of resisting the perils of the deep. Omega were not discouraged though and made the Seamaster 1000, a watch capable of even greater diving feats that was built using the same research that made the Ploprof possible.

The Omega Seamaster 1000 circa 1975. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

The Omega Seamaster 1000 circa 1975. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Omega continued to release a variety of watches under the Seamaster name including several chronographs like the soccer time, the 'Big Blue', and the 'Jedi'. These watches had designed that followed the changing tides of fashion so expect funky case shapes and bright colors.

One watch that is less well known than these funky styled chronographs is the Seamaster Cermet, aka the Black Tulip. After 10 years of research, Omega released the Cermet in 1981 as the first Omega with a ceramic case with a steel bracelet with black ceramic tiles mounted to it. It was a commercial failure. It was only available through special order at a price 5 times that of a regular Speedmaster. It didn't sell, but it was the first step on road that would lead Omega to entire range of ceramic Seamasters.

The Omega Seamaster Professional 300M. Photo courtesy of Omega.

The Omega Seamaster Professional 300M. Photo courtesy of Omega.

The Seamaster Professional 300M is the most recognizable watch Omega has made in the last 30 years

Released in 1994, the Seamaster Professional 300M has become an icon in Omega's modern collection. It evolved from the Seamaster 200 Ref. 2810 from 1988 but did not as closely resemble the older Seamaster 300s from the 1960s. Even though 99.99% of customers were not professional divers, Omega added a helium escape valve (HEV) at 10 o'clock on all models except the GMT. The Seamaster Professional 300M was made in a variety of sizes throughout the years with its iconic design elements (scalloped edge bezel, skeleton sword hands, unique bracelet) mostly remaining the same. 5 years after its release, the Seamaster Professional 300M got a brand new movement, the Caliber 2500 Co-Axial Escapement.

The evolution of Co-Axial movements.

The evolution of Co-Axial movements.

This was a modified ETA 2892, but with a comprised version of the Daniels Co-Axial Escapement added. Omega had purchased the rights to the escapement in 1993 and had been working for 6 years on industrializing the manufacturing process. The Caliber 2500 was compromised as several parts, including the regular organ, had to be shrunk in order to fit and to this day, the time-only Seamaster Professional 300Ms still use the same caliber. Other modern Seamasters like the Aqua Terra and Planet Ocean have been upgraded to use a full Co-Axial Caliber, but the Seamaster Professional lags behind. Why? The new METAS certified, Master Chronometer movements are expensive to make and expensive to test and if the Seamaster Professional were to have these new movements, Omega would be forced to up the price of their most popular (and most affordable) watch. It will happen eventually,  but Omega will continue to delay it for as long as they can.

The influence of James Bond on the Omega Seamaster collection is not to be understated.

Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies promotional images.

Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies promotional images.

It was Goldeneye production designer Lindy Hemming that switched Bond to a Seamaster. Her personal experience with British military men led her to believe that the Omega Seamaster was the choice of a modern Bond. The first Omega that Pierce Brosnan wore was the Ref. 2541.80, a quartz Seamaster Professional with a blue dial, in 1995s Goldeneye. Two years later he wore the Ref. 2531.80, the automatic chronometer version of the watch, in Tomorrow Never Dies and again in The World is Not Enough (1999) and Die Another Day (2002).

I was convinced that Commander Bond — a naval man and a discreet gentleman of the world — would wear a watch to match. My father was an RAF man and I remember his naval colleagues visiting us when I was a child. I vividly recall the Omega he wore. On this basis, I fought for the Seamaster to be the timepiece for Pierce Brosnan
— Lindy Hemming, speaking to Revolution Magazine

The Seamaster Planet Ocean was released in 2003 and marked the new standard of Professional dive watches from Omega.

The Planet Oceans were water-resistant to 600 meters and had thicker, more durable cases. In part, these Planet Oceans are the best modern interpretation of the classic CK2913s that Omega make. The hands, the dial and coin-edge bezel share the same DNA as the original watches but have evolved for a modern wrist. These watches were also the first Seamasters to have the new Co-Axial Caliber 85XX movements. These new movements were designed to allow the Daniels Co-Axial Escapement to work to its full potential and the Calibers 85XX are large movements, compared to the Caliber 2500. The first Planet Oceans had steel case backs with an engraving of the Seamaster Seahorse on it, but over time Omega had swapped these in favor of a sapphire crystal display back.

The Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean 600M. Photo courtesy of Omega.

The Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean 600M. Photo courtesy of Omega.

Over the years, the bezel has changed from a aluminium insert to ceramic, and then to ceramic with the addition of liquid metal. Liquid Metal is a titanium alloy that Omega use to create the diving marks on the bezels instead of painting them. A laser engraves a stencil into the bezel insert and the allow is pressed into the stencil to make a practically impervious marker that will never age. In 2016, Omega released the 'Deep Black' Planet Ocean collection which was made entirely out of black ceramic. One year later, Omega released the 'Big Blue', a Planet Ocean made out of, you guessed it, blue ceramic. Making ceramic durable enough for diving is a huge accomplishment, though its an accomplishment no-one was really looking for.

With Daniel Craig replacing Pierce Brosnan for 2006s Casino Royale, his Seamaster Professional 300M was also replaced with the new Co-Axial Escapement version. Craig also wore a Seamaster Planet Ocean at the beginning of the film, and even got a special thin version made as he found the regular watch too thick. Craig continued to wear the Planet Ocean in Quantum of Solace (2008) and in Skyfall (2012) where he also wore a Seamaster Aqua Terra during a casino scene. For Spectre (2015), Craig wore the new Seamaster 300 that had been released to commemorate the anniversary of the original CK2913.

The release of the new Seamaster 300 (No MORE M) was the talk of 2014

The modern Seamaster 300. Photo courtesy of Omega.

The modern Seamaster 300. Photo courtesy of Omega.

It was the most anticipated model of Baselworld and Omega had been teasing its announcement for weeks. Nearly every design element from the original was back: the broad arrow hands, the bezel, the dial and people loved it. Well, some people had an issue with the polished center links on the bracelet which I tend to agree don't have much of a place on a tool watch. Honestly, I wasn't a huge fan of the watch. It was mechanically the best Seamaster ever made, but the watch never clicked when I tried it on. 

The 2017 '1957' Trilogy. Photo courtesy of Omega.

The 2017 '1957' Trilogy. Photo courtesy of Omega.

This year at Baselworld, Omega released the 1957 Trilogy. Masters for a modern age.

This trilogy set comprised of new versions of the original Rail, Sea and Speedmasters. The designs are practically a mirror image of the original although the Rail- and Seamasters are fitted with the latest Master Chronometer Caliber 8806. I've spoken about how I find these reissues rather boring. I would have preferred a new Seamaster to honor the anniversary, rather than a reissue. The Seamaster was a new collection for Omegas's 100th birthday but for its birthday, all we get is an old design with a new movement. But that's my opinion.

More than any other collection, the Seamaster range shows how willing Omega was to try new things and bend to the whims of fashion. Sometimes to its benefit, sometimes to its detriment. When it works, you get a 2nd generation Seamaster 300 that improved on the faults of the 1st generation. When it doesn't, you get dated designs and an over-saturated product line. It was this over-saturation of models and lowered production quality during the 1980s that led to a negative perception of Omega by watch geeks. Luckily, Omega were able to right the ship and have charted a course through clear waters for the past 27 years. And if that ship sinks, at least we'll have plenty of Seamasters to keep time with underwater.

Addendum

Before you send me emails about how I didn't talk about this or that Seamaster, believe me when I say that I know I glossed over a lot of watches. It became apparent during research that I had bitten off my than I could chew for one article! So please know that there will be future articles that focus on the modern Seamaster Professional 300Ms, Aqua Terras and Planet Oceans at some point in time!

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