Titans of the Deep

by Carlos Perez

September 1, 2002

“Below the thunders of the upper deep,

Far far beneath in the abysmal sea,

His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep

The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee

About his shadowy sides: above him swell

Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;

And far away into the sickly light,

From many a wondrous grot and secret cell

Unnumber’d and enormous polypi

Winnow with giant fins the slumbering green.”

The Kraken Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The undersea world is a mystery, deep and dark and dangerous. The deeps of the ocean are as hostile and as difficult to reach as the deeps of outer space – in some ways more so. Man has walked on the surface of the Moon, but no man has walked on the ocean floor of any but the shallowest waters. The greatest deeps have been peered at briefly through Trieste’s porthole, and intermittently explored by remote-controlled robots, much the same way NASA sends unmanned craft out into the Solar system. Alas it is not science but commerce which drives us deeper into the vast waters of our own planet – fueled more than anything by the quest for oil.

Braving the deeps likewise is not led by scientists, but by the commercial divers who build and maintain our undersea infrastructure. Saturation diving is the hazardous means by which they exceed the stern 43 meter (130ft) safe limit of conventional air diving. Today’s commercial and military saturation divers work within a maximum depth limit of some 600 meters (2000ft) – still only a toe dipped into oceans whose deepest point lies over 11,000 meters below the surface.

The primary focus of saturation diving is extended duration at moderate (beyond air diving) depths rather than extreme depth per se. While the current technical limit of open water saturation diving is 600 meters, the high cost of equipment and support means that the practical economic limit is about 300 meters (1000ft), and most of the specialized technology required to access that environment is designed with this lower limit as its maximum. In truth, few saturation divers have worked regularly in depths beyond 150 meters (500ft). The exotic helium based atmosphere in which these divers live at extreme pressure for weeks at a time is one that proved hazardous to conventional dive watches, making the professional deep diving watch a part of the expensive specialized equipment required for human life in the deeps.

In the wake of the success of the Rolex Submariner in the 1950s, Seiko had developed its own series of professional diver’s watches beginning in 1965, a lineage crowned by the hi-beat 300m Pro Diver’s automatic in 1968. Seiko’s divers watches were used extensively throughout the Pacific, and even saw service during Vietnam. Yet in the early ’70s Seiko would be surprised to find its robust and elite 300m dive watches failing when taken to a depth of 365 meters by Japanese saturation divers, a usage unforeseen by the manufacture. During the 1960s Rolex had developed a specialized saturation diver’s watch in cooperation with the France-based diving firm COMEX. Based on the established Submariner platform, Rolex had added a helium release valve and incrementally improved water resistance to 610m, commercially introducing its Sea Dweller in 1971. Seiko likewise took up the challenge of the saturation diver’s wristwatch, taking a very different path than that pioneered by the Rolex-COMEX collaboration.

Beginning with a clean sheet of paper in terms of design and materials, Seiko was the first watch manufacturer to look at a metal newly available to manufacturers of consumer goods. While discovered as far back as 1791, the pure elemental metal titanium had not been refined until 1910, and was not made commercially viable until the late 1940s when the interests of the Cold War forced its development for aeronautics under the sponsorship of the US Department of Defense – essentially founding the titanium industry. Trickling from military projects into commercial aerospace in the 1960s, titanium finally began to bleed into consumer goods in the 1970s.

Titanium has many interesting properties, some of particular interest to a watch manufacturer. It is highly resistant to several forms of corrosion, non-magnetic, and hypoallergenic, with a strength to weight ratio superior to that of stainless steel when properly alloyed. Of particular use to a diver’s watch platform is its immunity to salt water corrosion. Its drawbacks to the manufacturer center around high tooling costs due to the metal’s propensity for galling. It is not a rare element – the Boeing 747 introduced in 1968 uses 95,000 lbs of titanium per plane – but titanium goods tend to be more expensive in practice due to the proprietary methods of manufacture. Despite the challenges and uncertainty, Seiko went forward.

Armed with this novel metal, Seiko took two elements from its 300m Pro Diver: the simple strength of a monocoque case, and the high beat automatic calibre 6159B. The 25 jewel movement was in fact based on the same in-house ebauche as the Grand Seiko calibre 6155, running at a 36,000 v/h beat rate. The Seiko 600m Pro Diver’s automatic shown left was commercially introduced in 1975 as the world’s first production titanium wristwatch. Its monocoque titanium case was further expanded by a black powder-coated titanium bezel shroud, giving it a titanic overall size of 51mm diameter, and 16.9mm in thickness. It did not have a helium valve, but instead featured a patented “L-type” gasket system which prevented helium from entering the case under pressure to the depth rated. In all, Seiko received more than 20 patents for the watch design. Introduced at a price of ¥ 89,000 it was not intended for the casual consumer, or even the sport diver.

Three short years later the model received an extensive upgrade, reintroduced with a day-date quartz module and a more compact case (48mm x 15.3mm). The silver/black of the automatic was replaced, more than symbolically, with the new and distinct gold/black pattern shown below. The previously bare titanium case was now PVD coated inside and out with titanium nitride (TiN), which has a naturally golden color. Not a cheap imitation of gold plating, the titanium nitride coating which gives the case its golden colour actually costs twice as much as gold plating. The finish is entirely functional, raising the surface hardness of the titanium to 2500 HV.

Reflecting a change in policy wherein its divers watches would always be tested beyond their rated depths, the 600m quartz was real world tested to 1,062 meters in the open ocean. Perhaps keeping that number in mind, the 600m model was replaced with this 1000m version in 1986 – an increase in depth rating requiring no increase in case size. A new 7 jewel high-torque quartz module 7C46 replaced the previous high-torque module 7549, and a solid ceramic bezel shroud replaced the titanium one. It remains the leading saturation divers watch presently produced by Seiko (of three sat. qualified models). In tribute to its long history in the field Seiko re-issued the original 600m automatic in a limited edition of 1000 in December of 2000. It was equipped with the 8L35 automatic calibre based on the same in-house ebauche as the Grand Seiko calibre 9S55.

Seiko was not alone in looking to titanium in the 1970s. In 1977 IWC began to develop its first titanium wristwatch in collaboration with Porsche Design, the design firm founded by Porsche family scion F.A. Porsche. The Porsche Design Titan Chronograph by IWC released in 1980 was the world’s first production wristwatch with a titanium case and an integrated titanium bracelet. For us it is only of incidental interest here, as it was this which paved the path for IWC’s first titan of the deep, the Ocean 2000 (shown right).

Introduced in 1982, the Ocean 2000 was a dive watch design of unprecedented vision, as is self-evident. Its 2000m water resistance rating easily exceeded the combined pressure ratings of the contemporaneous Rolex Sea Dweller (1220m) and Seiko Pro Diver (600m); achieved with a simple screwback case, organically shaped, and modestly sized relative to the Japanese titan at 42mm in diameter and 12.6mm in thickness, as well as being lighter than either. Porsche Design opted for the same ergonomic repositioning of the crown used by Seiko for its divers watches since the 1960s. While claiming 2000m, the watch was reportedly lab tested to 3200 meters.

Significant Ocean 2000 military variants were issued by the West German Bundeswehr, starting in 1983. The Bundeswehr Oceans received various mission specific modifications by IWC: Both quartz and mechanical movements were used, and a special highly amagnetic “Minesweeper” variant was produced in very small quantities. All were issued with the otherwise optional lugs which allowed use of a Velcro strap rather than a bracelet, though some would later be retrofitted. The Bundeswehr Oceans were only pressure tested to 300m as dictated by military specifications, though their cases were no different than those of the 2000m commercial models. In truth it is unclear how often this luxurious technical watch was used for diving other than by the military. One might consider it the “Royal Oak” of dive watches.

The Ocean 2000 and the rest of the IWC/Porsche Design lineup was discontinued in 1996/97 with the dissolution of their collaboration. The complex curved case shapes and bracelet designs of the Porsche Design line, combined with the difficultly of machining titanium meant that for the most part IWC was losing money on every titanium watch. However after 15 years of being the manufacture the 2000m diving watch, IWC was not simply going to withdraw. It replaced the Porsche Design line with its own GST sports watch collection, succeeding the Ocean 2000 immediately with a new Aquatimer in 1997, also water resistant to 2000m. The new GST Aquatimer (shown below right) was a very different watch than IWC’s Aquatimer of the late 1960s and early ’70s. Like the Ocean 2000 its movement was based on the automatic calibre 2892 ebauche provided by ETA, rather than the in-house calibre 8541 of the original Aquatimer.

Only slightly larger than the Ocean 2000 at 42mm in diameter and 14.5mm in thickness, the blockier case and bracelet design gave the Aquatimer a much larger presence. I recall that it became a nearly instant TimeZone darling, and remained so for years. The conventional 3 o’clock placement of the crown in this case is contrary to the usage on the original Aquatimer, which had dual crowns. Like the Ocean 2000 the GST Aquatimer can be fitted with optional lugs that permit the use of a Velcro strap. With its more conventional dive bezel it was better suited for actual use as a diver’s watch, and today it remains a standard bearer of IWC’s pure engineering excellence.

Like all dive watches the Ocean 2000 and GST Aquatimer are resistant to external overpressure – and massively so – but like IWC’s aviation watches they are also resistant to internal overpressure. This leads us to the third solution to the special saturation diving environment, and the reason why these deep divers also do not follow the crude helium valve route: Resistant as they are to 200 BAR of external case pressure, they can also withstand internal case pressure equal to maximum safe saturation diving depths (at least 60 BAR). Thus, the ingress and subsequent escape of helium from the cases of these watches is something that is only incidental. And as IWC itself states, a saturation diver worried about internal overpressure only has to uncrew the internally threaded crown to release any build up of helium during the rather prolonged decompression cycle.

A significant GST Aquatimer variation was introduced by IWC at the Basel exposition in 1999 in the form of the “Deep One” (shown above left). Following the same basic design as the GST Aquatimer, IWC managed to add a mechanical depth gauge good to 45m, the air diving safe limit. In an interesting turn about, the Deep One is only depth rated to 100m – less even than the IWC Aquatimers of the 60s and 70s, which were rated to 200m and 300m respectively. I suspect that this depth rating reflects the concern that use much beyond 50 or 60 meters could permanently damage the depth gauge mechanism. The Deep One was equipped with the fine extra-flat automatic calibre 891 from Jaeger-LeCoultre, no doubt a factor in the steep $10,995 MSRP. It eventually turned out that production was so difficult that no more than 1,000 Deep Ones were made before production was discontinued indefinitely, making it one of the rarest titans of the deep.

While this undersea mechanical complication captivates the imagination and interest of the mechanical watch enthusiast, the real-world direction of depth gauge equipped divers watches lies in another direction. The Nitrox-capable wrist dive computer by Seiko shown at left is a state-of-the-art example of the breed. Nitrox is a mix of nitrogen and oxygen used by “technical” sport divers to lengthen dive times and to reduce the risk of decompression sickness and nitrogen narcosis – not really to increase maximum depth. Nitrox evolved from military and commercial diving, and is still somewhat controversial for sporting use due to the high standard of quality, control, and special processing needed for the exotic gas mixtures.

Introduced in December of 2000, the Seiko Marinemaster NX dive computer is the commercial version of a professional watch developed by Seiko Epson for a private experimental project in the North Sea. A massive 53mm in diameter and 16.7mm thick, the titanium case is actually water resistant to 1000 meters, while the computer functions and depth gauge have been operationally limited to 99.9m by edict of Seiko’s legal department. I expect that the original was designed for other mixed gas diving using mixtures like Trimix. Trimix is a blend of oxygen, helium, and nitrogen, which is used primarily for military and commercial diving, and was recently adopted by “advanced technical” scuba sport divers to go as deep as 200m (the Trimix scuba world record is 308m) – a usage even more controversial than Nitrox. While this model is sold in Asia and Europe by Seiko, North America has a further redesigned model private label distributed by Divelink as their own Nitrox Bathymetric Underwater Gauge.

In the years since their groundbreaking development by Seiko and IWC, titanium divers watches have proliferated in the market, flourishing in the present mode for otherwise needlessly oversized designs. Many are simply titanium versions of conventional steel dive watches, while others have become gimmicky gadgets. Often stylized artifacts of sport or casual wear, they are well marketed jewelry more often than not. Few can compare to the genre’s plank owners: Seiko, the maker of pure dive tools intended for the commercial diver; and IWC, the wristwatch engineer par excellence of high performance luxury for the connoisseur. They require no proof beyond that which is self-evident, the original and true titans of the deep.

Thanks to Bryan Andersen and Michael Friedberg

Image Credits:

Seiko 600m Pro Diver and IWC Porsche Design Ocean 2000 by ®kny

Seiko 1000m Pro Diver by Andy Schmidt

IWC Aquatimer and Deep One courtesy of the International Watch Co.

Seiko Marinemaster NX Dive Computer courtesy of Seiko Watch Corp.