By Magnus Salbu
As you may or may not have noticed, we have added a new series to WristReview. This series is named “The Golden Era” and will be all about vintage watches. The series is named after an era in the watchmaking industry roughly from the 1920’s to the 1970’s called The Golden Era. This is when wrist watches became fashionable, but before the quartz crisis which left a big part of the mechanical watch industry in ruins. This will be a weekly column and will feature everything from reviews to in-depth articles about vintage watches.
The Rolex Submariner and the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms are widely regarded as the first watches specifically made for diving and other aquatic activities, we have covered the history of both. However, there was a watch-certified by the Swiss Laboratory for Horology to be able to withstand a pressure of 13.5 atmospheres (or 135 meters), released way back in 1932. At the time, Rolex had patented waterproof, screw-down crowns on their Rolex Oyster model, which was the first waterproof watch. But this watch was never certified, tested or marketed as a watch suitable for great depths. This was because there was no need for a watch that was waterproof at depths more than a few meters, because diving was limited to military and commercial activity, which did not require a watch at the time. Omega hired a French designer to come up with the difficult solution of designing a watch that did not infringe Rolex’s patents.
Louis Alix registered the Swiss patent CH 146310 on April 15, 1931. It described a watch whose whole case, movement and crown, was placed inside an outer case which could slide open and close, with waterproof gaskets in between. To ensure that the two parts of the case remained tightly together, the case had a large spring clip which held it together. The case was rectangular, and very typical art deco, this was the art deco period after all. It had similar proportions and look to the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso which was another unique, rectangular watch. Many speculate if Louis Alix took design cues from the Reverso, which had been patented just a month and a half prior to the Omega, although this has never been proven.
As this was a watch intended for use in water, Omega appropriately named it the Omega Marine. It had two different reference numbers, CK 679 and OJ 679. The CK reference had a stainless steel case while the OJ had a yellow gold case. The cases were manufactured for Omega by a company named Frédéric Baumgartner of Geneva. The movement inside was a manually wound calibre 19.4 T1, which in 1935 was upgraded to the calibre 19.4 T2. The number of the calibre refers to the diameter of the movement; these movements were round movements of 19.4 mm in diameter. Since you had to open the case and take the entire watch out of it to wind it every know and the, the gaskets would get worn out very quickly, unfortunately, the Omega Marine was never fitted with a self-winding movement.
Vintage ad from 40’s
The Omega Marine was not a part of Omega’s regular collection, but because of the huge success, Omega introduced the Omega Marine Standard in 1939 which was intended for civilian use. This was just around the time when diving equipment became cheaper, lighter and more available to civilians. The Marine Standard was a slightly upgraded version of the original Marine, featuring rubber gaskets instead of leather and it was the first was to have a synthetic sapphire crystal, instead of the more regular plexiglass. However, the sapphire crystal of the Marine Standard was fitted from inside the case, which was the common way of fitting a watch crystal at the time. This meant that as pressure built up outside the watch, the crystal would be pushed down, with nothing to hold it back except for the glue and the gaskets. Therefore, the Marine Standard was only certified as water resistant down to two atmospheres (or 20 meters), by modern standards, this was not a diving watch at all. So one could argue that only the original Omega Marine was a diving watch. However, Omega soon realised they could put the sapphire crystal on top of the bezel, instead of underneath it, this meant that as the pressure around it increased, the seals would only get tighter because the sapphire crystal was pressed down on the gaskets. So by the early 1940’s, the Omega Marine Standard was just as waterproof as the original Omega Marine, and again well suitable for keeping time way below the surface.
Omega Marine Chronometer 70’s
The Omega Marine was worn by many famous divers, among them French Naval Officer and inventor of the infamous aqualung, Commander Yves Le Prieur and American explorer and naturalist Dr. William Beebe. Unfortunately, the Omega Marine Standard was discontinued after only a few decades, but in 2007, Omega released a limited edition of 135 Marine Standard watches in yellow and white gold. These were obviously upgraded with a new (but still manually wound) movement and a more sophisticated case.
The Omega Marine never became as big of an icon as the Rolex Submariner or the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, probably because the innovative case was not how later diving watches were made, but it still deserves a lot of credit for being the first diving watch ever. For more info, please visit omegawatches.com