Vescovo is either The Most Interesting Man in the World – a certified jet pilot who worked in naval intelligence (including a tour of duty on the 7th Fleet’s command ship, USS Blue Ridge) and has summited the highest peaks on all seven continents – or else he’s a Bond villain, conjuring world domination behind that benign smile and “gentleman explorer” persona. I haven’t figured out which, but whatever the case, Omega’s glad he decided to buy a Planet Ocean.
Vescovo is a Dallas-based founder of a private investment firm who happens to moonlight these days as a deep ocean explorer. His self-funded Five Deeps expedition has put him at the deepest point in four out of the world’s five oceans, with only the Arctic Ocean remaining to conquer this August. He partnered with Florida-based Triton Submarines to procure a specially designed submersible, Limiting Factor, for these descents, and set records as the only person to have visited the deepest point on Earth more than once, while also touching down at a new depth record, besting the record set in 1960 by the U.S. Navy’s bathyscaphe Trieste. So why do it? I asked Vescovo last week at a press conference in London, hosted by Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean 6000, three of whose Seamaster Planet Ocean Ultra Deep Professional made the descents on the outside of his submersible.
“After having climbed the highest points on all seven continents, I looked around for what was next and discovered that no one had been to the deepest spots in all the oceans,” he said, in a rather casual way, like someone planning their next vacation. To commemorate the adventure, Vescovo decided to buy a watch, and visited a Dallas Omega retailer, walking out with a Seamaster Planet Ocean Chronograph. After Vescovo’s first sub dive last December, to the Puerto Rico Trench in the Atlantic, Omega, never one to pass up a good marketing opportunity, got in touch. Here was a chance to make history. But they had to hurry
What would normally be a years-long project for a brand – building a watch capable of surviving a descent to nearly 36,000 feet and 8 tons per square inch of water pressure – Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean 6000 pulled off in a little over six months. Besides pursuing precision and innovative complications, water resistance seems to be the watchmaker’s challenge of choice, and there is no greater prize than “Full Ocean Depth,” or FOD as its known in the submersible world. Of course, there is one name that has dominated the bottom of the Earth for decades: Rolex, whose Deep Sea Special was strapped on the Trieste in 1960 on its previous record descent, and its heir apparent, the Deep Sea Challenge that accompanied James Cameron on his trip to the bottom in 2012. Cameron, who has been a supporter of Vescovo, only made one trip to the Marianas Trench due to mechanical issues with his submersible, so was only able to explore a shallower region of the trench, thus not breaking the Trieste’s record.
In designing the Seamaster Planet Ocean “Ultra-Deep.” Omega didn’t just want a watch that could survive the journey to the sea floor; it had to also retain the look of an Omega dive watch. The case is forged from grade 5 titanium (sourced from the alloy used to make the pressure hull of Limiting Factor), sandblasted to a matte grey finish, with the familiar twisted bombé lugs seen on Seamasters since the 1960s. The rotating bezel and even the dial are also made from titanium, with the bezel top ring made of ceramic with LiquidMetal markers. So far, aside from being 55mm across and 28mm thick, it’s pretty familiar Seamaster stuff. But that’s where the similarities end.
To eliminate one more hole in the case, Omega deleted its trademark helium release valve (no decompression is necessary for the sub pilot or his watch). There are also no strap bars at all. Considering the rough ride to the bottom, and the unknowns of what pressure would do to a conventional strap attachment system, Omega designed continuous lugs that curl inwards, almost, but not quite, meeting in the middle. They found that this was the strongest design, the slight gap in the retaining bar allowing a bit of flex. We were told this shape was inspired by the horn-shaped cephalic fins of a manta ray, but I suspect this was more form following function than an aesthetic choice.
The sapphire crystal is pressed in place and sealed without the use of polymer gasketing. I’ve often thought that even on a conventional dive watch, you’re trusting a lot of expense to a relatively cheap rubber o-ring. Omega in this case seems to agree, and took no chances here. The gasket of the Ultra-Deep is made from LiquidMetal. The case, sapphire and LiquidMetal are heated to 280 degrees Centigrade (540 Fahrenheit) and the molten gasket material poured into its machined channel. Then the crystal is put into place and compressed with five tons of pressure until the LiquidMetal cools and forms a seal. This process is one of three pending patents Omega has for the Ultra-Deep (the other two are for the crown and the caseback). Inside the watch ticks the calibre 8912, a co-axial self-winder with no date and three hands that Omega certified to the METAS standard for accuracy and magnetic resistance.
Omega built three Ultra-Deeps, naming them FOD-X 1, 2, and 3 (“Full Ocean Depth – Experimental”). All were tested to a simulated depth of 15,000 meters for a 25% buffer over FOD (Challenger Deep is a little less than 11,000 meters). All three took the elevator to the bottom with Vescovo, two on robotic arms and one on a remote controlled independent “lander.” All three survived the trip and all were on display, ticking, at the British Museum in London last week for us to see, but not touch. One of them endured a little more than the others however.
The lander on which one of the watches was strapped, nicknamed “Scaph,” became stuck in the mud on the sea floor and could not be retrieved by Vescovo. So he and his co-pilot left it behind and surfaced. Thinking it might be lost on the bottom for someone else to find, (“it would keep people busy for a number of years,” Vescovo joked), they ultimately decided to launch the deepest marine salvage operation in history, and go find it. 54 hours later, Scaph was found and, using Limiting Factor to nudge it free, Vescovo recovered it. When they got the lander to the surface, Vescovo saw the Ultra-Deep was still ticking and was keeping near perfect time, despite having spent two days at the deepest point on Planet Earth. Put that on your METAS certification card.
Two questions come to mind when considering Omega’s involvement with the Five Deeps expedition: will Omega ever build an Ultra-Deep for commercial sale, and why does this exploit matter?
First of all, according to Raynald Aeschlimann, Omega’s CEO, don’t expect a smaller version of the Ultra-Deep to show up at your local retailer anytime soon. “This is a Speedmaster year,” he said with a wink, acknowledging the importance of the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing. But never say never, I think. Omega would be crazy to not make a spinoff version of this momentous achievement. Anecdotally, I’ve heard a lot of love for the Ultra Deep, with its date-free dial, its clean HRV-free case, matte finish and blue accents. Not to mention the tech that went into this one. One could imagine a slimmed down version sold as the “deepest commercially available” dive watch, making use of the LiquidMetal crystal gasket. Sign me up.
Finally, why do Omega, and we, care about taking a watch to the bottom of the ocean? Extreme depth ratings have long been chased and championed by watch brands. The Swiss brand, Jenny, laid claim to the first 1,000-meter watch in the 1960s, and Omega followed in 1972 with its Seamaster 1000, known as “The Grand.” We’ve seen oil-filled quartz watches from Bell & Ross achieve 11,000-meter depth ratings, and mechanical divers are rated to two- and even three-thousand meters regularly these days. But with the Planet Ocean Ultra Deep, it is a record that cannot be beaten and that alone is significant, since the last record has stood since 1960.
To be clear, no one will ever strap on one of these extreme-rated watches and dive anywhere close to their “crush depth.” Scuba divers typically stay above 30 meters and few these days even bother to wear a wristwatch. Watchmaking is not purely about practicality. It is about human ingenuity, tinkering, and problem-solving. It is why we appreciate a tourbillon, a dead-seconds, or an equation of time complication. The same reason I like to glance at my wrist 100 feet underwater and imagine the wheels and springs in precise harmony calmly ticking away on my wrist, is why it’s also inspiring to see an Omega keeping perfect time at 10,928 meters for two days.