Wednesday, April 15, 2009

This Week's Diver's Watch - the Seiko Sea Urchin

For this week's diver's watch, we go significantly downscale, at least in price, compared to the watches we've looked at till now.  We'll be looking at the Seiko 5; the so-called "sea urchin".  Part of the reason for this is that Seiko makes a fantastic dive watch; the other reason is that I've been thinking about my criteria for dive watches recently.  A dive watch, traditionally, was a really expensive bit of gear, because your life depended on it.  This is why serious diver's bought Rolexes - you needed absolute reliability.  Diving wasn't a cheap sport, and compared to the cost of the rest of your equipment, and your vacations to the great barrier reef, well, cost was no object when it came down to finding the proper watch.  And there were really no cheap, reliable alternatives - if you wanted something that was really, really reliable, AND waterproof to diving depth, you had to buy something expensive.  Most bought Rolexes, Breitlings, Zodiacs or Omegas.  But that was the 60s and early 70s.

Then came the Japanese quartz watches, devastating, for a short while, the Swiss watch industry.  Then came Swatchgroup, making watches a fashion item again.  Then came the consolidation and revitalization  of the Swiss industry, followed by what is now a renaissance of the intricate mechanical movement.  But none of that should change the criteria for a diver's watch.

In today's modern manufacturing world, there is NOTHING in my criteria for a diver's watch that says it should be expensive.  Reliable, yes.  Water resistant to a reasonable depth, yes.  Rugged, yes.  But expensive?  

And the more I think about it, the more I see a new criteria in my list of things I want in my ultimate dive watch: disposability.  A diver's watch is a tool.  It needs to be absolutely reliable and rugged.  But on that day where you smash it up against a rock, or you lend it to a friend for their dive, or you forget it in a kit bag on a boat in aruba, it shouldn't ruin your diving career.  I think disposability is a "like to have" rather than a "must have" feature of a diver's watch; the bright line requirements include reliability, water resistance, ease of use, and all the other good things I mentioned in my first Diver's Watch post.  But I think that, given the choice between two equally good diver's watches, the cheaper of the two would win out.

Which, I think, is why the Seiko line of diver's watches has been so popular with real-life divers.  The so-called "sea-urchin" (I don't think that's its official name) is the last in a long line of watches from Seiko that really seem to do the job well.

So let's take a look at it.  At first glance, it looks an awful lot like a Rolex Submariner.  The black face, the shape and placement of the hour markers, the dimensions of the rotating bezel, and, more than anything else, the band.  But to me, it looks like a diver has taken the Rolex Sub into a room with a bunch of other divers, and tried to improve it.  

First, the useless cyclops magnifier is gone.  OK, really, when does a diver really need to look at the date underwater?  Never.  When the lighting is good, and your above sea level, you can make out the date just fine without a magnifier.  And this means there isn't a big chunky magnet for rocks and brick walls jutting out of the crystal of your watch.  I've never understood the Rolex magnifier - in rough conditions, you know it's getting chipped.  It distorts that portion of the face of the watch, so its harder to read the time.  It kind of looks ugly.  And it's only reason is to make the date look larger.  I can read the date just fine on a normal watch.

And about that date - doesn't it look so much better in white on a black background?  It doesn't stand out from the rest of the face so much.  

I'm not too fussed about the day indicator, but I can see where it would come in handy when you're on a 4 day scuba trip.  I tend to lose track of the day of the week when I'm on vacation, and it's handy to have.

Another improvement over the Rolex is the shape and size of the hands.  I've never really dug the Mercedes-shaped hour hand on the sub.  In some (older) Tudor Submariners, the hour hand was a cross shape that looked unusual, highly functional, and, well, neat.  But the mercedes hand, while easier to read than a tiny hand, was never my favorite feature of the Rolex.  I like the hour hand on this Seiko - huge, thick, tapering so you can get an accurate reading, and with a nice little silver detail to make it look a little less blocky.  I imagine it looks great under water, or in low light situations, with all that luminescence.  The minute hand is also about as big as you could make it on a watch of this size, about the largest minute hand I've ever seen, but also tapered for accurate readings.  The second hand is complete with a luminescent 'dot' so you can confirm that the watch is working, even in low light situations.

I think the hour indicators are even bigger than on the Submariner, making for increased legibility.  I have to say I really like them.  They look a little oversized, but it adds, I think, to the sportiness of the watch.  The unidirectional rotating bezel is also thicker than the Rolex, but not as think as the crazy Blancpain I reviewed last week.  I think the thicker bezel gives the watch a more modern look, but I'm not sure why.  The indents on the bezel make it easy to turn, even with gloves on.  One small detail - I would have liked a luminescent dot or something at the 0 mark on the luminescent bezel.   Maybe it's there, but it doesn't look like it to me.  

I should note that this particular Seiko dive isn't the most "serious" of the Seiko dive watches - it's only resistant to 100 meters, it doesn't have a luminescent dot at 12 (some of the others do), it doesn't have a color change on the bezel between the first 15 minutes and the rest, and it doesn't have a rubber band.  But of the ones I've seen, it's the one I like most (even if it's not the most "diver" of them, if you know what I mean).  Please remember - I'm not actually a diver myself.

The case looks a little squarer than the Submariner, and there are no crown guards.  I think the "perfect" dive watch would have crown guards - lets face it, this watch is going to get banged up a fair bit.  The bracelet is very similar to an oyster bracelet, and there's nothing wrong with that.

In terms of reliability, we're looking at a Seiko 5 movement.  This is Seiko's most ubiquitous automatic movement.  It's been around for decades.  23 jewels, quite accurate, and very, very reliable.  Also very easy to fix or replace if it dies, since there are probably millions of Seiko 5 movements out there.  Pretty standard movement for a watch repair person to have in stock.

All in all, a really nice watch.  Probably head to head with the Rolex Submariner in the race for my "ultimate dive watch".

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Search for the perfect diver's watch continued - Blancpain Aqualung

OK - here's a watch that's a little less standard than the ones I highlighted so far, in my search for the ultimate diver's watch.  The Blancpain Aqualung.  

Now, Blancpain isn't really known for their diver's watches.  They're more of a high-end fancy dress watch company.  They're another one of these names that has been "revitalized" - the "modern" Blancpain was started in 1983; the name had been out of use for decades.  One of the oldest watch names in the world, Mr. Blancpain was making watches back in 1735.  Of course, like many other watch brands, the Japanese quartz industry killed the brand at some point...  Some enterprising person recreated the brand in 1983.  The modern company held a lot of world records, including the thinnest automatic chronograph, the smallest minute repeater, and the most complicated watch on the planet.  Think intricate; think lots of precious metals; think delicate and refined.  At least that's what I think of when I see "blancpain" on the dial.

Which is why this watch, sold at Antiquorum last month, threw me for a bit of a loop.  Yes, it's a Blancpain.  But it looks HUGE.  And RUGGED.  And it's water resistant to 1000 feet (333 metres).   I don't know much about the history of this watch (when it was made, etc.), but judging from the wear on the luminous markers, I would have to guess they were radium, which puts the watch somewhere between the 40's and the 60's.  But that's just a guess.

There's no denying this is a serious diver's watch.  1000 foot water resistance is nothing to sneer at.  The hands are extremely luminous and easy to read; the hour markers (in orange!) are also very easy to read and stand out almost as much as the bright white luminous hands.  But what really sets this watch apart is the rotating bezel.  Just look at the size of that thing!  HUGE.  If you have trouble reading elapsed time on this watch, you probably shouldn't be diving.  

If I had to guess based on the picture, I would say this is a stainless steel watch, with a bidirectional rotating bezel (don't ask me why I'd guess this, I just would) and an acrylic crystal.  Looks like an aftermarket, much more modern, kevlar band.  

Gorgeous watch, but I don't think it's going to be my "ultimate" dive watch.  Why?  Well, it's a Blancpain.  If I bought a Blancpain, it would be hugely, horribly complicated, possibly rose gold, with a leather band.  I just can't take the Blancpain name seriously on a dive watch.  I'm not sure why that is - I'm sure they made a fantastic dive watch.  If I had a collection of dive watches, this would definitely be on the short list - it's probably very rare, and watch collectors and divers alike would say "wow".  But if I was looking for the one dive watch to rule them all, this probably isn't "the one".  At least not for me.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Back to Dive Watches - the Tissot Sea-Touch

OK, back from a brief hiatus to my search for the perfect dive watch.  This week, instead of going back into the history books, I thought I'd profile a "brand new" watch from Tissot.  The pictures are from the Tissot ads, rather than of an actual watch, but I didn't think you'd mind.

The Tissot T-touch line has been around for a while now (probably about 10 years).  They're Tissot's version of the ABC watch (altimeter, barometer, compass), with a slick little twist - the watch crystal is a "touch screen".  The typical t-touch has an altimeter, a barometer, a
 thermometer, a digital compass, an alarm, and a chronograph mode.  To select which mode you want, you activate the screen by pushing a button (the touch screen isn't always on - that would cause lots of false activations), then pointing to the section of the screen labelled with the function you want.  For example, if you wanted to use the thermometer
 function, you'd push a button, then press on the crystal at about the 10:00 mark.  The temperature function would show up on the lcd screen at the bottom of the watch.

I've always liked these watches, but never really saw the need for one.  First, I don't need an altimeter.  I've never needed one.  Second, I don't need a barometer.  Wouldn't know how to use it. Third, the thermometer function is near useless on just about every ABC watch, since the temperature sensor is (invariably) close to your skin.  So you always get false readings that are somewhere between the ambient temperature and 37 degrees celcius.  I admit a compass would be cool, but not really necessary - when am I ever going to need a compass and not need a GPS?  I can usually guestimate direction based on the time and the direction of the sun.

I've also never bought one because, although I like techy watches, and I love ana-digi watches, I never really liked the style of these.  To me, the non-rotating bezel, with it's direction indicators, seemed a bit over-done.  And although I like ana-digi movements, there's something about the
 location, or the size, or something, about the LCD screen on these watches that kind of turns me off.  It's really cool to press the screen, watch the hands twirl around, and tell people where North is, but that really wasn't enough for me to buy this watch.

The only one I ever considered was the Silen-T, which is Tissot's "silent" alarm watch.  Very cool features, that I would probably use a lot.  Involving being able to tell the time without looking at the face, and a silent alarm.  I still think this is a great looking watch with amazing features, and will probably buy one at some point...  But I'll leave that watch for another day.

Well, just recently, Tissot added a new watch to their T-touch line, that's made me consider these watches again.  And it's a dive watch.  It probably won't win "best dive watch ever", but it's a pretty cool watch, so I thought I'd talk about it today.

The names of Tissot watches always put a smile on my face.  There was the T-touch (T for Tissot).  The Silen-T (the touch screen watch with a silent alarm.  Now the Sea-Touch, which is kind of a cute play on T-touch.  The Sea-Touch uses the t-touch technology, but instead of being an ABC watch, it's got a bunch of features useful for diving.  It still has the compass (the coolest, and marginally most useful of the ABC features), and a thermometer, but instead of an altimeter or a barometer, it has a dive computer.  The dive computer automatically activates once you dive, and records your depth every 15 seconds.  Once you hit sea level again for more than 5 minutes, the dive computer stops, and the information gets transferred to the dive log.  Very cool feature - now you've got a record of your diving times and depths.  You can quickly access your maximum depth, your dive duration, and a bunch of other features.

You know, with this kind of information available, it would have been nice to incorporate other features, such as an alarm when you hit a pre-set time or depth, but I guess I'm asking for too much.

The Sea-Touch has another nice dive feature that is absent far too often from dive watches - the buttons work under water.  OK, the tactile touch screen is deactivated, but the normal buttons work.  The watch is water resistant to 200 m, which is quite respectable and sufficient. 

Aesthetically, the watch looks much nicer than the other t-touches, mostly because of the classic "dive" elements.  It has a proper bezel.  That rotates.  That indicates something useful.  I'm not sure what happens after 30, though - suddenly the numbers jump to 75.  Maybe the numbers are used in conjunction with the hands to indicate depth, but that would be stupid, given that the bezel rotates.  And I'm not sure why the minute increments end at 30, but the orange part of the dial goes to 50.  I guess I'd have to say that the first half of this bezel (up to 30) is useful, and the rest is just weird.  

Oops - that last paragraph was my bad - it helps to read the manual!  When in dive mode, the elapsed time shows on the LCD, and the depth in meters (or feet, depending on the bezel chosen) is indicated with the minute hand.  The hour hand indicates dive speed!!!  (in minutes per minute or feet per minute) so you can easily calculate decompression!!!  This using the white segment of the dial.   So I've changed my mind - the bezel is quite cool.  The only problem I have with it now is that it looks like it rotates (it's even got little ridges to make it easier to rotate with gloves on).  Given how the bezel works, and what it indicates, it probably shouldn't rotate.  

I do love the look of this watch a lot more than the other t-touches, but compared to a traditional dive watch?  I'm not so sure.  I like the use of orange, both in the orange watch and the more conservative black watch that has orange accents.  The face is a traditional black, but the hands are a little less legible than most dive watch hands.  I'm not sure if orange on black is the most legible combination.  The LCD is backlit, which is nice, but only for the information that's on the LCD - it doesn't help read the time.

Over all, I do like this watch.  It's in the consideration set.  But I'm not certain it's the one dive watch to rule them all.