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".


  1. Excellent review of a beater watch... How many people would dive in their Sub anyway.

  2. Fine watch. One other minor criticism if we're comparing it with a true diver, is the absence of a screw-down crown. But it really is the closest thing to a Rolex Sub aesthetically

  3. There are crown guards. There are also different colour variant of this model with rubber band available. "Sea Urchin" is not really a diver watch, it's more of a diver-style watch. It's a good inexpensive watch for an everyday use.