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OMEGA PLOPROF in stainless steel. clothes, stylist's own. fashion aissistants charlene lee, aravin k and melissa cheow makeup joanna koh, using face atelier hair kenneth ong using redken model bruna b/ave

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back from the abyss :

the omega seamaster ploprof Omega’s cult-favorite dive watch rises to the top



By Jack Forster photography stephen landau styling esther quek

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one horological wag of our acquaintance likes telling people means “professional plumbers” instead of divers) represented, in 1970, the most cutting-edge attempt of its time to keep up with the ability of divers to venture further and further into the deep, for both recreational and industrial purposes. The invention of workable breathing regulators in the period 1939– 1943 (by, among others, French explorer Jacques Cousteau) had led first to the use of divers by the military, and then, increasingly through the 1950s and ’60s, the advent of both industrial and recreational diving.


Besides co-developing the Aqualung and pioneering marine conservation, Jacques Cousteau was also involved in Omega’s development of the Ploprof

Naturally, taste can’t ever be completely eradicated from the equation. One of the biggest cult-favorite watches ever made, the Omega “Ploprof” was a technical triumph at the time it was introduced (1970), but is desirable today because of the thoroughness and obviousness with which it rejects aesthetics. That is to say, its stubbornly utilitarian design has undergone the fate of many truly functionally successful tools: like the katana, it has become fetishized. That’s not to say, of course, that — then, and now — it’s not a functionally successful watch; in fact it wouldn’t be the collector’s darling it’s become if it weren’t. The Ploprof (a portmanteau word, from the French “plongeurs professionnels”, which at least

In fact, it was the association of the Ploprof with Jacques Cousteau that gained the Omega Ploprof near cult status among collectors and enthusiasts of dive watches. Cousteau worked closely with Omega during the Ploprof’s four years of development, as he conducted a series of experiments designed to test man’s capabilities and limitations when working at depths of 500 meters. ENGINEERING THE PLOPROF: FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION he design of the original Ploprof is designed to address the needs of professional divers, as the name implies, though Omega undoubtedly hoped


it would make inroads amongst recreational divers as well. The Ploprof was not the deepest diving wristwatch that had ever been created — that honor goes to a prototype Rolex Submariner, the so-called “Deep Sea Special” which was attached to the exterior of the bathyscaphe Trieste during its dive to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in 1953 — a depth of 10,915 meters. The Deep Sea Special was an impressive piece of engineering, but it was more a proof-ofconcept piece rather than anything seriously intended to see production, as its massive case and crystal (a hemisphere of acrylic) made it impractical for normal use, as well as unnecessarily over-engineered for normal depths. What was “normal” for a diver outside a submersible, though, had changed considerably from 1953 to 1970, and one of the biggest changes was in the world of commercial diving. Industrial and commercial divers working at great depths often live in pressurized chambers, breathing a mix of helium and oxygen. This enables them to avoid timeconsuming decompression procedures and work efficiently for days at a time at depths that, under normal circumstances, would be unachievable. Record depths in excess of 600 meters have been achieved, though shallower depths are more normal — the French industrial diving company, Comex, conducted an experiment in September 1970 (the “Janus” Project) in which divers, who wore the Seamaster 600, reached what was then a record depth of 253 meters — still far beyond the 30 to 40-meter limit of recreational diving. In the interests of a large margin of safety in one of the world’s most unforgiving environments, Omega made the Seamaster  600 “Ploprof”, an extravagantly overbuilt piece of gear. The case was made from a single piece of steel, 54mm across at its widest dimension, and 15mm thick. The one-piece case meant there were only two possible places where water could get in: the stem tube, and the point of attachment of the crystal to the case. Omega developed a unique compressed gasket system to ensure

Constructed of a single piece of steel, the original Ploprof featured a unique compressed gasket system and an unconventional design for the crown

both points were not only watertight, but would actually become more so as external pressure increased. The crystal was held in place by a screwed-down ring that held it against its gasket with 120 kilograms of pressure, and as external pressure on the crystal mounted during a dive, the gasket would actually be compressed further. This design feature was responsible for the only known failure of a Seamaster 600 during a pressure test, which occurred when a Ploprof finally stopped functioning during a static test at 137 atmospheres (equivalent to 1,370  meters) — not because of water intrusion, but because the gasket had become so compressed that the mineral crystal glass had actually started to put pressure on the seconds hand. The crown of the original Seamaster 600 was one of its most interesting features. At first glance, it looks as if there’s a square of metal mounted on the stem just over the relatively conventional-looking knurled crown, with the metal square sitting flush with the horns of the prominent crown guard. Actually, the metal square is the crown, and the knurled disc of metal beneath it is a locking nut, which has to be unscrewed to allow the crown to turn. One major advantage of this design is that the stem doesn’t rotate when it’s screwed down, which

The signature innovation in the seamaster 600 is the locking mechanism for the unidirectional rotating bezel

avoids twisting pressure on the crown gasket, improving its longevity. The signature innovation in the Seamaster  600 is, of course, the locking mechanism for the unidirectional rotating bezel. A bright orange button on the locking mechanism must be depressed in order to turn the bezel — the arrangement looks awkward at first, but in fact, the placement of the button means that the user can hold the button down and turn the bezel with one hand relatively easily. (In early models of the Ploprof, the locking nut for the crown was an orange synthetic material as well, but Omega found it tended to wear too quickly and rapidly replaced it with a steel one.) Inside, the Ploprof had the Omega in-house cal.  1002, a 28,000vph automatic caliber, with a bidirectional, quickset date, and a

power reserve of about 40 hours. These features all made the Ploprof one of the most water-resistant watches ever made, and also made a helium release valve superfluous. A helium release valve is a necessity only in watches designed for use in saturation diving (like the Ploprof) where the helium in the air mixture breathed by divers in the saturation chamber can enter the case (helium does not form diatomic molecules, unlike oxygen or hydrogen, and individual helium atoms are small enough to penetrate most gaskets). The gradual buildup of pressure can cause a watch crystal to actually blow out during decompression unless a one-way gas valve allows it to escape. However, the Ploprof’s compressed gasket system was so effective that Omega’s engineers found they were able to dispense



ool watches have an appeal that comes from their tonic authenticity. While connoisseurs (possessed of “connaissance” or not) can debate matters of taste in watch design ad nauseam in timepieces meant to satisfy aesthetic demands, a tool watch strips away the sometimes baroquely involved rhetoric that surrounds much of watchmaking today, for it substitutes a single criterion. As Jacob Bronowski, the renowned historian of science and author of The Ascent of Man wrote of the samurai’s katana, “The real question is: does it work?”

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The incredible popularity of the original ploprof led to the decision to put the watch back into production


Released in 2009, the new Ploprof incorporated several improvements to the original OPPOSITE This year’s model featured a luminescent bezel

with the valve. The Seamaster 600 came in relatively few variants — several different dials are known to have existed, as well as bezel variations, though the most noticeable differences are in the crown-locking nut (orange plastic in rare early models, steel in virtually all others) and in the strap or bracelet. The Ploprof was available on an Isofrane (synthetic) strap in red-orange, black, blue or yellow; it could also be had with the coat-of-mail “Milanese” bracelet. A very rare small series of titanium prototypes were also made (less than 10, according to Omega), but the additional cost of making the watch in titanium proved prohibitive and the project was abandoned. The Ploprof was made in very limited numbers, and for a relatively short period of time. The watch was only offered from 1970 to 1979, and it was significantly more expensive than its contemporaries. Considering that Omega took four years to develop it, as well as the cost involved in its manufacture, it’s unlikely it ever generated significant profits for the firm, but it did generate a great deal of interest among professional divers. Its large size, relatively high cost, and complete discarding of any design priorities other than functional necessity, however, kept it from being more

widely adopted, even by recreational divers — though it’s exactly that rejection of “design” as an end in itself that has given it the enduring appeal to collectors, and irreproachable credibility as a tool watch, that it enjoys to this day. THE NEW PLOPROF: BIGGER AND BETTER However, you can’t keep a good Leviathan down. The incredible popularity of the original Ploprof among collectors and Omega enthusiasts led to the decision to put the watch back into production again, and in 2009, a new version of the Ploprof was released by Omega at that year’s BaselWorld. To Omega’s credit, the new Ploprof is virtually indistinguishable from the original model, and indeed, in some respects, improves upon it. The movement is, like the original, an in-house Omega caliber: the cal. 8500 automatic, which is equipped with the Co-Axial escapement (Omega remains, to this day, the only firm to successfully industrialize an escapement other than the lever in the entire history of the wristwatch.) The water resistance has doubled to 1,200 meters. Possibly in consequence, the case is a bit larger as well, though it’s hardly noticeable — thickness has gone from 14mm

to 17.5mm, and width across the case from nine to three o’clock has gone from 44.8mm to 48mm. The distinctive locking mechanism has been retained and the orange button is now made of what appears to be anodized aluminum, also unquestionably an improvement over the synthetic used in the original. The one-piece case of the original has been replaced as well, with a more conventional screwed-down caseback. Also present is a helium release valve, possibly necessitated by the changes in case construction, but hardly something with which the watch could be reproached from a functionality standpoint. The only other significant difference is in the crown-locking mechanism. The new Ploprof uses a conventional screwed-down crown, which has on top of it a trapezoidal flange that fits flush on top of the crown guards instead of in between them (as the square crown did on the original). While the new design seems to allow for some twisting stress on the gaskets that the original did not, it’s probably also somewhat easier to set the time and date than on the original, and it’s certainly at least as effective in protecting the stem against impact, if not more so. Like the original, the new Ploprof 1200M can be worn on either a strap or a bracelet — in this case, the massive yet supple “Sharkproof” bracelet, which ensures that no matter what damage is wrought upon you by fanged denizens of the deep, at least they’ll be able to salvage your wrist. In fact, just as with the original, it’s hard to imagine encountering anything out of the ocean or in it that could do mortal damage to the Ploprof. While modern dive computers have made the technical or commercial diver’s watch a bit of an anachronism, there will always be those who want the additional margin of certainty offered by a backup mechanical timing device — if there’s one thing you can be sure of, after all, it’s that equipment can fail. And for those for whom uncompromising devotion to functionality is the purest expression of the kind of beauty resulting when form follows function, there could hardly be a more beautiful watch. H


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