June 21, 2011
by Ariel Adams
A medium-sized speed boat motors us away from Naples and it is hot. The ancient city I am moving away from is colorful — but that describes most of Italy. Italy is vibrantly alive, dirty, and passionate. It is also serious watch lover territory. I am pretty sure this is where large watches got their start. Omega has invited me out here for the official debut of their 2011 Seamaster Planet Ocean watch collection. A few months ago, I saw the watches in a trade show setting at Baselworld in Switzerland. Already an outspoken fan of the new pieces, Omega wants me to experience Planet Ocean in a more comfortable setting where I, and other international journalists, can get the full story from Omega’s top people.
In choppy water it takes almost an hour to get to the island of Capri. I later learn that large rock has been a favorite getaway for over a thousand years in addition to being a great inspiration to artists, writers, and political minds. The Romans inhabited Capri long ago, themselves using it as a powerful resort spot for powerful people. Some of their ruins remain. Made of limestone, tricks with the light in the clear water serve to explain many of the names associated with places on the Island such as the famous Blue and Green Grottoes. Omega, a Swiss brand with a Greek name now chooses an Italian spot for their next adventure.
Among the people attending the event are Omega’s CEO, head of product development, and head of marketing – a trio of men that a legion of Omega fans would love to get a chance to chat with. Omega chose a curiously small venue to host an event for one of the world’s largest watch brands. Our intimate group makes it easy to forget that in addition to making a very healthy volume of high-end watches each year (with excellent quality to boot), Omega is that popular “moon watch” brand and official timekeeper of the Olympics. It is more than just a watch brand, it is the face of “professional timekeeping equipment” for many people. Here I am wondering if their brand ambassador George Clooney will be joining us.
Clooney doesn’t make it, but Buzz Aldrin does. At 80 years old, Buzz still talks a good game and later talks to us about his other passion — the oceans. A popular Omega personality, Buzz was one of the people wearing an Omega Speedmaster Professional watch in 1969 when he walked on the moon.
Talking about the “Planet Ocean” name, Omega’s head of marketing quips to me on how difficult it is these days to find names for watches. “Everything is taken!” Omega got lucky with the name, but it is hard to offer novel nomenclature to timepieces these days. I can relate to the frustration of trying to name something new and then discovering the name is already taken. This is especially true for a dive watch — a segment ripe with derivatives.
Stories such as this are one of the reasons I am so happy to be here. Omega isn’t a faux-smile brand with spokespeople who sit there and restate the official company line. I enjoy the straightforward enthusiasm of their executive team. Based in Bienne, Omega is truly a home-grown group of Swiss-watch-culture raised members. The brand also serves as a gateway to the world of pricier watches. In America, Omega is a term synonymous with “good Swiss watch.” That reputation didn’t come from marketing, it came from decades of making good Swiss watches and the people currently running Omega know and maintain that.
Listening to Omega’s head of product development speak sheds light on some of the mysteries of watch-making and design. Good thing I recorded it. The best stuff I have for you in this article doesn’t come from me at all. The two videos included are interviews with Jean-Claude Monachon (Omega’s head of Product Development) and Omega’s CEO Stephen Urquhart. I think you’ll enjoy the two of them.
Omega’s desire to beat its competition means that I always have something fun to see with them. This year, both what is inside the watches and what was outside gave me cause for excitement. And by excitement I mean frustration that I didn’t have the leverage to ask them for one of each watch. The quality of these timepieces is better than ever. Crisp dials and ceramic bezels make me wonder why anyone cares as much as they do about vintage timepieces. As for movements, I am still wowed by the Caliber 8500 and 9300 movements that are contained in the three-hand and chronograph Planet Ocean models. Even at current prices, they are solid values for high-quality dive watches with outstanding in-house made, and designed, movements.
I first wrote about the new Seamaster Planet Ocean watches for 2011 here and discussed details on the Omega Calibre 9300 movement here.
In-house movements are a tricky thing when it comes to answering “why?” Why make your own movement when a solid ETA does the job really well? To be honest, a lot of the time the only reason is the perception of value. For my money, I’d rather buy an ETA much of the time. ETA and Omega are linked, of course, as both are under the Swatch Group.
For 2011, the Caliber 9300 automatic chronograph is brand new. So again, why? The story goes that before Nicolas Hayek Sr. passed away, he issued an edict to Omega that they make the best and most beautiful chronograph movement in the world. That is, one that fulfilled those requirements and could also be industrialized. That little last caveat is the tough part. A fact that will have Omega improving the 9300 for years to come, just as ETA continually improves movements it originally released decades ago. The 9300 is certainly one of the most beautiful chronograph’s in its class. The array for decoration is inspiring and the reason for the large sapphire caseback. Even with the caseback the watch is water-resistant to 600 meters.
The features that could impress you in the Caliber 9300 are lengthy and I covered them here. For the money, there is no other mechanical chronograph movement I would want. A few desirable features include it having about 65 hours of power reserve, a silicium balance spring, a reported accuracy of about plus or minus 2 seconds a day and COSC Chronometer certified, as well. The only competitor for my attention is the Seiko Spring Drive Chronograph but that is technically something a bit different given its status as not being a purely mechanical movement. I noticed some owners of previous generation Seamaster Planet Ocean watches feeling left out of the excitement. In their shoes, I would probably feel the same way.
Omega’s blue and titanium Planet Ocean finally gets an unlimited ceramic and Liquidmetal bezel. I want to save a longer discussion about Liquidmetal for another article. However, if all goes well, Liquidmetal dials will show up on all Planet Ocean watches in due course. What is really important to say is that all but the orange bezel versions (orange is taking a bit longer but they are working on it) of the Planet Ocean watches now come in ceramic though not all with Liquidmetal. Those without Liquidmetal have numerals and markers which are offset printed using a complex form of PVD metallization. The ceramic dials for the Planet Ocean now come in black, blue, and white.
Ladies get their kicks, too, as the Planet Ocean three-hand model comes in 38, 42, and 45mm wide versions. Still loving the 45mm wide model for me but I think that the 42mm wide version is a fantastic world model — even the ladies are preferring the 42mm wide size.
Omega was clever enough to show us the new Planet Ocean watches in a more natural environment. It made me realize that most of the sport watches I see are indoors, especially at the watch shows. Sitting on some rocks near the beautiful blue ocean, we play with watches by the water and in the daylight. One of the things I noticed about the dials of the Planet Ocean is that despite having a little glossy bling to them, the hand and hour markers stay legible and visible in all forms of light. The danger, of course, is that they avoid the situation where, in certain types of light, the hand and hour markers seem to disappear into the dial.
Don’t ask me to explain the Omega mermaid. It later made sense to me as Omega showed off some video recorded of her underwater swimming with the watch wrapped around a transparent tube. That lady (Hannah) is talented. Did you know she makes her own mermaid tails and is a professional mermaid (impersonator)? Let me tell you the official explanation for her inclusion in the 2011 Planet Ocean launch event …
Historic and archeological records of Capri found human remains near some of the rocky shores. It was discovered that people living on the Island would have their women sit on the rocks beckoning passing ships to come by and “hang out.” Oftentimes, these ships would get caught on rocks in the shallow water and get stuck. At this point, men from Capri would jump on board to steal and pillage. It was a form of piracy. Stories of this spread and eventually helped Homer create the story of the Sirens who lured sailors with songs to their death — this was on Capri. Sirens were sometimes viewed as being half woman, half fish … So they were mermaids. Omega had a siren of Capri non-melodiously bring us something not so deadly.
If I recall correctly, there is something like 46 different Seamaster Planet Ocean variants for 2011. That may be a lot of watches but it makes sense given all the color and size combinations. It is hard to pick a favorite. While I love the clean looks of the three-hand model with the Caliber 8500 movement, the technical appeal of the 9300 movement is hard to resist. Money not being an issue I’d get a black three-hand Seamaster Planet Ocean with the orange trim and the blue titanium Liquidmetal chronograph model.
In about a year or so, Omega will release a new film called Planet Ocean. The name is actually fitting as the film will be wholly funded by Omega and produced to increase environmental awareness of threats to our oceans. The film will be produced by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, a well-known French environmentalist film maker. Likely offered under a Creative Common license, the film will be available to anyone who wants to show it without cost. Omega wants to get more into the “preservation business” and is using this experience to test that out. Environmentalism usually comes with a guilt-filled message that feels like a slap on the wrist. Planet Ocean the film is intended, rather, to highlight how and why people should want to protect our environment. I recall that environmental messages became popular back in the 1980s when I was a kid. I still remember many of the brands who funded those educational campaigns which, ironically, were mostly oil and manufacturing companies.
From a marketing standpoint, Omega will never be happy enough with a good product. There are a lot of watch brands with a good product that you’ll never hear about. Omega’s power as a brand gives it the ability to offer the holy trinity of marketing which includes a quality product promise, awareness campaigns and wide distribution.
Interviewing Omega’s CEO Stephen Urquahart is always enlightening. A knowledgeable man, Urquhart comes across as a man who appreciates the high-level of responsibility involved in running a brand like Omega. Each design probably includes a degree of “you can’t please everyone.” The pluses and minuses of choices are balanced with the long-term good of the brand. While maintaining brand DNA, and those items which Omega are best known for, the brand must also innovate. At the same time, Omega is striving to upgrade its status in the market place — a move many brands seem to aspire to. I don’t quite understand the motives behind this latter goal as Omega is currently able to sell a very large amount of watches every year. My suspicion is that it has a lot to do with the more long-term goal on increasing the value perception of mechanical watches to a mass public used to Quartz watches.
Omega’s goal is to drastically reduce its sale of quartz movement based watches in favor of mechanical ones — many of which Omega plans to produce themselves. For these products to do as well, they require a more mainstream adoption of the value proposition of a well-made mechanical movement versus a quartz one.
Their plans for market development are interesting, too. In terms of the US, Omega sees itself supplementing traditional third-party retailers with more Omega boutique stores. With an already existing location in New York City, Omega’s CEO hints at plans to open many, many more. We also speak candidly about the recent legal suit that went to the US Supreme Court. The Omega v. Costco case ended up there and resulted in a narrow victory for Omega — who wanted legal protection from forms of gray market product availability in stores. This systemic approach to addressing a business is sophisticated and very unlike even other large watch brands. With the support of the Swatch Group, Omega is not just a watch maker but an advocate for the high-end watch industry.
It is easy to fall in love with Omega’s products — many have. Brands such as this make my job easier because when I write about them I don’t need to explain to people who they are. Omega already has a name for itself, it is simply my job to inform people about what they are up to. Product has never been better and, even with a strict focus on their own movements and mechanical pieces over all, Omega never forgets its more seasoned fans. For example, their CEO hints at a new “quartz based aviator watch” that will come later this year. This can only refer to the famous X-33 that contained a Superquartz movement and featured a lot of functions. Now a collector’s piece, Omega will revisit this product as there is a strong niche demand for it.
Call me impressed as I make my return trip from Capri. Even though the island is nice enough to be highly distracting, I am convinced that Omega is serious about its product and dedication to opening more communication with the consumer. If you haven’t looked at what Omega has been selling for a few years, wait until early fall (when many of these new products will more available) then go check out your local dealer. Now I have to revisit the plan of how to get some for myself.