Omega's visit to the depths of the Pacific ocean (and entirely serendipitous opportunity to edge ahead of rival Rolex) came about as the last stage in a larger project, entitled the Five Deeps Expedition. Organised, led and manned by private equity financier-turned deep sea diver (and keen pilot and engineer) Victor Vescovo, the expedition set out in 2018 to navigate the deepest points of all five of Earth's oceans, culminating in a visit to the Mariana Trench, 10,982m below the surface.
Vescovo, piloting his submersible the DSV Limiting Factor, accompanied by three robotic 'Landers', successfully descended to the deepest points in the Atlantic, Indian and Southern Oceans between December 2018 and April 2019; a visit to the Arctic Ocean later in the year will complete the challenge. Crucial to such a venture was a commercially-certified submersible, i.e. one good for repeat dives; both the Trieste and the Deepsea Challenger experienced technical difficulties on their ascent from the Mariana Trench, but Vescovo was dead set on having the ability to make multiple dives.
For the Mariana Trench dive, Vescovo approached Omega (reportedly simply because he was already a customer, having bought a Planet Ocean chronograph in his native Dallas) in late 2018. In the space of six months, Omega created three prototype watches, each codenamed FOD-X1, -X2 and -X3; FOD standing for Full Ocean Depth.
FOD X1 was attached to one of the Limiting Factor's robotic arms. FOD X2 was also on the arm as a backup. The third watch was attached to one of the three robotic landers. After roughly 4 hours descent, Vescovo reached the bottom and spent exactly 4 hrs 4 mins at the bottom, 10,928m below the waves, deeper than anyone has ever gone before. James Cameron in 2012 managed 10,908m, while the 1960 Trieste managed 10,911.
At that depth, each watch was withstanding the equivalent of 16.5 tonnes of pressure, yet tests would later show that the watches retained accuracy of 1 second per day during those conditions.
Part of the reason this mission was able to go deeper than ever before is down to improvements in the ability to survey the ocean floor and find the true deepest point. Vescovo told QP that Cameron always intended to make multiple dives, but technical problems prevented him; he dived in the deepest of the three 'pools' that make up the Mariana Trench, but didn't find the very deepest point on his first dive (the Trieste went to the Western Pool, and without sonar could only work out how deep the water was by tossing out explosives and measuring the sound waves that returned).
In total, Vescovo and the Limiting Factor made four dives to the bottom. The fourth came about by accident, and accounts for the fact that in fact, one Omega watch spent 54 hours submerged at the very bottom of the ocean.
One of the three robot landers had got stuck at the bottom after the third dive. Victor, as he tells the story, was devastated to lose one, and planned another dive to attempt its salvage. After a day or so, the power on the lander had run out, leaving it without lights or communications systems, but Vescovo managed to find it with sonar and other techniques - as he tells it, they gave it a nudge and it began its ascent.
The lander, with Omega's third watch, FOD-X3, attached to it had been down there for 54 hours. At the surface, they found that not only was it still running, but that after more than two days it was losing less than a second.
Anyone familiar with Rolex's DeepSea Special or DeepSea Challenge will recognise the basic silhouette of Omega's Planet Ocean Ultra Deep. It resembles a gargantuan, inflated version of the regular Planet Ocean, with a huge case and thick sapphire surrounding a regular size dial.
The watch was milled from a solid block of forged grade V titanium; the very same metal used to build the Limiting Factor sub. The case - which measures 28mm thick - features incorporated lugs, which take a through-and-through blue textile strap rather than a metal bracelet. Named "Manta ray" lugs by Omega, they feature a split in the middle to reduce the torsional forces at work around the watch as it descended.
The watch also takes the use of liquidmetal to a new point for the brand. The substance is used as a gasket to seal the sapphire crystal - which measures 9.5mm thick - in place, bonding it to the titanium case body. The whole thing gives the appearance of a monobloc construction.
The bezel is a classic dive watch style, in Liquidmetal and ceramic, and the dial features no date. In the words of Omega’s product development manager “no date is needed at such depth”. The hands are titanium-coated, and the dial was also made from titanium with a black treatment.
Inside, it is running Omega's master chronometer calibre 8912. The screw-in caseback is engraved with the details of the technology and the Five Deeps logo, all surrounded by a sonar beam motif.
The watch was tested at three facilities in Barcelona with maritime authority DNV-GL present to certify the watch. It is tested to a maximum pressure for the Mariana Trench, but with an added 25% margin beyond that, it will actually withstand 1500 bar, or a depth of 15,000m.
Best of all, the watches having returned to Omega's headquarters in Biel, all three were put through (and passed) the METAS certification that all other Omega watches go through, without any work done to regulate them since making the dive.
Like the Rolex Deepsea Challenge, this is not a retail watch but CEO Raynald Aeschlimann strongly hinted that elements of the technology could be commercialised in the future.
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