Since the advent of SCUBA in the 1940s, watch companies have been answering the call to manufacture the ultimate timepiece for underwater use. Brands such as Blancpain, Rolex, Tudor, and DOXA embarked on a mission to create better, stronger, more durable timepieces suited for exploring the harsh environment beneath the waves, and we’ve covered a number of their iconic timepieces from the “Golden Age” of diver’s watches (roughly the 1950s-1970s) on these very pages. This “Golden Age” of diver’s watches is so known because of the booming popularity of the sport of recreational diving, and the multitude of innovations in timepiece design that were developed during this time period as a direct result of it.
During this same time period, watch brands were also working on developing a set of tools for an entirely different underwater purpose: commercial diving. It is no big secret that most of the diving watches sold today never see use in a swimming pool, much less being used hundreds of feet below the surface of the ocean as they were originally intended. But in the 1960s this wasn’t the case: diver’s watches were tools, not luxury items, and the underwater frontier was being explored not only for recreation, but for commercial ventures such as underwater oil drilling.
Professional commercial divers endure some of the harshest conditions known on earth in their everyday jobs. Having to remain submerged at tremendous depths in sheer darkness and cold for hours upon hours and sleep in underwater habitats for days on end, commercial divers require a mindset and control of emotion average people could not sustain, as well as a toolkit of equipment more closely associated with astronauts than divers. Decades before high-tech diving electronics were invented, this meant tough-as-nails mechanical instruments were needed for measurement of depth and elapsed time, and “Professional-Grade” diver’s timepieces were called for by the industry. Thus the need for über-diving watches was born from the need for serious tools that could sustain depths, temperatures, and rigors not encountered by amateur sports divers in the shallows.
In the late 1960s, COMEX, which was at the time one of the world’s largest commercial diving firms, put a call out to the timepiece industry for such a tool, and a few noteworthy brands scrambled to develop the ultimate diver’s watch to fill the need and get their contract. Skipping to the end result, the contract was won by Rolex, who won the contract with a specially modified version of their time-only Submariner, known as the reference 5514, which subsequently evolved into the first Sea-Dweller. But Rolex wasn’t the only brand in contention, and another truly iconic timepiece came to life as a result of COMEX’s call to arms: the unforgettable Omega Seamaster 600 “PloProf”.
The Omega Seamaster PloProf 600, which is short for Plongeur Professionnel (literally, Professional Diver in French), was Omega’s most extreme diver’s watch at the time, built from the ground up with no expense spared to be the ultimate commercial diver’s watch. To this day it is one of the most iconic timepieces in sports watch history, despite its failure to win the contract. Housed in a massive 54mm X 45mm asymmetric case, the PloProf was a monocoque design with an integrated crown protector on one side and a push-button release mechanism for the rotatable bezel on the other. The watch was given a depth rating of 600 meters (approximately 2000 feet), well beyond the tested limits of human endurance.
The design of the watch allowed for the dial to be seated in two directions, making it wearable on either the left or right wrists. The movement used was a calibre 1002 automatic winder, featuring a three-hand layout with date function. Form followed function when it came to the aesthetics, and the PloProf featured a simple blue dial with large luminous plots for maximum visibility underwater. The hands were similarly oversized, and the minutes hand was massive and orange, a design now referred to simply as “Plongeur”. The bi-directional rotatable bezel featured a bakelite insert with luminous markings for use in dive timing.
Many of these now-iconic design elements of the PloProf were suggested by Jacques Cousteau, (the godfather of SCUBA himself!), who was working with Omega directly in development of the timepiece. Despite his personal involvement and a considerable expenditure from Omega, COMEX passed over the PloProf design in favor of Rolex, due in part to a concern of helium build up in a traditional case, which could cause the crystal or crown to burst off under pressure. Rolex solved this problem by fitting a Helium Escape Valve (developed in collaboration with DOXA) to their Submariner, which would siphon off excess gas buildup at depth. The PloProf was also a massive piece of equipment, far larger in dimensions and weight than the modified Oyster case from Rolex. Essentially, the Helium Escape Valve negated the need for a thick and heavy steel case, and despite its over-engineering, the PloProf was dead in the water as far as the COMEX contract was concerned.
Ultimately, the PloProf was sold in relatively small numbers to a few smaller commercial diving outfits as well as the general diving public, probably at a significant loss, due to the high costs of development. Today, the ungainly diver has a strong legion of fans, and good examples are highly sought after on the vintage market. Good examples can run from about $6500-$9000, highly dependent on dial execution, originality, and condition. Omega re-released the PloProf in 2009 in the form of the Seamaster 1200, a timepiece that clearly takes its design inspiration from the original 600, but modernized it with a Co-Axial movement and a case capable of double the depth rating, with the inclusion of a Helium Escape Valve as well. With a retail price around $10,000, these modern versions are also surprisingly popular with collectors, a testament to the heritage and history of its ancestor.
If you want more Tips (Spot a Fake, Dials, FAQ) about the PolProf 600, please check PolProf Unofficial Website.