Part III. Taking it to the Next Level – A Few Notable “Modern” Case Designs
As described in Part II of this survey, with the exception of Omega’s Marine dive watch, most early 20th century “transitional” watch cases essentially combined elements already developed in the late 19th century – albeit often in new, innovative ways. (Part I surveys these early case design elements.) With the mid-20th century came two world wars, driving further refinements to earlier designs and experimentation with new, innovative materials.
In the mid-1900s, for example, the Omega Marine’s clever use of external water pressure to enhance the case seal was adapted by Roamer and EPSA for broader, more practical application. Similarly, Omega and Certina were early innovators in the use of synthetic materials for case seals and movement suspensions, providing significant advancement in water and shock resistance not possible with earlier case construction materials. Taken together, these and other mid-20th century design refinements and innovations ushered in the era of the modern sport and dive watch, capable of withstanding hard duty in military and sporting applications, with significantly enhanced water tightness but without the inconvenience of a double case or screw-down crown.
Roamer “Waterproof” (1941)
In its early years Meyers and Studeli (MST) employed cases from a variety of suppliers, including early Taubert & Fils (Borgel) waterproof designs. Unsatisfied with outsourced case performance and durability, MST shifted to in-house case production commencing in 1923. Known for innovative, robust in-house movements, MST (later Roamer Watch Co.) also was a significant case design innovator.
Borrowing concepts from earlier designs such as those of Fitch and Borgel (modular design and sealed crown stem) and the Omega Marine (double case with seal compressed by external water pressure), Roamer’s “waterproof” modular case design was simple yet effective in providing a high degree of water resistance. The original Roamer design was patented in 1941 (“Type I”), later improved by four patents granted in 1955 (“Type II”) to enhance the seal and inhibit corrosion at the rear case joint. Type 1 Type 2
Roamer’s patented case dispensed with a bezel, constructed from just two units. The lower or rear unit is a robust, solid stainless steel “monocoque” case (a single-shell load supporting structural design) housing the movement, crystal and crown. The second upper or front unit serves as the outer case. The lower monocoque case is push-fitted into the outer case shell, securing the crystal and effectively providing a compressible seal between the front and rear case units. Like the dual-case Omega Marine, the dual-shell Roamer case harnesses external water pressure to enhance the seal’s effectiveness. But Roamer’s dual-shell case employed a pendant tube penetrating both case shells and a rubber lined crown, making it more practical for everyday wear and sporting applications – more on Roamer cases here.
The “Dirty Dozen” (1945)
As described in Part II, British military forces in the Middle East and India were issued West End Sowar Prima wristwatches. Introduced in 1934, the Sowar Prima was one of the earliest models to employ Taubert’s (Borgel) Decagonal case and Incabloc shock protection, providing significant water and shock resistance. Recognizing the durability of these purpose-designed tool watches, in 1945 the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) announced a new wristwatch design specification for watches that could survive the rigors of wartime use.
The MOD contracted with twelve watch companies to produce watches meeting this new design specification, including Buren, Cyma (Tavannes), Eterna, Grana (Certina), IWC, Jaeger LeCoultre, Lemania, Longines, Omega, Record, Timor and Vertex (Revue). These so-called “Dirty Dozen” watches can be recognized by the WWW stamp on the case, an abbreviation for the MOD’s “Watch, Wristlet, Waterproof” military design specification. The WWW spec required water and shock resistance, and a black dial with Arabic numerals and sub-seconds to enhance visibility. The Dirty Dozen watch dials displayed the “broad arrow” symbol, traditional marking for British military property.
Several of the Dirty Dozen brands employed a collared crystal on the case interior, secured with a threaded inner crystal ring (a configuration later used on early Omega 300 dive watches). The crown had a rubber gasket, while the case back gasket was constructed from lead.
Omega Seamaster (1948)
Another watch descended from the Omega Marine design was (perhaps unsurprisingly) the Omega Seamaster. But, in addition to borrowing design elements from the Marine, the Seamaster also owed a debt to early case design innovators such as Borgel (screw-down caseback and sealed crown stem/pendant tube), and incorporated lessons learned from watches designed by Omega for use during WWII (including Omega’s WWW watch model). But the Seamaster provided even greater water resistance than the company’s WWII military watches, by employing rubber gaskets similar to those used in submarine seals. Released in 1948 to celebrate the company’s 100th anniversary, the original Seamaster (Ref. 2518) initially was intended as a “gentleman’s watch,” designed to withstand the rigors of daily life.
Now a ubiquitous feature of virtually all wristwatches of any price point, at the time this use of a synthetic case gasket seal was a revolutionary innovation. To demonstrate the design’s resistance to extreme environments, in 1956 Omega strapped a Seamaster to the exterior of a DC6 aircraft fuselage flying the North Atlantic Polar Route.
The Seamaster was a hit with the consumer market, and has become Omega’s longest-lived and most iconic model, with many variants ranging from gents’ watches to specialized dive watches. The Seamaster also has been widely adopted by militaries – including among others the collectible Pakistani Air Force (PAF) model, employing a distinctive dial design adapted from Omega’s Ranchero.
Enicar Seapearl EPSA-STOP Compressor (1955)
The Piquerez family’s watch case lineage also pre-dates WW2, but as the business was struggling they temporarily shifted to bicycle production from 1935 through 1939, when watch component production was re-initiated at a new factory in La Neuveville under the name Ervin Piquerez SA (EPSA). The re-invigorated company experimented with innovative designs, patenting several revolutionary case configurations.
EPSA’s “Monoscaphe” (brevet 314700), for example, was a successful front-loading monobloc design. But it was the company’s Compressor and Super Compressor that put EPSA on the map as a top-tier case design innovator. Both designs harnessed external pressure to increase water-resistance provided by gaskets located between the case, case back and crown – a concept borrowed from the Omega Marine and Roamer designs but refined by EPSA, and later employed in the “Naiad” crowns used on Omega’s Seamaster 300 in the 1960s.
Enicar was among the earliest to adopt EPSA’s Compressor case, its first-edition Seapearl Ultrasonic employing a specially designed “EPSA-STOP” Compressor case. The Seapearl was introduced in 1955, the same year EPSA’s Compressor Swiss patent was issued (brevet 313813 for non-Enicar models); the Super Compressor followed in 1956 (brevet 337462 & 317537 for single and dual crown non-Enicar versions). Most Compressors and Super Compressors can be distinguished by the former’s use of snap-on and the latter’s use of screw-down case backs. Many Enicar Compressor and Super Compressor models, however, employ a unique bayonet-style case back tightening design for which EPSA obtained separate patents (brevet 98243 & 314962, respectively).
In what some consider a less than subtle jab at Rolex, the Seapearl case, and some related Enicar models such as the Sherpa 600, can be identified by case back engravings depicting an open Oyster. Enicar employed EPSA cases extensively in their lineup, but the list of prominent watch manufactures who employed EPSA Compressor or Super Compressor cases is long, including the likes of Alpina, Blancpain, Lemania, Bulova, IWC, JLC, Longines, Revue, UG and Zenith, among many others.
Certina DS (1958)
In 1958 Certina launched the DS, with a patented “double security” shock absorbing design employing a novel method of securing the movement in the case. The DS was designed as the ultimate tool watch, resisting shocks and environments other watches could not. The first DS models had a flat case back; early specimens still were marked to specify “patent pending,” rather than the movement shock mounting patent number (346825) engraved on later models.
The DS incorporated several layers of shock protection including a flexible movement suspension, reinforced case, and engineered seals on the stem, crown and case back. The DS suspension employed a floated mounting of the entire movement within an elastic ring, in addition to the conventional Incabloc shock absorber. Self-winding watches of that era typically could resist falls in the range of only ~2m, but the DS could survive falls up to 6m – three times the industry standard. The DS design’s shock-absorbing seals also provided enhanced water resistance to depths up to 200m, also at the technological forefront for the era.
Starting with the post- 1960 models, the DS automatic case back began to carry the beautifully machined turtle logo. Manual-wound models received a flatter, less dramatic turtle emblem. While the design generally is credited to a team of Certina engineers headed by Philipp Kurth, the DS patent was registered in 1958 by Huguenin Frères, suggesting possible collaboration between the esteemed case manufacturer and Certina.
Whatever its origins, the design was both innovative and influential. Notable later models adopting similar shock absorption designs include the IWC Yacht Club, Tissot PR516, and Zenith Defy. EPSA’s rare “SUSPENSE” Compressor case also reportedly employed a similar movement suspension.
Post-Game Wrap Up: A Century of Innovation… and Half Century of Stagnation?
By the 1960s wristwatch case design had reached a new level of maturity and specialization. Indeed, while movement quality remained imperative, the state of the art had progressed and standardized sufficiently that most top-tier and second-tier watch brands (and even some “no-name” brands) often employed movements of similar or equivalent quality. And with increasing dominance of the market for high-quality movements by just a few producers such as SSIH and ASUAG, A.Schild and ETA, it became increasingly common to see the same high-quality movement calibres employed across premium and even middle-market watch brands.
Thus, by the latter half of the 20th Century case design had become at least as important as movement quality in differentiating the best watch brands, and in distinguishing purpose-designed models for specialized tool uses such as diving or other hard-duty military or sporting applications. The mid-1900s saw continued adaptation of earlier design features, combined with new design innovations and use of new synthetic materials allowing substantial enhancement in water and shock resistance, combined with greater durability, practicality and convenience.
Case design also became a means of stylistic differentiation – the iconic Aquastar divers of the 1960s providing just one example of a highly functional tool watch pioneering an elegant dive case style so widely copied as to have become ubiquitous across the industry and, hence, synonymous with classic dive watches of the era.
The remarkable advancements of watch case design from the mid-1800s through mid-1900s stand in stark contrast to the latter several decades, during which time case design arguably has progressed little from a technical innovation perspective. On the contrary, some (the author included) might argue watch case design actually has regressed in recent decades, in light of too many contemporary producers placing excessive emphasis on form over function in pursuit of stylistic trends and profits in lieu of classic, understated design and durability. One can only hope the pendulum swings soon in the direction of form once again following function, with emphasis on classic design simplicity.
Check out Part IV, focusing on mid-twentieth century purpose-designed diver watches!
© 2021 P. Scott Burton & Mitka Engebretsen, all rights reserved. Follow on Instagram, @rex.tempus
Omega Seamaster References: