Seiko produced its first watch for scuba divers – and the first Japanese dive watch ever made – in 1965, just a few months before John Cronin and Ralph Eriksson came together to create the idea behind PADI, which began training divers in 1966.
The original Diver’s 150M was the result of development originally undertaken to produce waterproof timepieces for the 1964 Japanese Olympics, for which Seiko was the official timing partner. The new watch was well received and became the official timepiece of the 8th Japanese Antarctic survey expedition in 1966, but it was in 1968 that Seiko really dedicated itself to the manufacturer of watches for divers – and it all began with a letter.
A Japanese commercial deep-saturation diver based in Kure City, Hiroshima Prefecture, wrote a letter to Seiko complaining about the standard of watches available for his profession. Saturation divers work at great depths for days, even weeks at a time, while living in pressurised chambers. The heavy-duty construction work the divers perform is by itself a damage risk, but underwater and under pressure, too many watches were failing too easily. Dive computers were still decades away – an accurate, functioning timepiece was one of the most important pieces of safety equipment a commercial diver could carry.
According to the diver’s letter to Seiko, the problem was especially severe after diving to depths greater than 300m. Under so much pressure, molecules of helium present in ambient breathing gas mixtures are forced through the seals and crystals of the watches, but can’t escape during ascent and depressurisation, causing the watch crystal to shatter as the volume of gas trapped inside the casing expands.
Seiko brought together a specialist research and development team led by senior engineer Ikuo Tokunaga, and dedicated the next seven years to creating a watch designed specifically for the high-pressure world of deep saturation diving.
In 1975, Seiko made history with the fruits of the team’s labour, launching the world’s first commercially available dive watch housed inside a lightweight titanium case. The Professional Diver’s 600M was laden with 20 new patents, including the innovative ‘L-shaped gasket’, which prevented helium from entering the watch entirely – a new development over the standard helium release valve present in many competitors’ devices.
The Professional Diver’s 600M – aka ‘Big Tuna’ – became something of an industry standard for deep saturation diving, before being superseded by its own successor in 1986. The ‘Professional Specifications’ – Prospex – Diver’s 1000M was also the first watch in the world to use lightweight ceramic materials for its outer casing, now rated to 1000m depth and with the quartz movement introduced in 1978, another world-first for saturation diving watches.
While Seiko was putting a huge amount of effort into its deep saturation watches for commercial divers, its recreational diver’s range was also under constant development. The 6105 model, manufactured between 1968 and 1977, became a popular watch for GIs during the Vietnam War, who, fed up with the poor quality of the standard-issue army timepiece, bought the Seiko Diver’s 150M as a replacement from local markets.
So popular did the watch become, that it eventually became known as the ‘Willard’, after being worn by Martin Sheen as his eponymous character in Francis Ford Copolla’s 1979 Vietnam War movie, Apocalypse Now.
In 1985, the Seiko Prospex Diver’s 150M was upgraded to 200M, and the brand continued to go from strength-to-strength. Following in the Willard’s Hollywood footsteps, its 6309 ‘Turtle’ successor appeared on the wrist of Ed Harris in the 1989 film The Abyss, a movie featuring a group of deep-saturation divers directed by James Cameron, something of a deep-sea aficionado himself, who would later pilot his own submersible to the bottom of the Marina Trench.
With or without the aid of Hollywood and pop superstars (Mick Jagger was also known to be a fan), by the 1990s, Seiko had become a worldwide household name with the instantly recognisable Prospex diver’s watch brand, and the Seiko Prospex Diver’s 200M became the best-selling diver’s watch of its time.
Since the early days of Seiko’s venture into water-resistant watch manufacture, the company has taken pains to work closely with both the commercial and recreational diving industries to develop technologies best suited to meet the demands of its customers. Several more world firsts for scuba diving watches would follow the success of the 1986 Professional Diver’s 1000M, including the 1992 Kinetic Diver’s 200M, the first diver’s watch to receive power through its wearer’s body movement; and the 2000 Diving Computer Watch, one of the first wristwatch-style dive computers available on the market.
If there is one particular tribute by which the success of Seiko’s watches within the scuba diving world could be measured, it would be the Seiko Prospex partnership with PADI, the largest and most influential name in the recreational scuba diving, and a growing force in the world of tech.
In 2016, on the training agency’s 50th anniversary, Seiko launched two Special Edition versions of its Prospex collection of watches: the Prospex PADI Kinetic GMT Diver’s and the Prospex PADI Automatic Diver’s watches, with several additions such as PADI branded versions of the Prospex Samurai, Monster and King Turtle expanding the range over the following years.
In January 2021, two new watches – the Seiko Prospex PADI Sumo and Sumo Chronograph (pictured above) were launched, and six months later, Seiko Prospex became the official sponsor for the newly-incorporated PADI AWARE Foundation’s Dive Against Debris initiative, donating a portion of the proceeds from its Save the Ocean watch collection to the largest diver-supported marine clean-up initiative in the world.
‘Seiko’s ongoing support of PADI’s flagship citizen-science programme, Dive Against Debris is critical in advancing PADI’s goal to rid the oceans of marine debris,’ said Kristin Valette Wirth, Chief Brand and Membership Officer at PADI Worldwide, in an e-mail to DIVE. ‘We continue to celebrate our partnership through the creation of the Seiko PADI Prospex watch range and look forward to a long-term future of working hand in hand with Seiko to support underwater cleanup and data collection activities that promote a clean and healthy ocean.’
Since the launch of its first Japanese diver’s watch in 1965, Seiko has grown to become one of the largest and most trusted watch brands in the world. There are now more than 120 models of timepiece in the Seiko Prospex collection, from practical and inexpensive timepieces such as the solar-powered Prospex PADI Chronograph, to the exclusive titanium-cased Prospex LX series, making the watches available to divers who value a stylish, practical and inexpensive dive watch, or those who seek a premium timepiece at the cutting edge of technology.
For more information and to view the complete Seiko Prospex collection, visit www.seikoboutique.co.uk/collections/prospex/