It’s February 26, 1970, and the H.M.S Hubberston is anchored somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, a few miles away the Japanese island of Okinawa. On board, J.B. Fisher is getting ready for a dive during which he hopes to locate an aircraft wreck some 60 feet beneath the water’s surface. A typical mission for a Royal Navy diver. The last thing Fisher does before jumping into the water? He adjusts the bezel of his trusty watch, setting the countdown for his dive.
The Omega Seamaster 300
Omega introduced the Seamaster 300 in 1957, four years after the introduction of the first professional diving wristwatch – the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms – and the Rolex Submariner. The Seamaster 300 wasn’t Omega’s first Seamaster, but it was the first true professional dive watch, receiving an official water resistance rating of 200 meters, the maximum depth to which the company could test its watches back then.
Together with the Speedmaster and the Railmaster, the Seamaster 300 was part of a new trilogy of professional-grade wristwatches that used the same case and handset, the Seamaster 300 being aimed at professional divers. For practical reasons, Omega decided to manufacture all three pieces using the same base components, including the same cases and hands, but each piece would evolve to more specifically address the needs of the end user.
The first generation Seamaster 300, the ref. CK 2913-1, measured 39mm, and had straight lugs, a thin 60-minute bezel divided in 10-minute intervals, and broad arrow hands. The second generation, introduced seven years after the first, was 42mm, had chunkier twisted lugs, and also featured a wider bezel with hashes for every minute. Omega introduced two versions, the no-date ref. 165.024 and the ref. 166.024 with a date at three o’clock. The British armed forces gave the former model the nod.
J.B. Fisher’s Seamaster 300
The British Ministry of Defence took delivery of military Seaamster 300s between 1967 and 1971. Both the British Royal Navy and the Army received watches, the only distinction between the two batches being the markings used to identify the military branch for which they were meant. The first were engraved with number “0552," while the second were engraved with “W10."
Being military watches, they differ from the original Seamaster 300 ref. ST 165.024 in a few notable ways. Besides the military issue markings at the back, they also feature fixed bars between the lugs, an encircled “T” on the dial to indicate the use of tritium, mil-spec hands, and a screw-down crown.
What Exactly Is Mil-Spec?
A “mil-spec” is a watch made according to military specifications outlined by a national government. Many watch companies delivered military issued watches over the course of the 20th century. The majority were based on civilian models, and were generally more robust, retaining only the most useful features. The most well-known military diving wristwatches are the Omega Seamaster 300, and the Rolex Military Submariner, also known as the MilSub, which adopted some of the characteristics of the Seamaster 300 and eventually replaced it as the Royal Navy’s chosen diver. Panerai also made military diving watches, but these were only available to the public much later.
Fisher’s Seamaster was delivered to the British Royal Navy in 1968, and for a few years it served him well. Fisher kept meticulous records of his missions in his personal log, which provides a fascinating account of the life of Royal Navy diver. While the watch is not mentioned (why would it be?), we know he had to have been wearing it, both because it was part of his official diving gear and because it was a vital part of his diving gear. What isn’t clear is how Fisher managed to hold onto the watch. The most probable explanation is that he reported it lost, perhaps after the Ministry of Defense’s decision in 1971 to replace the Seamaster 300 with the MilSub. Or maybe even before? There is an entry for the "search of a lost watch" on December 15, 1969.
Fisher’s Seamaster 300 was discovered by a private collector following what was described to me as a "fierce hunt"and it was sold only once to second private collector. The watch now comes to Phillips via the latest owner and this is the first time it is being offered publicly via auction. For this reason it should attract loads of interest, and it will be very interesting to see what collectors believe is a fair price for a truly field-tested mil-spec dive watch.
Collectors are drawn to military watches for sentimental reasons, for sure. These watches served their respective countries and are witnesses to important chapters of history. But what makes these watches truly valuable is the scarcity of models still in good original condition. Whether they were worn by the infantry, by pilots, or by divers, very few made it through relatively unscathed. The majority either carry replacement parts, were damaged beyond repair, were kept by militaries and possibly destroyed, or were simply lost.
Lot 103 in this weekend’s Phillips sale in Geneva is one of the finest examples of a military Seamaster 300 in original condition, of which there are already very few. And while we can only imagine where most of these watches have been, we have a very good idea of where this one went, when it was used, how deeply it traveled under water, and for how long. The rarity, condition, and provenance of this watch, together with the vivid images that Fisher captured in his log, elevate the status of this little survivor into grail territory.
Fisher’s Seamaster 300 is a great example of a watch that may not seem very special until you take a closer look at what’s really in front of you and notice the fixed lugs, the tritium dial, and the military markings at the back, small features that don’t appear in equivalent civilian models and make this an exceptionally rare piece.
In fact, a good Seamaster 300 Mil-Spec is a much rarer find than a good Rolex MilSub, and based on availability alone, you would think collectors would be ready to pay just as much for the Royal Navy’s initial choice as they are for the more famous MilSub. Whether or not they should is a matter of opinion, of course, and the mythical status of the MilSub is indisputable at this point, but this particular Seamaster 300 might in fact have the cheek of beating its long-time competitor several times over this weekend, when it goes up against quite a few (non-military) Submariners.
Add the original owner’s personal dive log and you’ve got yourself one of the most interesting diving watches of the 1960s, and certainly one of the most well-preserved Seamasters on the market. Because of this, Phillips has placed an estimate of $59,500 and $119,000 on the watch, and we’ll update this story once a the hammer has fallen and a final price has been reached.
The Phillips Geneva Watch Auction: Five will take place on May 13-14 in Geneva. The stainless steel Omega Seamaster 300 “Mil-Spec” is lot number 103. You can read more about this lot and see the rest of the watches in the auction by visiting Phillips Watches online.