Monday, August 29, 2016

WATCH DNA SERIES: Swiss Army SeaPlane Watches

Part 1 of a 4 Part Series About Swiss Army's SeaPlane Watches

What in the world was Swiss Army thinking by designing the SeaPlane series of watches? In my opinion, they wanted to reinvent how people wear their watches and change watchbands quickly. In the beginning of the 2000s, Victorinox Swiss Army marketed 4 cohesively designed watches as SeaPlanes. These watches were stylistically different from contemporary watches for a number of reasons. The designs showed out-of-the-box thinking then, and still look interesting today.

A rare set of all 4 generations of Swiss Army SeaPlane watches
I am splitting my SeaPlane collection so it was important to me that I make photos of these watches together while I had the chance. Unless some other collector has the full series, this might be the only complete set on the internet. If I am wrong, send me a photo of your SeaPlanes, and I will gladly post them.

Swiss Army SeaPlane watch models on interchangeable plastic watchbands
Before I discuss the design aspects, I wanted to mention that the grouping of Swiss Army SeaPlane watches seen here are a rare collection. It took me 2 years of hunting to acquire them all, and some came to me from as far as Europe. I might be one of the only people in the world obsessive enough to collect all 4 models.

My family portrait of Swiss Army's SeaPlane watches
Even as I wrote that last paragraph, I know that there are actually 5 models if I include the special edition mechanical SeaPlane XL produced for Yamaha's MT motorcycle, and maybe a 6th model in the form of a mysterious variant of the chronograph seen in the ad below.

Swiss Army SeaPlane XL & SeaPlane Chronograph with mysterious hands & bracelet
In the next few weeks, I will be writing articles in detail about each SeaPlane design. I decided to spit the articles because there was just too much to cover. So, without further delay, let's talk about what makes these watches interesting.

Look Ma, No Lugs – The Design that Binds Them All

The most noticeable feature of SeaPlanes is that all of them utilize a "lugless" case. In other words, they do not have the familiar metal extensions known as lugs where the watch bands are usually attached. While the green hands, yellow accents and screw-down crowns are also shared in all of the watches' DNA, it is the lugless design that makes these watches unique to Swiss Army with no other models employing this unconventional approach. There are a handful of other watch makers doing this as well, but you might be hard pressed to see one on the streets.

The Seaplane XL is a perfectly circular watch without protruding lugs

The Unique "King and Throne" Locking System

Instead of traditional watchbands, SeaPlane watches use a proprietary and deceptively simple watchband attachment system. That system includes a specially molded 1-piece watch band consisting of 2 straps attached to a plastic or metal flat washer called the "throne". 

The leather clad SeaPlane throne watchband
The "throne" can clearly be seen from the side as a black strip sandwiched between the watch body and the base of the watch.

Sideview of the Swiss Army SeaPlane watch showing the watchband and locking ring.
The watch, aka "king", would sit on the watchband "throne", and a metal ring would rotate to lock all 3 parts together. Heck, maybe that ring should have been called the "king's crown", but that description is usually reserved for the winder knob on a watch. SeaPlanes had the word ADJUST on all of their screw-down crowns.

Swiss Army's SeaPlane's locking ring, band and watch pod lock together.
Trying to explain this makes it sound more difficult than it looks in person. It really wass just a quick-change system and the band can be swapped in a matter of seconds. Swiss Army made this idea look simple, but a magnified view of the locking parts show that there is a lot of engineering that took place to make this possible. 

SeaPlane leather and plastic watch bands, the SeaPlane watch head and locking ring
Instead of just a flat locking disk, this part was precision machined on both sides. The bottom has attractive and functional slat-like grooves to help the wearer rotate the ring. It tapers from the center hole to the edge so it is not a flat profile. Three inner tabs slide through matching cutouts into slotted recess in the case back.

Just some of the engineering for the SeaPlane watchband locking system
The opposite side of the locking ring has a channel to capture a ridge in the watchband. Cutouts in the watch case make aligning the band a breeze. Theoretically, this engineering solution should keep the ring from unlocking accidentally, but I never took chances. I always applied packing tape to my SeaPlane case backs to prevent any ring rotation.

I put tape on my SeaPlane backs as extra insurance to prevent accidental unlocking
Swiss Army provided 3 watchband options including a leather-clad watchband and a plastic watchband. Time proved that the bands are fragile and can break (usually near the donut hole). The leather band can delaminate as well.

Swiss Army SeaPlane's weak point is the watchband
Swiss Army also made an amazing metal bracelet. To my knowledge, the bracelet was only produced for the large mechanical watches and not the smaller quartz watches.

The hard to find metal bracelet made only for the Swiss Army SeaPlane XL Mechanical watches
There may be one exception since the ad image below shows the SeaPlane Chronograph with a metal bracelet. I have found NO secondary photographic evidence that such a bracelet for the smaller SeaPlanes exists in the world, so that could be a very rare European model with a metal bracelet or perhaps even a prototype. The yellow central seconds hand is unique because it is a flat arrow without a counterweight and not a sculpted arrow commonly seen. Does this model exist in the marketplace? I just don't know.

UPDATE (Sept 25, 2016): I was able to find a British marketer who sells the metal wristband for the SeaPlane Chronograph so this proves that the option did exist for this model in Europe... Mystery solved.

An unidentified Swiss Army SeaPlane Chronograph with metal bracelet and unique central hand
The Quirky Aspects of the SeaPlane Watches

While I really like SeaPlane watches, I do have a few gripes. The quartz versions are petite by today's standards measuring only 40mm wide (42mm with crown). The lume is below average in intensity, and lowlight use can be difficult. The locking mechanism can loosen and drop the watch. It never happened to me, but it could be a danger. The SeaPlanes had mineral glass, which can scratch. And most importantly, the plastic watchband attachment point is a plastic ring, both of which can break. Replacement watch bands can still be acquired from the manufacturer, but they might get harder to find in the future. The metal bracelets were reserved for only the larger mechanical watches, but would have solved durability issues with the plastic watchbands... albeit at a higher cost to the consumer.

Swiss Army SeaPlane Watches - Tritium dial, Mechanical XL and Chronograph
If one can look past those engineering choices, the aesthetic of the watch is unlike some of the other unoriginal and bland watches you might see day to day. Swiss Army took a chance to rethink the common sport watch and they should be commended for their originality. If you wear a Swiss Army SeaPlane watch, then you will definitely stand out from the crowd... and isn't that what every watch enthusiast wants?

More SeaPlane watch articles coming soon...
In the coming weeks, I will release more articles on the different SeaPlane watches that made up this model series, so make sure to check back. Or, just click this SeaPlane Series link to see all the published articles.

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