Omega’s Aqua Terra has become a staple of watch enthusiasts for nearly two decades now, and that includes me; the first Omega I bought with my own money (I inherited an old Constellation beforehand) was an Aqua Terra. It’s pretty easy to see why it’s so popular; it somehow manages to be everything to everyone and yet not appear bland or generic. It is, in other words, one of the most popular “GADA” (go anywhere, do anything) luxury watches on the planet. This new model is set apart from its third-generation brethren by its new seconds subdial. You can, of course, still get these with central seconds if you prefer, but the question we have to answer is whether this design choice undermines the famed versatility of the watch, and if it does, is it worth the tradeoff?
The extremely flexible nature of the watch is found right in the name Aqua Terra, Latin for, more or less, Water Earth, which really covers most of your bases between the two of those; the point is that the watch, from its inception, was designed for both the time you spend in the office and the time you spend on the beach. Originally, Aqua Terras came with simpler, dressier dials, usually of the sunburst variety, although the arrow-shaped hands and tooth-like hour markers were already present. It wasn’t really until the second generation, the so-called (by me) Aqua Terra 8500, that the “teak” dial emerged on the watch, setting off an entire vertically-lined fad across the industry. While the first generation was beautiful, and desirable, I think it was the second generation that really hammered home that this was a Seamaster first and foremost, those vertical lines symbolizing the venerable teak boat deck. Just as Grand Seiko’s Snowflake needed no brochure to explain to its audience that the dial represented snow, the Aqua Terra’s connection to the sea was now intuitively obvious, at least to the relevant demographic.
Today we’re in the third generation of Aqua Terras, and that’s where the new Small Seconds model comes in. Unlike the the second generation, the teak lines are now horizontal, and they alternate in width whereas the last generation was evenly spaced. It took me some time to get used to, but now I greatly prefer it to my own Aqua Terra 8500, and the improvement in dial finishing is obvious. The sunburst lives on, now over a textured surface, not unlike the Royal Oak’s famous dial, which gives it a sophisticated look that gets better the closer you get. That’s not to say that nothing beyond the subdial has changed, however. The overall face of the watch is now much higher contrast, as the outer ring of the dial is, on most Small Seconds models, now light on dark dials, or dark on light dials, whereas it’s color-matched on the central seconds versions. The date, too, has been made high contrast, with white date rings seemingly across the board. The overall appearance of the Small Seconds is a touch more provocative than its more conventional counterpart.
Which brings us to the raison d’être of the Aqua Terra Small Seconds, the, well, small seconds subdial at 6:00. The basic notion of putting sub seconds on an Aqua Terra isn’t itself novel (the Aqua Terra XXL, for instance, had a similar layout), but this is the first time we’ve seen it on the third generation model, and it’s also the most mainstream application of the idea yet. Still, whereas the sub seconds design is generally used to denote tastefully understated design, Omega has opted for a much bolder approach. The subdial is contained within a metal ring, which looks great, and the seconds markers are on a white ring, matching the outer minute ring, giving the watch a slight target-like appearance. The hand, too, is thicker, and more luminescent than you’d expect of what is typically an afterthought. Clearly, Omega is not using the seconds subdial as a way to dress up the watch and make it more classical, but rather to make it bolder. A non-color matched (at least, not to the dial) date ring interrupts the subdial somewhat unnecessarily. This is as good an excuse as any to drop the date, but alas, an unspoken rule of the watch industry is that all things must have a date, and therefore the subdial’s design is slightly compromised. I will say, however, that the presence of the subdial and yes, even the date, give weight to the abnormally vacant position found in the central seconds versions. In those, where you expect to find an hour marker, or at least an applied date frame, you find a tastefully color-matched (and therefore subtle) date. That’s normally a good thing, but because the watch is so intensely symmetrical, the lack of the 6:00 marker (or the acceptable substitute, an applied date frame) creates a vacuum. Here, there’s plenty going on at 6:00 such that, visually, the absence of a marker or frame isn’t felt. If anything, it might make 6:00 too heavy, so this is a rare occasion in which I agree with its absence, and even the absence of the date frame.
As you might anticipate, moving the seconds hand necessitated a (slightly) new movement, in this instance the 8916. Based on the superb cal. 8900 that powers many of Omega’s best three-handers, it features virtually every technology that the eminent Swiss brand can throw at it. We would be here all day exploring this movement, but if you want to know every little detail as to what makes it special, I’d refer you to my far more in-depth article comparing the 8500 and 8900 here. Suffice it to say that it is, for all practical purposes anyway, virtually immune to magnetism and superbly accurate. I’d consider it the peer of Rolex’s excellent 3235 or Grand Seiko’s remarkable new 9SA5 as being on the bleeding edge of movement design, and like both of those movements, the emphasis is placed on performance over complications, which is the way I personally prefer it (when I can’t have both, at least). As per what’s different in this new 8916, so far as I can tell it’s simply the modification to the seconds hand, so in essentially all respects, it can be treated as the direct equal of the 8900 (and derivations thereof). Keep in mind, however, that the 38mm models of the Aqua Terra Small Seconds receive the 8802 instead.
The case, so far as I can tell anyway, is unchanged from the central seconds model, which is no great surprise (or disappointment). The screw down crown secures the watch for a very impressive, for its genre anyway, 150 meters, meaning that the Aqua Terra is backing up the “Aqua” part of its name despite not being a dive watch. This model is steel, but you can also get it in Sedna gold, or a two-tone version featuring Sedna and steel. Those who go for a full-gold version of the watch, however, get an aesthetic upgrade to the cal. 8917. The 8917 is functionally identical to the 8916, but it gets gold accents that makes it look even cooler than it already does (which, for reference purposes, is very cool).
It’s the same story in every other area as well. The size, at least for this particular model, remains 41mm, which is a dash larger than I’d prefer it; I think that, given the versatile nature of the watch, 40mm might have been just right. The iconic twisted lugs remain, although I still miss the slightly asymmetrical case of the old 8500 models, where the crown side extended just a bit further out from the crystal than the other side. Nonetheless, that’s true of the central seconds version as well, so it’s immaterial if you’re deciding between the central and small seconds versions of the new Aqua Terra. Overall, the case remains a proven recipe for success and is very much part of Omega’s design DNA.
It’s interesting to me that, at least in my subjective impressions of the new Aqua Terra, the subdial actually adds to the maritime quality of the watch. If the concept had been described to me, I would have thought it detracted from it. I suspect that Omega is drawing upon aspects long associated with marine chronometers, which typically had a 6:00 seconds subdial. This is one of the rare instances in which the seconds subdial model is bolder and sportier than its central seconds counterpart. Is it better than its slightly older brother? No; but it is just as good. If you wanted a slightly more adventurous version of the existing Aqua Terra, then it makes perfect sense. However, if you’re looking at Aqua Terras to be the ultimate do-everything watch, I’d recommend sticking to the original, which is actually a touch dressier in my opinion. That said, there is but one objective stumbling block in the new version’s path, and that’s price. The central seconds version on rubber costs $550 less, and bracelet versus bracelet, the price gap jumps to $600. It’s very unclear to me why there’s such a big (or any) price difference between the models. Certainly, if you find the Small Seconds version the more appealing of the two, you absolutely should spend the extra required to get it; it’s not so great a difference as to be avoided, but I do find it mystifying. Setting aside the price, it’s a welcome addition to one of the all-time great collections of watches, and one of my personal favorites.