For this week’s Vintage Eye for the Modern Guy, we’re tackling one of the most significant watches in horological history — a universally known, collected, and loved chronograph: the Omega Speedmaster. In 1957, two years before the first American manned mission to explore the moon, the very first Speedmaster was produced and labeled Reference CK 2915. The watch was originally marketed as a racing chronograph, targeting men with sports cars. That chronograph, below, although the first and often most valuable, was not the watch that made Omega an icon.
In the early 1960s, NASA engineers tested the Speedmaster reference ST105.012 alongside watches from Rolex, Longines, and Wittnauer for a variety of space-qualification tests. They evaluated each watch’s ability to withstand intense shock, sky-high and below-freezing temperatures, unfathomably massive pressures, and decompression — and all of this while still reliably telling time. In July 1969, the champion of these tests, the Omega Speedmaster, visited the moon as the whole world watched, and earned itself the appropriate moniker, “Moonwatch.”
Today, the Speedmaster is no longer a single collection but rather a collection of eight distinct sub-series that bare the famous name. Together these are the Moonwatch, Speedmaster ’57, Mark II, Racing, Speedmaster, HB SIA, Skywalker X-33, and Spacemaster Z-33. Comprising many different movements, 10 case sizes, and anywhere from zero to three subdials, there are currently 80 different Speedmaster variations. For brevity, we’ll focus on two specific models — the Speedmaster ’57 and the Moonwatch Professional.
The Omega Speedmaster ’57 (Ref. 3188.8.131.52.01.002, below), introduced more than 50 years after the series’ initial release, features a steel bezel; dark gold-accented, broad-arrow hands; significantly straight lugs; and advanced mechanical functioning. All 17 Speedmaster ’57 models are equipped with the Calibers 9300 or 9301— the first two Omega in-house co-axial movements to include a chronograph function. In accordance with this technical feat, on top of the four-year functional expectancy, the movement is displayed through a sapphire caseback. The dial incorporates two subdials for seconds, minutes, and a 12-hour measure, and there is a date window at the 6 o’clock position. Other features to notice are the enlarged chronograph pushers, enlarged corporate and series logo, and a more detailed tachymetric scale. This particular reference is listed at $9,000.
This is a good watch. I could be more artisanal in the words I choose to describe it, but at the most basic level this is a really good watch. Is it the same as the original? No, but it does do quite a bit to match it. Details that were overlooked in the 1950s are now accented to a new definition, and all these changes came together in an attractive contemporary watch. And yet, the actual piece has a very different look from the original. In fact, there are so many differences between the vintage and modern variations of the watch that it almost seems odd that Omega refers to the modern watch as “’57.” The general color scheme and design are similar, but it’s three subdials versus two plus a date window; it’s an understated tachymeter, logo, and pushers versus a central component of the watch; even the steel bracelets are quite different. Maybe this is the natural progression of a timepiece, but considering it’s only a fifty-year hiatus, it seems an odd decision to make such dramatic and noticeable changes. (Click here for more detail on the Omega Speedmaster ’57.)
The Omega Moonwatch Professional remains arguably Omega’s most iconic watch since Buzz Aldrin touched the lunar surface. The modern edition (Ref. 3184.108.40.206.01.005, above) is powered like many of its predecessors by Caliber 1861, a manual-wound chronograph movement. The watch is featured in a 42-mm stainless steel case, utilizes the familiar black dial with silver and gray accents, and has three subdials measuring 12 hours, 30 minutes, and 60 seconds. The watch is surrounded by a black, non-engraved tachymetric scale bezel, and, of course, straight lugs. This piece is priced by Omega at $5,250.
The Moonwatch Professional line displays the continued production of a legendary watch. Omega stuck to its guns and has matured with age: the dial is aesthetically reminiscent of the original’s, and the movement has been altered only ever so slightly for precision, durability, and finesse. Truthfully, I can find little issue with the Professional. There is a reason why, since 1969, Omega Speedmaster watches have catered to every piloted mission by NASA to the moon. The watch has rightfully earned the honor, and continues to prove it by demonstrating both technical prowess and a timelessness few other watches have achieved.
But what is very easy to forget in these two watches is that they are, first of all, not alone within the Speedmaster lineage, but also not alone within their own sub-series. In my opinion, the ’57 and Moonwatch Professional are both great watches; they’ve remained faithful to their heritage and most of the technological and design changes to them have been to their contemporary benefit and kept the models relevant. The problem is that of the 20-or-so other pieces within the Moonwatch series (such as the model below), and the 16 alternatives within the ’57 series, not all of these watches adheres as closely to Omega’s time- and space-tested traditions.
Omega’s “a dynamic range of options” in its collection reads to me more like, “You want it? We’ve got it.” While each of the eight Speedmaster sub-series feature impressive examples of precision, design, and functionality, it seems to me that Omega is trying to capitalize inefficiently on a list of real accomplishments. Omega’s mechanical and historic merit can very well stand on its own without excessive embellishment and commercial exploitation. And yet, the dedication to quality in its manufacturing is plainly there. Given the aforementioned large range of options, celebrity endorsements, and frequent reminders of the watches’ accomplishments in space, one might assume the movements inside Omega’s cases were pedestrian. In reality, it couldn’t be more the opposite. Omega, in the Speedmaster line and beyond, continues to actively demonstrate its prowess in design and production; the utilization of the co-axial escapement — minimizing friction and guaranteeing the movement’s preservation for years without service — is nothing short of commendable.
It may not seem like it, but I have a real soft spot for Omega. It’s hard not to fall in love with the timelessness of the brand’s classic pieces, and for that reason I find myself wishing that Omega would proceed with more caution in its celebrity promotions, expansion of model options, and promotion of its own heritage. The Speedmaster was the first watch on the moon not because it had a color combination for every personality, or because George Clooney said it should be, but rather because it was the most suitable watch for the demanding task at hand. NASA, one of the most accomplished engineering organizations of all time, wanted a tool it could rely on and simply would not settle for any less. And so I ask, is that not enough?
For Part 9 of this series, in which I compare the vintage and modern Panerai Radiomir, click here.
Christian Zeron (who co-wrote this article) is the Founder, and Caleb Anderson is the Director of Outreach, at the online vintage and antique watch boutique theoandharris.com. Firstly watch enthusiasts and now professionals, Caleb and Christian constantly work to extend their knowledge and grow their circles to find, acquire, and offer hidden affordable gems they love to the public. Both New Jersey natives, the two are persistent students on all things historical, constant NYC diners, and longtime friends.