What do you say about a watch that has already had so much said and written about it? The Omega Speedmaster moon watch must rank as one of the most written and talked about watches in horological history. So, why another article for an already exhaustive lexicon? I certainly don’t have any unique or novel commentary to add to the myriad of reviews already written. This article is meant simply as an homage; a personal reflection.
I’m an avid watch collector (resources permitting!) and for me the Speedmaster is the piece that occupies an extraordinary place in my collection. It is my favourite watch. I know that many collectors struggle when asked which watch they would keep if they were forced to ditch all of their watches and only keep one. Not me! I answer without hesitation – my Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch! And it’s not like I don’t have some other really nice watches in the line-up from some storied and legendary watch brands. But the Speedmaster sits above them all – a clear and definite favourite.
So what, you might be thinking. Who cares about your favourite, or even whether you have a favourite. And you might be right. The world is not a better place because I have a favourite watch. But it is interesting to me because I don’t ordinarily have “favourite” things. I don’t have a favourite song or movie. If you asked about the favourite pen in my collection, I don’t think I could come up with one.
So why then is the watch question so easy. Well, you need to understand that there a couple of characteristics that are particularly desirable to me, Two essential factors that set apart watches that I’d really like to get my hands on from those that, whilst they may be excellent watches, just don’t have the x-factor I’m looking for. Once you understand those, the answer to the question of why the Speedmaster is my favourite watch is pretty obvious.
I guess it’s not enough for me to just like watches whose single purpose and design is to display the time. That would be way too easy. Even though the modern mainspring powered, escapement & balance wheel based mechanical watch movement or even the battery powered oscillating quartz crystal movement are technological marvels in and of themselves, I need more!!
I love watches that, apart from the time, offer additional functions or “complications” to aid in certain situations and use cases. Diving watches with rotating bezels which act to help a diver know when his or her air will run out is a simple but effective example. The chronograph is another albeit more complex example.
Often the “tool” aspect is less about the movement or complications and more about the form of the watch. And we’re not necessarily talking about haut horlogerie here. Take the humble G-Shock from Casio for instance which has a very well earned spot, for mine at least, in the tool watch hall of fame.
A watch becomes infinitely more desirable to me if it has a “story” of some historical significance associated with it. Some stories are relatively simple. The Seiko SKX007 became a modern classic by redefining the so-called “budget” dive watch. It’s story of combining excellent design with an ISO depth rating of 200m at a compelling price point, made it super credible with professional and amateur scuba divers alike. It also ultimately made it collectible.
A more polarising example is the Swatch Sistem51. Although criticised by many of the “cognoscenti”, the Sistem51’s story to me is one of innovation. Creating a movement out of 51 parts on one central screw with a 90 hour power reserve is, to me at least, an interesting story. Enough for me to go out and get one. Yes, I know they are basically disposable and the quality of the movement’s parts is garbage (or soon to be!). But I think concentrating on those issues misses the point of the Sistem51’s significance.
Fliegers or pilot watches produced for the Allied and Axis pilots and air crew during WW2 (and their modern reproductions, homages etc) are a perfect example of watches that have indelible historical associations. Personally, I wish there was never a need for these watches to be produced. In a way they reflect a tragic era in global history that I truly hope is never repeated. That is one way to look at it. I prefer to look at it another way. That admiring and desiring these watches is a way to honour and pay respect to the bravery, courage and sacrifice of so many young men and women.
Nowadays, some care needs to be exercised in looking for watches with history or historical significance. I’m certainly not the only one who values this quality and marketing departments are now quick to seize on any aspect of a watch’s background and amplify it, no matter how trivial, to bolster street cred and, naturally, sales.
The truth of it is, outside of war time military applications, there are very few storied or historically significant watches – still doesn’t stop me from searching though (To be clear, I’m not talking about individual watches here like, say, Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona.)
Of course high quality design and function also play a key part in a watches desirability – but I think that kinda goes without saying, n’est pas?
For me, there simply isn’t another watch that has both the historical significance and the tool watch cache of the Speedmaster. If you’re not familiar with its history then you’re probably in the wrong place… just jokes … kind of. Anyway, in case you’re not, the Speedmaster was the watch chosen by NASA for its space and lunar program astronauts. It became the first watch worn on the moon by Apollo 11 crew member, Buzz Aldrin. Interestingly, that one great leap for mankind made by Neil Armstrong was not made while wearing a Speedmaster. The crew decided to leave one watch behind because the lunar landing module’s mission timer had malfunctioned. Talk about the pinnacle of tool watch porn!!! . Although the first watch to be worn on the moon, it was not the first watch to be worn in space – that distinction goes to the Strela – a Russian watch worn by Alexey Leonov during the first space walk on 18 March 1965.
The Speedmaster line of chronograph watches was introduced by Omega in 1957. It was not originally designed for aerospace or aviation use; rather for sports and racing drivers. But in the early 1960s when NASA called for bids from watchmakers for a mechanical chronograph to be worn by its astronauts, Omega submitted a Speedmaster Professional for consideration. Along with watches from Longines-Wittnauer and Rolex, the Speedmaster was put to the test in some very extreme conditions. And I mean extreme. NASA did not muck around. The watches were subject to rigorous temperature, humidity, shock, vibration, pressure, and linear acceleration tests to name but a few. The high temp test, for instance, subjected the watches to 48 hours at 71 degrees Celsius followed by 30 mins at 93 degrees Celsius!
No spoiler alert is needed to let you know that the winner and the watch selected by NASA was the Speedmaster Professional. On 23 March 1965 the first officially qualified Speedmasters were worn by Gus Grissom and John Young on Gemini 3. The rest, as they say, is history…
If you’d like to read more on the Speedmaster’s interesting place in history, here are a few excellent resources:
Another very appealing aspect of the Speedmaster is that, even up until today, the basic design and look of the Speedmaster that was worn on the Moon (Ref 105.012) has remained largely unchanged. The only major changes being to the movement. For many years, decades in fact, the Speedmaster moonwatch housed the legendary column-wheel chronograph caliber 321. In 1988 Omega, facing financial and competitive pressure, replaced the caliber 321 with a less expensive and less complicated cam-controlled chronograph, the caliber 861.
It’s the watch that ticks every one of my boxes and with big, bold, red ticks. Sure I have other tool watches with some historical significance, including a Breitling Cosmonaut re-issue of the watch worn by Scott Carpenter in 1962 when he flew a Mercury 7 space mission. It’s a far more expensive watch with a gorgeous and rare in house caliber. Of course I love it and there’s a pretty funny story that goes along with the night I purchased it, but the Speedie has it pipped. The Speedmaster just has a design and function aesthetic that is unsurpassed and for me, unsurpassable. Even if it didn’t have the historical status, I would still love it. But it does and when I look at the whole package that is the Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch, I see what is now and forever will be, my favourite watch.