Evolution of the Omega Speedmaster: From the moon landing to the new models in 2017

It is the 60th anniversary of a properly iconic watch, the Omega Speedmaster. Given how well the Speedy started the year, now’s a good time to look back…and ahead

Apr 02, 2017 | By Staff Writer

The new 2017 Omega Speedmaster Racing Master Chronometer

Consider a minor curiosity: the Moon has many names across all cultures but its only proper name is the Moon. In fact, it is always “the Moon” and never just Moon so it isn’t really a name at all. There are 18 other moons in our solar system large enough to be gravitationally rounded and all of them have names. The reason the other moons have names is well known – each was named by the person (or team) who discovered it. Obviously, no one discovered the Moon. It was just always there, visible to all yet completely out of reach. On July 20, 1969 at 20.56 Houston time (0256 GMT) that changed dramatically as US astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. In Switzerland, the watchmakers at Omega rejoiced as the Omega Speedmasters worn by Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first Moon watches.

Built for Speed, Bound for Space

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. Note the footprints and dust trail

This was the event that put the Omega Speedmaster on the map but of course, Omega had introduced the Speedmaster way back in 1957, adding to the Seamaster and Railmaster models already in the collection. That first series was powered by a Lemania movement — Omega owned Lemania at the time — designed by Albert Piguet, with a case designed by Pierre Moinat. It was most certainly not designed for use in space, even though the year it was launched coincides with the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik 1. The tachymetre scale on the bezel tells us clearly enough, as if the name didn’t, that this chronograph was made for petrolheads. Crucially, the watch was also built tough, marking the first time a chronograph wristwatch was built to withstand rigorous challenges while also allowing drivers to time their laps with ease.

Astronaut Eugene Cernan on the final Moon mission in 1972

Watch historians and Omega itself have speculated that these characteristics, more specifically the toughness part, that allowed the Speedmaster to make it into the space programme. Piguet and Moinat are just two of the people who should be remembered for making a watch tough enough to withstand the rigors of space and indeed the rigors of NASA’s stress tests!

The story of the Moon landing, and the narrative of space flight during the earlier NASA Mercury and Gemini missions have so overshadowed the origins of the watch that some even believe that this chronograph model was purpose-built for NASA. On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Speedmaster, Omega is even commemorating it with the adventures in the great beyond taking the lead. Ambassador and space enthusiast George Clooney has already been seen in ads on YouTube and the like. If you love space adventures, you’ll find it oddly moving to hear how, as an eight-year-old, he was looking at the Moon to see if he could see the landing with the naked eye in his suburban backyard with his father. Little did he know though that like the astronauts he so desperately wanted to spot, his father was wearing an Omega so he was in fact, closer than he thought to the action.

Omega’s space odyssey began with NASA and was entirely at the space agency’s independent initiative. Historians note that NASA declared the Omega Speedmaster as its official timekeeper in 1965, ahead of the Gemini 3 launch. Nevertheless, there’s a legendary story, well known among watch fans and collectors that Omega only learned that the Speedmaster had been making trips to space when the firm’s executives or watchmakers saw a photograph of astronaut Ed White taking the US’s first spacewalk in 1965. His Speedmaster was attached to his arm via a long nylon strap secured with Velcro. One can only imagine how Omega employee’s felt. In later years, Omega would proudly tell the story of how NASA officials simply walked into a store in 1965 and bought the Omega watches the agency needed.

Where it all started, the Broad Arrow created in 1957

Changing Times

From 1957, right through to the space mission, Omega used the manual-winding Lemania Calibre 321, with column wheel and horizontal clutch. In fact, this calibre had been in service at Omega since 1942, gaining in the Speedmaster in 1964 important anti-magnetic elements. It is important to note that it was calibre 321 that powered both Armstrong and Aldrin’s Speedmasters in 1969 as Omega made a crucial change to the Speedmaster in 1968. The 1965 Speedmaster that the astronauts wore was also the first time the now-familiar asymmetric case debuted. The word Professional appeared on the dial for first time in this historic model, after White’s spacewalk.

In 1968, Omega switched out the Calibre 321 for Calibre 861, an arguably even tougher movement as it used the cam-lever system instead of the column wheel, something a collector once called “virtually indestructible”. Being that this was the first model officially called the Moonwatch, it is the ancestor of all Moonwatches and is linked in an unbroken line to even the current edition.

Omega Speedmaster 38mm

One of two models revealed ahead of BaselWorld 2017 in the Speedmaster range, this one returns to the dimensions of the 1957 piece. In fact, it is a little smaller — the 1957 Speedmaster was 39mm — because this is a ladies’ model, with a diamond-paved bezel. Cased in a combination of steel and Sedna gold, the watch stays the Speedmaster course with an aluminium inner bezel that retains the distinctive tachymetre. Of course, the tri-compax layout is here to stay (albeit in oval form now), with the addition of an oval date window at 6 o’clock. The pushers, crown and gem-set bezel are on Sedna gold while the rest of the case is in steel, with taupe brown leather strap. The steel caseback is stamped with the Seahorse medallion, protecting the in-house Co-Axial self-winding calibre 3330.

Omega Speedmaster Racing Master Chronometer

There are plenty of Speedmasters to choose from for inspiration for this new stainless steel 44.25mm watch. Here the watchmakers turned to a colourful 1968 Speedmaster, sometimes called the Racing Dial model. Unfortunately, the old tri-compax layout has been retired in this latest model, which might actually work in favor of legibility. Some contemporary Speedmasters have eschewed the tri-compax layout because calibre 9900 allows for both the elapsed hours and minutes to be tracked on a single dial, which is arguably more intuitive than using separate subdials. This makes sense here given that the old Racing Dial model was said to have included bicolour minute markers, red hands and orange logo to improve legibility. Well, Omega pretty much says it has no recorded reason for creating this model so we may never have a definitive answer. The colours used here are limited to orange, white and black so things are altogether more restrained in 2017 than they were in 1968, evidently. It is worth noting that this watch has achieved the Master Chronometer certification, an independent honour from METAS.

This story was first published in WOW Spring 2017.

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