In this 50th anniversary year of the Apollo 11 moon landing, you’ve probably been hearing a lot about the first watch worn on the moon, the now-legendary Omega Speedmaster Professional. But there’s a lot more to Omega — among the best-known luxury watch brands on the planet, and certainly the best known off the planet — than its lunar milestone. From the Olympics to James Bond to the Mariana Trench, not to mention names like Speedmaster, Seamaster and Constellation, the brand has achieved well-deserved rock-star status among watch enthusiasts everywhere. Here are 10 things you should know about Omega.
1. What’s In a Name?
In 1848, Louis Brandt founded the company that would become Omega in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. In 1877, his sons Louis-Paul and César joined him, and the company name was changed to Louis Brandt & Fils. In 1894, the company produced a new movement that proved to be a global success, thanks to its timekeeping accuracy and ease of repair. The movement was known as the Omega caliber, and its success was such that in 1903, the company name was changed to Louis Brandt & Frére – Omega Watch Co., and the Omega brand name was born.
2. Precision Timing
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, before quartz and GPS, nations and industries depended on precise mechanical timepieces. To encourage improvements in this field, Observatory trials were held. These chronometric marathons tested timepieces of various types for extended periods, and the winners earned substantial publicity and bragging rights. Top manufacturers competed against each other head to head to win these Superbowls of watchmaking. Omega enjoyed tremendous success at these trials, setting numerous world records. At the 1931 Geneva Observatory trials, Omega won First Prize in all six categories. That same year, the company adopted the advertising slogan “Omega – Exact time for life.” That was not hyperbole, but a claim backed up by decades of Observatory trial results.
3. Exploring the Ends of the Earth
Who led the first surface expedition to reach the North Pole? Was it Robert Peary? Perhaps Frederick Cook? How about Ralph Plaisted? Chances are you’re not familiar with the last name, but you should be, because the story of who actually reached the North Pole first via an overland route is a fascinating one. You can read more about it here.
Of the three candidates, Plaisted seems the least likely to claim the title. He was an insurance salesman from Minnesota who was also an avid outdoorsman and snowmobiler. Friends said that if he liked the newly-invented snowmobile so much, he should drive one to the North Pole. And in what sounds like a modern made-for-GoPro story, he did. His party set out on the 412-mile trek from Canada’s Ward Hunt Island, not far from Peary’s start on Ellesmere Island. Riding snowmobiles and armed with Omega Speedmasters and sextants to track their location, they reached their final camp on April 19, 1968, after a 43-day trek. Plaisted’s team was the first to receive independent confirmation that it had actually reached the North Pole, when a U.S. Air Force C-135 flew overhead and confirmed their location. Today, many historians of polar exploration agree that Plaisted’s party was the first to reach the North Pole by an overland route.
At the other end of the planet, in February, 1990, Arved Fuchs and Reinhold Messner completed what some called the “last possible land journey on earth.” The pair crossed Antarctica on foot. The 1,740-mile journey took 92 days. Enduring temperatures of -40° F and winds exceeding 90 mph, they crossed the Thiel mountains to the South Pole, then continued on to McMurdo Sound on the Ross Sea. Messner’s timekeeper on this journey was an Omega Speedmaster.
4. Speedy in Space
In the autumn of 1962, a group of astronauts including Walter Schirra and Leroy “Gordo” Cooper walked into a watch shop in Houston looking for watches to use on their upcoming Mercury program flights. They left with Omega Speedmasters, and so began Omega’s history with space exploration.
At the end of the Mercury program the following year, astronauts approached NASA Operations Director Deke Slayton and asked to be issued with watches for use during training and flight. Their timing was perfect, because NASA had just hired a group of engineers to evaluate, test and certify equipment for use by astronauts. NASA eventually tested watches provided by Omega, Rolex, and Longines-Wittnauer. The tests were brutal, designed to test watches to destruction. On March 1, 1965, NASA selected the winner, certifying the Speedmaster reference ST105.003 “Flight Qualified for all Manned Space Missions”.
Fast forward to July 21, 1969.Neil Armstrong stepped off the Eagle to become the first human to stand on another world. However he was not wearing his watch. He left it on the Eagle, because the on-board clock was not working. A few minutes later, Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the Moon’s surface, wearing his watch, and the Omega Speedmaster Professional became the first watch to be worn on the Moon.
5. Master of the Sea
Omega launched the Seamaster line in 1948 to celebrate the brand’s 100th anniversary. That makes it the oldest line in the current collection, which also includes the Speedmaster, Constellation and De Ville. The Seamaster was loosely based on the watches Omega made for the British military at the end of World War II.
In 1957, Omega launched the Professional range of Seamaster watches with the debut of the Omega Seamaster 300. Jacques Cousteau’s team used the Seamaster 300 during its “Precontinent II” experiments in the Red Sea in the summer of 1963 to prove that divers could live in a submerged saturated gas environment for long periods without adverse effects. Military units, including the British Special Boat Service, chose the Seamaster 300 as their official watch.
As divers lived and worked at ever-greater depths, Omega began work on the famous “Ploprof” (PLOngeur PROFessionel, or “professional diver” in English) Seamaster 600, launched to the public in 1970 after four years of research and testing. During the R&D process, Omega tested the PloProf to 600 meters at the factory, and to 1,000 meters off the coast of Marseilles. In September, 1970, three COMEX divers wore the PloProf for eight days, working in the water four hours per day, at a depth of 250 meters. Cousteau’s divers also used the watches off the coast of Marseille during a set of experiments to test the effects on divers working at depths up to 500 meters. To this day, the Omega Seamaster name is synonymous with professional diving. (For our test of the modern Omega Ploprof, click here.) Earlier this year, a prototype Omega Seamaster model broke a record for depth resistance established by its competitor, Rolex, when it descended to the deepest known part of the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot on Earth; click here for the details.
6. Olympic Timing
Omega manufactured its first chronograph in 1898, and within 10 years, the timepieces had been used to measure time at more than 16 sporting competitions. After winning 1st place in all six categories at the 1931 Geneva Observatory trials, Omega’s reputation for accuracy led the International Olympic Committee to appoint Omega as the official timekeeper of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. This was the first time in Olympic history that one brand had been given the responsibility to time all events. The brand supplied 30 high-precision chronographs capable of measuring 1/10th of a second (an Olympics first), all of which had been certified as chronometers by the Observatory at Neuchâtel as well as the National Physics Laboratory in the United States. (The timekeepers at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam used their personal stopwatches.)
Even Omega’s advanced stopwatches did not eliminate Olympic controversy. In five different races, the winner and runner-up were recorded as having the same time. The most famous controversy involved the 100-meter dash and the duel between Ralph Metcalfe and Thomas Edward “Eddie“ Tolan. To the spectators, it appeared that Metcalfe won the race, and the timekeepers’ hand-held stopwatches recorded three times of 10.3 seconds for Metcalfe and two times of 10.3 and one of 10.4 seconds for Tolan. Yet Tolan was declared the winner, in an early Olympic “photo finish.”
A “Chronocinema“ camera filmed the end of each race, and it was used to record times to the nearest 1/100th of a second. The rules at that time stated that the winner was the first runner whose torso completely crossed the finish line, not the one whose torso reached the line first. After reviewing the film, the judges ruled that Tolan had won, fully crossing the line 5/100ths of a second ahead of Metcalfe.
This controversy presaged the need for ever more accurate timers, and methods of determining winners. Omega says that today, timing an Olympics requires several hundred professional timekeepers and data handlers, supported by up to a thousand specially trained local volunteers, all using some 400 tons of equipment, including scoreboards, miles of cables and optical fiber, and state-of-the-art timekeeping and data-handling technology, developed by Omega and adapted to the requirements of each sport. (One year out from the 2020 Tokyo games, Omega has introduced the first of its official Olympics watches; you can see them here.)
7. James Bond and Film
Over the years, James Bond has worn a couple of watch brands, but today, none is more closely associated with the storied franchise than Omega. The year 1995 marked two firsts for the famous agent: GoldenEye featured a new James Bond, played by Pierce Brosnan, and the Omega Seamaster debuted on his wrist. Since then, 007 has worn Omega in Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, Die Another Day, Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, and SPECTRE (in which Bond donned a new Omega Seamaster 300). Omega has revealed the official timepiece for the next Bond film, 2020’s No Time To Die; you can read about it here.
When it comes to James Bond wristwatch auction results, Omega Seamaster Planet Oceans hold the top two places. The top watch, used in the filming of Casino Royale, sold at the 2007 Antiquorum OmegaMania auction for CHF 250,250. A Seamaster Planet Ocean used in the filming of Skyfall sold at Christies’ “50 Years of James Bond” sale in 2012 for CHF 236,473.
Omega timepieces have appeared in many other films, including Up in the Air, Salt, War of the Worlds, The Bounty Hunter, The Right Stuff, Event Horizon, Millennium, Jack Reacher, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Ronin, Seven Years in Tibet, The Omega Man, and My Fellow Americans.
Of course, one of Omega’s most famous starring roles came in Apollo 13. The film documented the mission with the unlucky number that was cut short by an explosion that deprived the spacecraft of most of its oxygen supply and electric power. The film accurately portrays the astronauts wearing Omega Speedmasters, and the key role the Speedmaster played in getting the crew safely back to Earth. Due to the failure of an onboard electric timer, the astronauts relied on their Speedmasters to time critical burns (powering engines on and off). These burns had to be precisely the right duration to get the spacecraft pointed in exactly the right direction so that it could enter the atmosphere without bouncing off or burning up. The Speedmasters performed flawlessly, and the astronauts made it home safely.
8. The Kennedy Connection
Official brand ambassadors aside, Omega has proven a favorite of many world leaders and celebrities. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was often photographed wearing his gold Constellation Manhattan. In the aforementioned 1995 film My Fellow Americans, Jack Lemmon plays a former American President. At one point, Lemmon comments on his watch, saying “That’s a Constellation. It was given to me by Gorbachev!”
Pope John Paul II wore an Omega De Ville “Classic.” Elvis Presley was photographed wearing an Omega while in the service, stationed in Germany. Buddy Holly was wearing his white gold ultra-thin Omega when his plane crashed in February, 1959. Ringo Starr wore an Omega Constellation performing on stage with The Beatles.
One of the most famous owners was John F. Kennedy, who wore an Omega at his inauguration as America’s 35th president in January, 1961. The watch had been presented to Kennedy by a friend before the election. The back of the watch bears the inscription “President of the United States John F. Kennedy from his friend Grant.” Today, the watch is housed at the Omega Museum. Click here for more on Kennedy’s Omega watch, and other significant historical pieces.
9. The Co-Axial Escapement
As we have seen, from its early days, Omega has pursued precision timekeeping. One of the holy grails in this area is a very low-friction escapement. So it is no surprise that when renowned English watchmaker George Daniels developed his now-famous co-axial escapement, Omega would take up the challenge of putting it into large-scale production. Those efforts culminated with the 1999 launch of the Omega Co-Axial Caliber 2500. Omega touted the mechanism as the first practical new watch escapement to be invented in 250 years.
In 2007, Omega launched its proprietary Co-Axial Caliber 8500, citing the escapement’s low friction, mechanical efficiency, and timekeeping performance. The escapement is used in conjunction with a free-sprung balance, the preferred approach for fine watch movements. Omega’s confidence in the Co-Axial is such that every watch delivered with it is a COSC-certified chronometer, and it comes with a four-year warranty.
10. Conquering Magnetism
In 2013, Omega announced the creation of the world’s first movement that is resistant to magnetic fields greater than 15,000 gauss, far exceeding the levels of magnetic resistance achieved by any previous movement. Most anti-magnetic watches utilize a soft iron inner case which distributes electromagnetism in such a way that it cancels the effect on the movement. Omega’s approach was to design a movement in which the critical components are fashioned from non-ferrous materials, eliminating the need for an inner case and providing a far greater resistance to magnetic fields. Omega’s approach has the added benefits of allowing a date window on the dial, and a display back. Watches with inner cases can’t offer these attributes because each requires an opening in the inner case. At Baselworld 2015, Omega introduced its own “Master Chronometer” movement, which incorporated its pioneering antimagnetic technology, inside an all-new watch model, the Omega Globemaster. The brand has since gone on to outfit many other models with Master Chronometer movements, including an entirely new line of Seamaster Planet Ocean models in 2016.
(All images courtesy and copyright Omega. Used with permission.)
This article was originally published in 2014 and has been updated.