Rolex Daytona vs Omega Speedmaster Ceramic
It’s a fast-moving world. Child pop star Justin Bieber is now in his mid-twenties, the iPhone is over a decade old and Barack Obama has been out of office for over a year. For luxury brands, it’s becoming more important than ever to stay relevant and fresh. So, as Rolex, a watchmaker that sees evolution and revolution as synonymous, takes its time to give the public what it wants, there’s an opportunity presented for other brands to catch up. But has that already happened?
Following the introduction of the ceramic bezel on the Rolex 2005 GMT-Master II—two years before the launch of the inaugural iPhone—it took over a decade for that material tech to make it to the brand’s flagship chronograph offering. That’s slow going even by Rolex’s standards, especially considering that ceramics have been used in watchmaking since the sixties.
Here’s what you need to understand, though: in 2005, the Rolex Daytona was the hottest watch on the market. More so than the Patek Philippe Nautilus, and way more so than the new ceramic GMT-Master II. The 116520 had waiting lists that spanned months, even years, with secondary prices skyrocketing with demand. The 116520 Daytona launched in 2000 with a price of around £5,000, and by the time it was discontinued it was changing hands for two-to-three times that. It’s an applecart anybody would be wary of upsetting.
The Rolex Daytona received a ceramic bezel in 2016
But while the accountants at Rolex were counting their lucky stars, finally seeing a return on a model that had, for the first time in a half-century, finally managed to make them some money, there was a rumbling in the distance. You see, once quartz hit in the 70s, knocking mechanical watchmaking from its top spot, the whole industry needed a rethink. Audemars Piguet had the solution: if mechanical watches were no longer needed, then they had to be desired.
This is something Rolex understood very quickly. Where other watchmakers tried persistently to revolutionise, stay relevant, Rolex embraced something that, these days, has become the beat that luxury watchmakers march to: heritage. It’s funny, because companies like Omega and Breitling patently have, on paper, far greater histories than Rolex, but in the sweeping decimation of the quartz crisis, these brands sacrificed looking backwards to try and focus twenty-twenty on looking forwards. At the time, there was no saying what was right and what was wrong; hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Omega went a step further with the all-ceramic Speedmaster Dark Side of the Moon
But lessons have been learned, and there’s been time to regroup. It’s a different time. Mechanical watches have been established as a desirable luxury item for long enough that heritage just doesn’t cut it on its own any more. That’s why, while Rolex announced it would be changing the Daytona’s bezel from steel to ceramic, Omega took it to a whole other level. This is the Omega Speedmaster Dark Side of the Moon, the rumbling in the distance.
Quick catch up: what is ceramic? Quite simply, it’s an inorganic, non-metallic solid created with heat. The Greeks called it keramikos from their own word, keramos, meaning pottery. Contrary to popular understanding, pottery is actually the collective name for clay-based ceramic materials, and it’s been used in this way for tens of thousands of years; the earliest known example, a 30,000 year-old figurine called The Venus of Dolní Vestonice, survives today. It’s tough stuff, and that’s why, in the 1940s, scientists turned their attention to what they called ‘technical ceramics’.
The Daytona is powered by the classic in-house calibre 4130
The result was zirconium dioxide, ZrO2. You may know its cubic crystalline form as cubic zirconia, the diamond simulant. With heat, zirconium dioxide’s structure becomes ordered, resulting in an opaque ceramic that, in the last decade, has become a staple of watchmaking. Why? Hardness. It’s used for bearings, knife blades and even dentures. It registers at a solid 8.5 on the mohs scale, double that of steel, a fraction less than sapphire and diamond. It’s lightweight, scratchproof and fade resistant.
With all that in mind, Omega has gone several steps further than Rolex with its commitment to zirconium dioxide. The Dark Side of the Moon has a ceramic bezel like the Daytona, and adds a ceramic case. No big deal, ceramic cases are no new thing. Rado, IWC and many others have done that for ages. But there’s more. The pushers are ceramic. The crown, too. Even the dial, sheltered under a layer of sapphire, is ceramic, here in all black.
Side by side, the Rolex’s 904L steel seems rather pedestrian. Only £500 separates the two watches, and on paper at least, the Omega offers more for that spend. Add to that the co-axial, virtually frictionless escapement with free sprung, antimagnetic silicon balance in the calibre 9300, and the Speedmaster’s spec list really seems to shine. It seems like Omega has not only caught up with Rolex, but actually overtaken.
The twin barrel, co-axial calibre 9300 is Omega’s chronograph movement
But it’s not so cut and dry. Rolex’s calibre 4130 may not sit on show behind a big, shiny sapphire viewing window, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing. Omega’s 9300 boasts twin barrels for a 60-hour power reserve, but the Rolex quietly ticks on for 72 hours, despite nearly 5mm less in overall thickness and diameter, so it’s a testament to Rolex’s design that the 4130 is so compact. And while Omega extends service intervals to 6–8 years for co-axial watches, Rolex quietly lets us know that the typical Rolex customer waits 10 years before having their watch refreshed. Really, the calibre 4130 deserves a viewing window of its own.
Omega has come a long, long way in the last decade. It’s a miraculous recovery from a company that came dangerously close to vanishing altogether, and it’s really starting to get into its stride. It may not have Rolex licked yet, but it’s offering some proper competition, matching and even surpassing Rolex in some respects. Rolex may have got the jump on everyone after the quartz crisis, but that advantage is being eroded day by day—and it can’t last forever. Will the next decade, as Bieber enters his thirties, see a change in the tide? We’ll have to wait and see.
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Other watches you may be interested in: Omega Speedmaster Racing Rolex Submariner Breitling Avenger II GMT