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Feature: 3 More Things You’ve Got To Know About Omega

So, you think you know all about Omega? So did we until we looked a little closer for our Omega In Focus week. As well as what you’ll learn here today, there’s plenty more to discover right here on our blog. Right then, Omega—lets wring out those secrets …

Omega Didn’t Know The Speedmaster Officially Went To Space

If the Bond connection comes in second place, perhaps the most well-known fact about Omega is that its Speedmaster went to space. And not just to space, but the moon. You’ll have heard that was the first watch worn on the moon. Not by the first man to walk on the moon—Neil Armstrong had to leave his in the lunar lander to stand in for the faulty mission timer—but by Buzz Aldrin, and second comes right after first.

You may have also heard of the Speedmaster’s very real, mission-critical role in bringing the crew of Apollo 13 back to Earth by timing a manual, fourteen-second fuel burn that could have, if mistimed, sent them to their doom. In both of these scenarios—the moon landing and the safe return of Apollo 13—the Speedmaster didn’t just sit idly by as some piece of product placement—it served as an invaluable member of the crew. You just can’t make it up.

So, you may have also heard about the extraordinary lengths NASA went to ensuring the watch its astronauts were issued with was the right tool for the job. Every piece of equipment was tested to the extreme, and the watches the astronauts would wear were no exception, being boiled, frozen, squashed, shaken and even played loud noises at. Several watches had already been into space unofficially as personal choices of previous astronauts, and the Speedmaster had been one of them, Wally Schirra wearing his own personal CK 2998 as he orbited the Earth six times for the Mercury-Atlas 8 mission.

What you might not know is that this NASA selection and testing process was conducted in complete secret. The race to the moon was a heavily classified operation for NASA, and so whilst the watches were officially solicited from the brands, despite popular myth, their intended usage wasn’t entirely clear. Ordered through the brands’ North American distributors, the news somehow didn’t make its way back to Omega HQ.

After those gruelling tests, it was the Speedmaster that won out, as we well know, and more were ordered. The Speedmaster entered space as NASA’s official watch for the first time on the wrists of Gus Grissom and John Young for the March 23rd 1965 mission, Gemini 3, but still the news didn’t quite find its way to Omega HQ. It wasn’t until the heavily publicised shots of Ed White wearing the Speedmaster a few months later during the first American spacewalk of Gemini 4 that Omega HQ cottoned on to the fact their watch had been chosen. That’s when a presumably chuffed Omega added the word “Professional” to the dial.

Omega’s Most Impressive Watch Was Only Sold In Japan

Omega is one of the greatest and most successful watchmakers in the world, building high-quality watches at a competitive price that are both functional and beautiful. That’s how it became the largest watchmaker in all of Switzerland in the early 1900s, and how it managed to survive the quartz crisis of the 1970s. It’s a thing of legend, one that continues to exist today in a hallowed space enjoyed by only a few watchmakers.

What it isn’t, however, is a master watchmaker. Unlike the Patek Philippes and Vacheron Constantins of the world, Omega’s modus operandi has been aimed squarely at putting simple, reliable watches on the wrists of as many people as possible, rather than building low volume, high complication pieces for a select few customers. And that’s fine. The world needed good watches. You can imagine, however, that the watchmakers at Omega sometimes look wistfully over at the other buildings nearby that host these masters, wishing they could count themselves amongst the greats.

Occasionally, very, very occasionally, that wish comes true. In 1984, Omega released a special edition watch celebrating its founder, Louis Brandt, that featured none other than a full perpetual calendar. And again in 1991, as part of a wider collection, Omega released another homage to Louis Brandt with the flagship piece again housing a full perpetual calendar, moonphase, leap year and all.

But neither of those perpetual calendar watches were the most complicated Omega ever made. That honour goes to a little-known limited edition of just 50 pieces to honour the 700th anniversary of the Swiss Confederation. In a solid yellow gold Speedmaster case and containing the calibre 1160, developed jointly with ETA and Kelek, it boasts not only a perpetual calendar, but a chronograph as well. The case back reads the name of Switzerland in the three languages most commonly spoken there, German, French and English, as well as a commemoration of the date Switzerland was established, 1291.

Pretty interesting, I’m sure you’ll agree, and incredibly rare—but none of those factoids are the strangest thing about it. Considering this watch was built in Switzerland to the highest degree of Swiss watchmaking to celebrate Switzerland as a nation, I’m sure you will, as I did, find it surprisingly odd that this limited edition was only sold in Japan.

Omega Made The First Dive Watch You Could Buy

Think seminal dive watches and what comes to mind? Perhaps the 1936 Panerai Radiomir, based on an oversized Rolex Oyster pocket watch case and made to glow underwater by use of Panerai’s patented Radiomir paint? Or perhaps Blancpain’s 1953 Fifty Fathoms, which set the benchmark for operation with its external rotating bezel for all future dive watches?

Both examples here are bound by a common theme: they were not, at least originally, commercially available. These were commissioned prototypes explicitly for military use, the cutting edge of technology and not for your average Joe on the street. It wasn’t until 1954 when Rolex’s Submariner found itself up for sale on the high street that this dive watch tech became available to all.

It’s strange now to think of a waterproof watch being considered cutting edge technology when we have electrical devices like phones now that can be submerged, but back then it was a real leap forward. Even to this day, the incredibly harsh environment of the sea means that some 80% remains unexplored. And in the first half of the 20th century, watch tech wasn’t just improving for the sake of it; it was meeting a commercial need to go deeper than ever before.

But contrary to what you might think, the Submariner wasn’t the first dive watch to be sold to the general public. In fact, the Radiomir wasn’t the first dive watch at all. Alarmed by the shock release of Rolex’s water-resistant Oyster watch in 1926, which was very publicly promoted during a record-attempt swim across the channel, Omega set to work on its own. Only it wouldn’t be suitable to wear just under the surface; it would be able to go all the way down.

This set a precedent for a rivalry that continues to this day, and in much the same fashion. Both Rolex and Omega have fought for the deep time and time again, and time and time again Omega has always taken the complicated route. Deepsea Challenge to Planet Ocean Ultra Deep, Sea-Dweller to PloProf, Submariner to Seamaster—where Rolex keeps things simple, Omega has to go the extra mile.

And it was no different for the 1932 Omega Marine. Where Rolex had simply sealed its Oyster watch with screw threads, a practice used almost universally today, Omega’s Marine comprised of two cases, an inner and an outer, which slipped together one over the other and were held in place with a fastening clip. It was sealed with cork and even came with a diver’s extension on the clasp. It was complicated but, I suppose, effective; tested in Lake Geneva, just down the road from where Omega was based, it made it 73m down. And that was only for starts, because five years later, it was pressure tested in a lab and found to be capable of depths up to 135m. That’s 35m more than the first Submariner, over two decades earlier.

With Omega done, who could be next? Find out what brand gets the second slot for our penultimate In Focus week and don’t forget to read up on this and our previous weeks right here on See you next time.

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