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

When it comes to popularity, it turns out the bronze medal goes to none other than good, old Omega. It may have come in third, but you’re about to hear three good reasons why it’s tops. And if you like what you see, you’ll get more great stories about this fascinating watchmaker right here on our blog. So, Omega—what have you done for me lately?

Omega Was Named By A Banker

As watch names go, Omega is a pretty good one. Short, simple, concise, free of clutter and in no way verbose, it is exactly the opposite of this sentence. You say it, Omega, and it rolls off the tongue. It’s nice to say; perhaps even nicer than Rolex.

But Omega hasn’t always been called Omega. Back in the day, when Omega was founded, watch brands just didn’t have brand names. They were simply titled after the people who made them. In this case, that was Louis Brandt. The year was 1848, the moon landings for which Omega has become so famous were well over a century away. Louis Brandt made watches and so it was the Louis Brandt watch company.

Turns out that Brandt’s watches were pretty popular. After moving to a factory in Bienne, Brandt was able to consolidate a lot of watchmaking processes under the one roof, giving him full control over production, yielding movements produced to higher tolerances and therefore precision. And rather than giving his calibres a reference number, Brandt chose to name them instead. One of them was called, of all things, Labrador.

By the turn of the century, the business had 800 employees turning out a quarter-million watches per year. It was the biggest watchmaker in all of Switzerland. And it was all thanks to a new movement, produced in series, that was built to such high tolerances that its components could be interchanged without modification.

Before then, parts were built with such inconsistency that they had to be modified to fit. This was true of watchmaking generally. Brandt’s new movement made that a thing of the past, and so it needed a name, an especially epic one. This was a movement to end all movements. The company banker, Henri Rieckel, suggested Omega. It was such a good title, it not only stuck, it replaced the name of the company, too. Just as well the Labrador movement wasn’t any better.

The First Watch Worn To The North Pole Was An Omega

There are few things about watches that many non-watch people know, and one of those few things is which watch was worn on the moon. The Omega Speedmaster’s intrepid journey into space and to our lunar neighbour is perhaps one of the best documented in the entire ecosystem of watches, and why the Speedmaster continues on today in a state almost untouched. There’s not another watchmaker in the segment that could get away with selling a manually wound chronograph.

But as far as firsts go, it’s not the only one for Omega. Still within the theme of dangerous journeys to inhospitable places, the Speedmaster went somewhere new for the very first time just a year before those famous moon landings that was somewhere wholly more terrestrial.

Now, I want you to understand the relevance of where that was in the context of its time. 1968, just one year before man set foot almost 400,000km away on the moon, there had been no confirmed journey to the North Pole ever achieved. There were claims, but no proof, and so on the eve of humanity’s greatest achievement, the conquest of the North Pole remained unchecked.

People had flown over it and parachuted down to it, but no one had ever made it there overland. It was just too deadly. Put it this way: no one’s had to eat anyone in the pursuit of space exploration just yet. A novel for Andy Weir, perhaps. Ralph Plaisted, a high-school dropout turned insurance salesman, reckoned he was in with a chance.

Not only did he and his three friends Walt Pederson, Gerry Pitzl and Jean-Luc Bombardier attempt the expedition, they succeeded—and no one got eaten. Presumably keen to see the intrepid group return alive, many companies, including Omega, supplied them with equipment. If the Speedmaster was good enough for space, it was more than ideal for the polar romp. In Ralph’s typical carefree manner, he wrote Omega on his return to say of the watches, “They’re great!”

Omega’s Co-Axial Escapement Nearly Went To Rolex

It’s important for every good watch brand to have its thing, its USP, its point of differentiation. Some brands have several, like Rolex’s Oyster case and Perpetual movement. For Omega, one of those somethings is its Co-Axial escapement, a mechanism lauded as the biggest innovation in watchmaking since Thomas Mudge came up with the idea it replaced all the way back in 1754.

It all comes down to the beating heart of the mechanism, the part that controls the ticks and tocks to make sure there’s not too many or too little of each. The parts in charge of this process are so small you could accidentally eat them and be none the wiser, yet they are not only incredibly important in the accurate operation of a watch, but also mind-numbingly complicated too.

These pieces mesh together and push each other apart with such incredible precision that, once they’re stopped, they are locked in place. Like a Formula 1 engine has tolerances so fine it must be in a perfect state of equilibrium to operate, so too is a watch escapement. One man, George Daniels, looked at this two-century old innovation that had remained basically unchanged the whole time and thought, “I can do better.”

And, you know what—he did. An extra part, a different design, a more complex way of thinking and he removed the one major flaw of the Swiss lever escapement: friction. His method didn’t need the parts to rub against one another, introducing wear and requiring lubrication. His method was as close to perfect as watchmaking had ever been. It was a Co-Axial escapement.

That’s the technology Omega uses today, that Daniels sold to them in 1994. But Omega wasn’t the only watchmaker Daniels pitched to. Hedging his bets, he’d fitted a Rolex, Patek Philippe and Zenith with Co-Axial escapements in the hopes of cashing in. But fate had its own ideas: the first watch to ever receive a Co-Axial escapement was Daniels’ own all the way back in 1975—rather befittingly, an Omega.

You know the drill—if you enjoyed this, you’ll enjoy the other articles we’ll be posting right here on watchfinder.com as well, why not check them out?

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