Feature: Omega Speedmaster vs Rolex Daytona
Walk into your nearest Omega boutique and chances are very high you’d be able to walk out again, wallet lighter, with a Speedmaster on your wrist. Not so Rolex’s Daytona, not unless you’re willing to pay the premium for precious metals. But is history about to change?
Actually, the question shouldn’t be, ‘Is history about to change?’, more like, ‘Is history about to repeat itself?’ A Daytona may be the wrist-worn commodity of the moment—well, the last few decades, really—but that hasn’t always been the case. There was once a time when—if you can believe it—the Daytona was considered a bit of a dog.
Consider this: there was even a time when the Daytona didn’t exist at all. Obviously, that’s the case, but what I mean is that there was a period when the Speedmaster existed, but the Daytona didn’t. What you had was Omega, this giant of Swiss watchmaking, steering the industry with its 1957 triple threat ‘Professional’ collection, which consisted of the Railmaster, Seamaster and Speedmaster.
It was destined to be a killer blow for Rolex, who’d got the jump on Omega with the Submariner, the small, young company lithe enough to bring a proper dive watch to market ahead of its biggest competitor. But what Omega lacked in speed it made up for in impact, laying all three Professional watches on Rolex’s doorstep at once.
The knockout punch was the Speedmaster. This was before computer aided design, automated machining and other technology that gave smaller companies the ability to develop new movements, so although Rolex could turn around multiple new watches based on the Turn-O-Graph design, including the Submariner and GMT-Master, it was limited by the movements offered by supplier Aegler.
Not so for Omega. It had the finances available to enter into a joint development with movement manufacturer Lemania to build a new chronograph movement from scratch, the 321. This new calibre boasted features like a lateral clutch, column wheel, anti-shock—the kind of tech Rolex could only dream of developing itself.
To demonstrate the scale of this undertaking, even big-hitters like Breguet, Vacheron Constantin and even Patek Philippe used the 321 under licence rather than develop their own movements—even now, Patek Philippe is the only one of those three to have moved on from it.
So, imagine Rolex’s surprise when the Speedmaster landed, a great big chunky sports watch to end all sports watches. By comparison, Rolex’s 6238 was weedy and old-fashioned, and Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf knew something needed to be done, and fast. Unfortunately, he died before that could happen—his legacy, however was about to get a whole lot worse before it got better.
We assume that the Cosmograph Daytona has always been a popular watch, but with the Speedmaster getting the NASA gig, the fresh Rolex chronograph was left somewhat in no-man’s land. People didn’t want to buy it, jewellers didn’t want to sell it—there are even rumours of Daytonas being given away as incentives for other purchases.
The bigwigs at Omega must have been feeling pretty pleased with themselves, but the company’s ability to throw big money at a problem ultimately spelled its near-demise. When cheap quartz technology really took hold over the next few decades, Omega tried everything in a desperate attempt to stay technologically relevant, diluting the brand and pursuing an outcome it could never afford to sustain. A Swiss company just couldn’t make watches cheap enough.
Rolex didn’t completely ignore the problem, but its options were much more limited—which ultimately maintained the focus of the brand and earned it a strong reputation as a collector’s favourite when mechanical watches started to become popular again. Now it was Rolex’s time to shine, and it has done ever since.
So, to repeat the question, ‘Is history about to repeat itself?’. Omega has dined out on the Moonwatch aspect of the Speedmaster long enough for us to forget the watch was originally a sports watch, for timing racing—in particular, motor racing. It’s why the Speedmaster Racing collection exists, and I’m sure you’ll agree, the similarities with the Daytona are striking.
Like how that first Cosmograph aped the Speedmaster’s chunky case, external bezel and uncluttered dial, now it’s Omega’s turn to draw inspiration. Both the modern Daytona 116500 LN and the Speedmaster Racing are available with ceramic bezels, white dials with black-ringed sub-dials and a little splash of colour, and even the movements are closely spec’d as well. Even though Rolex’s calibre 4130 is some decade or so older than Omega’s 9900, its advanced design has kept it relevant.
Besides a knock here and a blow there, like Rolex’s 72-hour power reserve over Omega’s 60, Omega’s silicon balance spring over Rolex’s Parachrom, Rolex’s COSC certification over Omega’s METAS, these two watches stand shoulder to shoulder—and I doubt that’s an accident. But is it enough?
All things being equal, why would anyone buy the Omega over the Rolex? Well, it’s over £3,000 less at £6,320 for a start, and you can actually get a hold of one. Rolex got the jump on Omega in the premium watch market just like it got the jump in the dive watch market, and this Speedmaster is once again part of Omega’s retaliation, one of an arsenal of recent product launches aimed at doing Rolex better than Rolex. It worked last time—perhaps it’ll work again?
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