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Feature: The Omega Calibre 3861 Is Unbeatable

Usually, you’ll find me talking here about watches, but not today. Today we’re doing something different. We’re talking about a movement. And I think it’s the greatest movement you can get right now.

The Origins

Imagine you’re Omega. It’s the turn of the century, a new era of industrial revolution and things couldn’t be looking better. You make watches, pocket watches, that are simply unrivalled for cost and performance, and business is booming. From within the thick cigar smoke clouding your executive office overlooking the mountains and lakes of your beautiful homeland, it seems nothing could ruin this moment.

That is, of course, exactly the moment things go wrong. Recession, depression, bankruptcy and misery. The turmoil of war. A changing world, and not entirely for the better. Omega survived, but what emerged on the other side was a vastly different landscape. Like a person emerging from a thirty-year coma, Omega faced the biggest challenge of its near century of existence.

Everything Omega had built, everything it had engineered, had been destroyed. Not because of war or depression—but because of something very small indeed, barely a few centimetres across: the wristwatch. What had previously been considered effeminate had become the backbone of trench warfare, a wrist-worn timekeeper that superseded the need for clunky, cumbersome pocket watches.

This affected all watchmakers equally, but of course some had further to fall, and Omega was balanced precariously on top of the largest precipice of all. One foul step and it would go from hero to unrecognisable mush on the floor.

The problem was this: everything that made a pocket watch work needed to be shrunk by at least three times to fit inside a wristwatch. Not too much of an issue for a movement reading just the time, with barely a hundred components, but for a chronograph, with nearing on three hundred parts, it was a challenge that proved too much. Omega’s reputation was built around a complication it no longer had the ability to build.

The answer came in 1946 from a company that was very much at home in this new era: Lemania. Getting its start in 1884, Lemania wasn’t a watchmaker, but a movement maker. Hard going in the shadow of giants like Omega, but now … now the turns had tabled. Omega, cap in hand, had a proposition for Lemania. They would build a chronograph together.

The Watch It’s In

Whilst I can fully imagine that the birth of this new movement, project CH27 C12, was an exciting and nerve-wracking moment for both Omega and Lemania, little could these two know just how exciting the journey it was about to take would really be.

That’s because, as the movement evolved, it would become the calibre 321, a piece of technology that has carved a legacy not just in watchmaking, but in the pages of humanity. It sits alongside the gears in Stephenson’s Rocket, the pistons in the Wright Flyer and the titanium rivets in the SR-71 Blackbird. It is etched in time itself.

In 1957, the marriage of the calibre 321 with a new type of chronograph, the Speedmaster, was probably the single greatest decision ever made at Omega. Combined together, they passed every single test that could be thrown at them. Where others failed, the Speedmaster, complete with its calibre 321, succeeded. They met the requirement to become certified for manned space flight by none other than NASA.

And so, housed in its Speedmaster cocoon, the calibre 321 went on to go into space, to the moon, to serve as the mission timer when the lunar lander’s failed and to return the crew of Apollo 13 when disaster seemed certain. It never missed even one of the 50,000,000 beats that saw it through to the end of Apollo 17—and the end of an era.

But this movement hasn’t just found fame seeking answers on the far side of the moon. It’s precision and quality also drew attention from other watchmakers—indeed, the best watchmakers. Breguet used and continues to use a variant of the movement today. Vacheron Constantin has a license to and does produce the movement itself. Patek Philippe only became independent of it in 2010. It is, quite simply, remarkable.

The Incredible Value

The calibre 321, however, wasn’t forever. Cost efficiency saw significant changes to the structure of the movement, swapping the column wheel, a complex and expensive part to produce, with a simpler, cheaper cam system. The level of finishing was reduced, the quality of parts pared back—and even replaced with plastic. It was overbuilt and it didn’t need to be. If the calibre 321 was strong enough for NASA, it was too strong for the general public. It continued to serve under the Apollo program, but meanwhile, back on Earth, it made way for the cheaper 861 in 1968.

The calibre 861 was update to the calibre 1861 in 1996, with the addition of rhodium plating—and no more. Nothing else changed. That sounds bleak, but to be honest, its survival through the evolution into an electronic and digital age was extraordinary enough as it was. Omega made it through a world crisis for a second time, just, carried by the Seamaster’s presence in the Bond franchise. The journey to the moon was a long time ago, its legacy too weak to give the Speedmaster the movement it really deserved.

But there was a sliver of hope. For the most involved of collectors, Omega made a version of the 861 and 1861 that replaced the plastic parts with metal and received a finish more in keeping with its status as legend. These were the 863 and 1863, and they served as the weak but ever-present pulse in the lifeblood of the Speedmaster.

Fast-forward to 2019 and the landscape was looking green, lush and ripe. Seventy-three years after the inception of the movement, Omega revived the calibre 321, bringing that original design back to life part by part. Amazing news of course, but with a calibre 321 watch costing more than a Rolex Daytona, I believe this is more of a tangent to the true next chapter in the story of the movement.

That’s because, as well as the new calibre 321, Omega introduced the calibre 3861. This brought the workhorse 1861 together with the prettier 1863 to finally make them one and the same. Omega also made it easier to wind, more accurate, longer lasting and magnetically resistant. But more than that, the 3861 continued to offer incredible value for money, undercutting the Daytona by more than half.

That, to me, is what makes the 3861 unbeatable. You have the hand wound beauty of a movement that follows a legacy still alive and well in the watches of some of the greatest and most prestigious watchmakers to ever exist. You have the history of a machine that took humans to the moon and back again, that actively prevented the unthinkable from happening on more than one occasion. And most importantly, you have it in a watch that can be a realistic dream for many, many people. That’s what Omega set out to achieve in 1946 when it started on this road with Lemaina, and that’s what it continues to achieve with the 3861 today.

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