Feature: The Omega Moonwatch Is The Greatest Watch Ever Made
Look, I’m just going to come right out and say it. Of all the watches ever made and still being made, I think the Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch is the greatest. That’s a bold claim, I won’t deny it. Hear me out.
Have you ever noticed how most watch brands are just the names of the geezers that founded them? Breitling, Breguet, Heuer, Patek Philippe—all totems of the people that brought the brands into existence. That’s not exclusive to watchmaking either. There’s Charles Rolls and Henry Royce, William Boeing and Henry Hoover.
People who made stuff weren’t marketeers—marketing back then really just meant taking your stuff to the market and shouting louder than the guy next to you—they were inventors, creators and business owners, and it made sense to them just to slap their name on the front.
It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that marketing really took off as the world shrank and competition grew. It wasn’t enough to shout louder than the person next to you. As people got wealthier and began to enjoy a new-fangled concept called “leisure”, businesses needed to win over hearts as well as minds.
Why am I telling you this and what’s it got to do with Omega? Because that’s exactly where the name Omega came from. The watchmaker was originally called Louis Brandt & Sons when it was founded in 1848, and they had a mind to do things a little differently.
Up until then, many watchmakers employed a system of outsourcing for its movements whereby each component would be made by different suppliers, often individuals who did the work in their own homes to subsidise their incomes during the harsh Swiss winters.
This process meant the parts fit worse than my pants post-Christmas, and each one would have to be bodged to work. But the Brandts had other ideas; they put enormous investment into a factory that vertically integrated every stage of the process, from the foundry to the assembly and everything else in between. It was an idea borrowed from the American watchmakers like Hamilton and Howard, who were capable of producing high quality, affordable watches at enormous volume.
There were in fact fifteen separate departments in the business, a setup that former Howard Director Florentine Ariosto Jones had employed a few years before when he established IWC. Where IWC fell bankrupt however, the Brandts flourished, their new, high-quality movement, capable of bringing accuracy to the masses, the first to be christened by the firm with an actual name: yes, they called that movement … Labrador.
Okay, so their naming game wasn’t exactly on top form, but their watchmaking game was stellar. The first minute repeater wristwatch, the grand prize at the universal expo, official timekeeper for the prestigious Gordon Bennett cup—the accolades rolled in one after another, all thanks to its canine complication.
But laurels aren’t for resting on, and so the Brandts unveiled their new movement in 1894, one that could not only be assembled with precision parts without modification but serviced anywhere in the world as well. This calibre was the breakthrough that gave the watchmaker its golden opportunity, titled as the movement to end all movements, but really the one that was just the beginning: Omega.
Omega’s story is very different to many other watchmakers, Rolex included. It was built on a foundation of quality, precision and refinement, which in many ways cost it dearly. Louis Brandt and Sons was rechristened Omega in 1903, two years before Rolex was founded, in a commitment to making the best watches possible.
When the Speedmaster was first unveiled as part of a trilogy of watches in 1957, it was the first of its kind. Whilst the Railmaster and Seamaster that sat alongside it were answers to Rolex’s Submariner and Explorer that had caught the prestigious brand napping, the Speedmaster was an attempt to get back ahead of the game.
And it was very successful. Because Rolex relied on suppliers for virtually everything, its founder Hans Wiilsdorf was committed to experimenting with what he had and didn’t have much latitude to progress much beyond that.
Omega, however, could do whatever it liked, and the Speedmaster was the perfect example of that. Prior to that watch, chronographs were small and indecipherable. The Speedmaster was big, bold and clear, a watch design to be operable at the speeds its tachymeter was capable of recording.
But no matter what, despite Rolex cutting corners left, right and centre in the manufacturing of its watches to bring the costs down, Omega would not budge on quality. A Rolex case was simple, rough, unfinished. An Omega case was sculpted, elegant and complex.
Take a look at the Speedmaster as an example. It’s asymmetric for a start, fanning out the case side into a blended crown guard rather than simply adding on extra lumps. And look at the lugs; two complex curves, one brushed, one polished, separated by a crisp, curved line between the two. There’s no need for it to be this complicated, this difficult to manufacture. It just is, because that’s what Omega does.
It’s an attitude that, since the Labrador and Omega calibres, has always gone more than skin deep. The calibre 3861 inside the contemporary Speedmaster is an evolution of a 1950s collaboration between Omega and chronograph specialist Lemania to create the ultimate chronograph calibre. Originally called the 321, it stands alone today as one of if not the only hand-wound chronograph calibre still produced at volume today in Switzerland.
This is a movement that not only saw service in the Speedmaster where every other competing chronograph fell back to the lesser Valjoux 72—including Rolex’s Daytona—but also in the watches of the greatest watchmakers in the world. The quality of the Lemania calibres was so high that Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Breguet all used them, applying enormous time and skill into finishing them to a world class level.
There are some sizable changes that have happened to the calibre 321 to make it the 3861 we have today, such as the removal of the column wheel for cam actuation instead, which the die-hard purists resent—that is, until Omega doubled down and not only continued producing the 3861, but revived the 321 as well.
It’s just unheard of for a watchmaker to reverse engineer a legendary movement like that. Aside from Jaeger-LeCoultre’s 920, it’s just not done. Every other watchmaker—Audemars Piguet included—wants to ditch manually wound chronographs for simpler, easier, automatic ones instead.
The manually wound, horizontal clutch chronograph is the V12 of the watch movement. It’s complex, outdated, superseded. Every ounce of grey matter tells you it should be done and gone, and it nearly is. But as an emotive experience, it’s nigh-on perfect. In the back of the Moonwatch, it stands untouched as one of the greatest visual experiences watchmaking has to offer.
Omega’s even updated it to house the Co-Axial escapement with 15,000 gauss of anti-magnetism with its silicon balance spring, has upped the power reserve to 50 hours and has even adjusted the feel of the crown to make it easier to wind. Every detail hasn’t been created to hit sales targets or manufacturing efficiencies or anything like that. They’ve been chosen for you, to make you happy. That’s a rare thing indeed.
Take that brand, that quality, that movement and put it altogether in that watch and what do you get? What I would argue is the most historically significant watch in the entire world. And not just for the reasons we’ve listed here—which would be good for a notable place in history as it is—but because of the watch’s most famous accomplishment: being the first watch worn on the moon.
It’s no surprise that Omega will tell anyone who stands still long enough all about this, and as such it’s hardly a secret that the Moonwatch has been worn on the moon. I mean, it’s in the name. But now more than ever, I think we can start to relearn what that achievement really means in the context of the Artemis missions that, as we speak, aim to return humans to our nearest satellite.
The mission to the moon, and indeed the space race, started in 1961 with Project Mercury, just four years after the Speedmaster first debuted. Project Mercury really was the nascence of the whole thing, taking the rocket technology developed in World War Two and applying it to manned space travel. In just eight short years, Projects Mercury, Gemini and finally Apollo went from an initial experiment to see if humans could even survive in space to landing them on the moon almost 400,000km away. That’s over 16 times Earth’s circumference.
I want you to really understand the context here. Omega didn’t create its first sporting wristwatch chronograph a century or even a decade before NASA first started sending humans into space. These were developments that existed in parallel with each other. As humans first set foot on the moon, in that same year the Swiss watch industry had achieved a breakthrough of its own, the first automatic chronograph. Those two things existed together, at the same time.
Side note: I really want to hammer home just how much incredible thinking and bravery went into making the moon landings happen, so I’ve actually linked to a series of videos produced by the channel Smarter Every Day in the description that goes into some of the detail with the engineers who actually worked on this stuff. It’s utterly incredible.
Never mind the details like Armstrong’s Speedmaster being used in place of the broken mission timer on Apollo 11 or being used to time the critical burn to rescue Apollo 13—the Moonwatch was a significant part of the greatest achievement of our species, and that alone makes it unbeatable.
But what price to pay for perfection? To own the greatest of them all? Well, this might be perhaps the biggest shock of all. To buy a Moonwatch doesn’t cost multiples of, say, the Rolex Daytona, or even the same. It costs less than half. £5,700.
And you can buy it today. Now. You can go to a shop, and they will have some. You can have it with an acrylic crystal and solid case back like the original or with stronger sapphire and a transparent case back if you prefer it that way. You can even have it with the original calibre 321 if you want, although that costs a chunk more, a little over the cost of a Daytona.
Used you can buy them for less than a Tudor Black Bay Chrono. Omega’s been making them so long that there’s enough out there to stack them back into space. So not only is it the greatest watch ever made, it’s also one of the best value, too.