The Omega Speedmaster Clocks A Milestone For Its 60th Anniversary

A new launch for the astronautsí choice, limited with a run of 3,557 pieces.

BY Robin Swithinbank | Sep 28, 2017 | Feature

Image by Omega, 38.6mm stainless steel on stainless steel bracelet, SGD 7,600.

Oh, the efforts brands go to in search of the perfect link between the stuff they make and the people they want to sell that stuff to (synergies, yeah?). It must be agony knowing the greatest marketing story has already been told; that of Apollo 11 astronauts walking on the moon wearing Omega Speedmasters. Can’t beat that; until we go to Mars. And I’d wager Omega have got that one sewn up already.

What we forget about the Speedmaster, though, is that it was never designed to go to the moon and that it arrived before marketing was really a thing. It was introduced in 1957 as the prevailing mood turned away from the ascetic norms of the post-WWII period, towards a more buoyant age in which men had more money and more freedom. It was a sports watch for a motor-racing mad public revelling in stories of Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss. It was functional and robust, confident and masculine. And it broke new ground, becoming the first chronograph with a tachymeter (for calculating speed) on its bezel.

Men loved it. Including men who worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In 1962, Project Mercury astronauts Wally Schirra and Gordon Cooper bought Speedmasters privately. They were so taken by the watches they persuaded Nasa to let them wear them into space. It’s often thought it was this that led Nasa to send the Apollo astronauts to the moon wearing Speedmasters, but it wasn’t.

In 1964, when the Mercury programme was over, Nasa director of flight crew operations Deke Slayton issued a memo stating the need for a “highly durable and accurate chronograph to be used by Gemini and Apollo flight crews”. It landed on the desk of Nasa systems engineer James H Ragan, who sent requests for a quotation on 12 watches to six watch manufacturers.

Unbelievably, only four came back to him. Nasa’s archives record Omega, Rolex, Longines and Hamilton submitted watches, but the only one that passed a series of brutal shock, noise, pressure, humidity and temperature tests was Omega’s Speedmaster. On March 1, 1965, Nasa declared the Speedmaster reference ST105.003: “Flight qualified for all manned space missions”. Three weeks later, Virgil I “Gus” Grissom and John W Young wore them aboard Gemini III.

The moment that defined the Speedmaster came in July 1969, when Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the lunar landing module Eagle onto the surface of the moon wearing his Omega Speedmaster Professional (Professional was added in 1965 after the first US space walk on June 3 that year). Neil Armstrong had left his behind as backup to a faulty in-cabin timer. That day, “the Moonwatch” floated into the history books and scored Omega the kind of product placement money cannot buy.

It’s even more extraordinary to consider that at its peak Nasa employed 400,000 people, creating machines that could send men to the moon, keep them alive on its surface and bring them back alive. Yet, none of them designed a space watch. They didn’t need to: Omega had already done it.

“Omega created the Speedmaster mostly for motorists,” admits Petros Protopapas, Omega international brand heritage manager. “The space programme and the ‘space race’ between the then world’s superpowers had yet to begin, so the Speedmaster was created for earthbound adventures and the quest for speed.” Protopapas says Nasa purchased around 90 Speedmasters for the Gemini and Apollo programmes, at least 12 went on moon missions.

This year marks 60 years since the launch of the original Speedmaster, celebrated with an event at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall where the guests of honour were brand ambassadors George Clooney and Buzz Aldrin himself, and the release of the Speedmaster 60th Anniversary, a limited edition with a run of 3,557 pieces.

It’s the spit of the first. Drawings of the original have been lost over time, so Omega’s boffins scanned an archive piece using a sophisticated X-raying technique called tomography to recreate it in 3D. Still there are the “broad arrow” hour hand, the triple-register chronograph and the tachymeter on the bezel. One of designer Dieter Rams’ 10 principles is, “Good design is long-lasting”. If evidence were needed of the Speedy’s success as a piece of design, the fact it still looks good six decades later is evidence enough.

So good, in fact, we’d still revere it, moon visits or not. “It’s hard to think of a more compelling advertising message than ‘here is the first watch worn on the moon, and we made it’,” says Raynald Aeschlimann, Omega president and CEO. “Almost everyone has looked up at the stars in wonder, so the Speedmaster has given us the chance to tell a story people from all over the world can relate to, one filled with courage, adventure and romance. It’s an opportunity most brands would envy.”

Most? Surely all.

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, September 2017.