The Last Omega Speedmaster
In many ways, the Speedmaster is a victim of its own marketing success. So much so, in fact, that we forget why the original Speedmaster was made and how its design changed chronographs forever.
The date: September 4, 1960
The place: Monza, Italy
The scene: The Italian Grand Prix
By all accounts, the 1960 Formula One season for Scuderia Ferrari was extremely disappointing.
The founder and namesake of the team, Enzo Ferrari, was in the process of developing a new car and chassis. In the meantime, however, the team’s obsolete Dino 246 could not compete against the technologically advanced and better-handling cars of the Lotus and Cooper teams. Nevertheless, Ferrari did have some tricks up its sleeve, like straight-line speed and home-field advantage.
Using home-field advantage, the Italian organizers of the Italian Grand Prix for 1960 opted to run an even faster configuration of the track, allowing Ferrari to achieve its single win for the 1960 season.
Still, by the time the 1960 season ended in November, first place went to the American Phil Hill, second place to another American, Richie Ginther, and third place to Belgian Willy Mairesse.
And what was on the wrist of Mr. Mairesse that day? The Omega Speedmaster.
This was who the Speedmaster was designed for - people like Willy Mairesse - “For Men Who Reckon Time in Seconds.” As the classic 1957 advertisements decreed.
But when is an Omega Speedmaster not a Speedmaster?
When it’s a Moonwatch.
In the Shadow of the Moon
In many ways, the Speedmaster is a victim of its own marketing success. “How is that possible? It is one of the most widely recognized watch models of all time,” well buckle up, and lets journey to where history and marketing mythology meet.
Over the decades since the Moon landing, the Speedmaster has been firmly planted in the watch world’s psyche as “the first watch worn on the moon.” So much so, in fact, that we forget the original Speedmaster was a serious precision instrument for racing drivers and completely changed the paradigm for how every chronograph should look.
Yes, you read that correctly. Because Omega created the Speedmaster with race car drivers – and only race car drivers – in mind, it changed the very idea of chronographs!
For instance, did you know the Omega Speedmaster was the first watch ever to put the tachymeter scale on the outside of the bezel?
That’s right. Prior to the release of the first Speedmaster, watches printed the tachymeter scale on the dial. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with the old design, but it’s not the most efficient use of dial space. And it’s certainly not the fastest way to compute speed over distance.
The Omega Speedmaster: A Timeline
So how did this watch transition from racing chronograph to Moonwatch? And more importantly, when did it happen?
Here are some important dates to keep in mind:
1957: Omega introduces the first Speedmaster (ref. CK 2915) to the world.
1962: The first Omega goes to space when Wally Schirra wears his personal Speedmaster ref. CK 2998 during the Mercury Project’s “Sigma 7” mission.
1965: Ed White becomes the first man to complete a spacewalk and wears his personal Speedmaster ref. 105.003 while doing it.
1966: The Omega Speedmaster ref. 105.003 becomes the first flight qualified watch by NASA. Plus, the brand introduces its Speedmaster Professional ref. 105.012.
1969: After discontinuing the 105.003, the Moonwatch is born.
As you can see from the timeline above, it’s clear that a lot happened in a short window of time. But what’s fascinating is that by 1964 Omega was already advertising the connection between its watches and NASA, with the ad (pictured below) being one of the earliest to link the two – despite showing an illustration of a different watch than described. Moreover, based upon the receipt from a New Jersey retailer in 1968 (also pictured below), this was clearly the watch of astronauts in the minds of the American psyche.
In my mind, the shift from Speedmaster to Moonwatch occurred in 1966. With the introduction of the “Professional” model. Out went the first generation’s 38.5mm “straight lug” case, and in came the curved lug case with an integrated crown and pusher guards for greater protection. Yet, interestingly, the 105.003 kept being produced alongside the Speedmaster Professional (ref. 105.012) until 1968.
That 105.003, known today with great affection as the “Ed White,” is (to me, at least) the last real Speedmaster because it is the last remaining link to the racing chronograph that was introduced in 1957.
While there were over eight variations of Speedmaster from 1957 to the “Ed White,” there is a clear link between those two pieces when you view them side by side. But that link was lost when the “straight lug” case got retired with the introduction of the Professional model.
So, although, in the decades since Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, the “Ed White” has become a de fact Moonwatch to most people; to me, it will always be the last Speedmaster.
But hey, given how fast a rocket launches you into space, it’s still a watch for “Men who Reckon Time in Seconds.”
For more information about the current lineup of Speedmasters, visit the Omega website.
(Photography by Liam O'Donnell)