The President's Omega
It’s the American Dream in a watch, complete with tailfins!
Most of us know of the concept of the “Presentation Watch.” But if for those who have never heard the term, these are watches that are presented to important people, long-time company employees, or sometimes to and from family members to commemorate a special occasion. Those names on casebacks often yield nothing but conjurings of fantastical stories that might have been.
Not this watch. This watch has a story to tell. It is the story of Harlow Herbert Curtice, the former President of General Motors, and it’s a rather uniquely American one.
The General Motors Company
One of the largest automotive companies in the world, GM is not just a producer of cars for the world but an exporter and creator of American culture. The company’s marketing (“Like a Rock,” “See the USA in your Chevrolet,” and “The Standard of the World”) is almost as iconic as the brands it owns.
General Motor’s first head of design – Harley Earl – was the man who figured out people would pay more for a car if it was pretty and introduced us to the idea of the first concept car (Buick Y-Job 1938). Moreover, GM brought us into the jet age with the Firebird (1953) and put on a nationwide mobile world’s fair with the Parade of Progress (1936-1956).
It takes a village to run a company like that, and one of that village’s most prominent citizens was Harlow Herbert Curtice.
Who was Harlow Herbert Curtice?
A classic American rags-to-riches story, H. H. Curtice was born in rural Michigan. And like most everyone living in Michigan then, he ended up working for GM. Curtice’s GM career began in 1914.
Some highlights of the next few years for H. H.:
- Started as a bookkeeper for AC Spark Plugs at 20 years old in 1914
- Promoted to AC Spark Plug Department’s comptroller at 21
- Left to join the Army and served in World War I
- Named President of AC Spark Plug in 1929
- Appointed President of Buick in 1933
- Oversaw wartime production of Buick engines for aircraft
- Redesigned the post-war look of Buick
- Named President of General Motors in 1953
- Oversaw the introduction and roll-out of the Chevrolet Corvette
Over his career, H. H. Curtice was quoted frequently as saying, “Do it the hard way. Do it better than it needs to be done.” And this wasn’t just lip service. During his time as President of GM he was known to live at the office Monday through Friday, only returning home on the weekends. As a result, he was credited for making GM the first-ever company to record $1 billion in profits in a single year.
When economic times looked bleak, he publicly pledged – and followed through – on investing one billion dollars into expanding R&D facilities and production plants. In recognition, Time magazine made him Man of the Year for 1955. In his own words, “General Motors must always lead.”
Though his name is not well known today, his legacy of innovation lives on. For instance, in 1938, he saw the world’s first concept car ever built: The Buick Y-Job. Created by GM’s legendary freeform automotive designer Harley Earl, the Y-Job gave Americans a glimpse of the future during the depths of the Great Depression.
H. H. also was the man who put the now iconic portholes (technically called VentiPorts) on the front fenders of Buick’s 1949 lineup of cars. Inspired by the flashing engine exhaust pipes of WWII fighter planes, VentiPorts likely pulled at the heartstrings of WWII veterans, accounting for their popularity at the time.
H. H. Curtice and Harley Earl would team up again in 1951 to produce the next dream car. Called the LeSabre, it was a tail-finned, jet-age-inspired design that went on to influence American design throughout the 1950s and ‘60s.
The Omega Automatic
H. H. Curtice would end up retiring from GM in 1958 (they had a mandatory retirement age at the time), but just before he ascended to the GM presidency, this Omega was given to him by the company in 1952. And judging from the overall condition of this watch, still fitted to its original strap and buckle with the gold foiled “OMEGA” logo pressed into it, he likely never wore it.
A shame, as this was an incredibly handsome Omega Automatic, not to mention a technical marvel of the time. Why? Because the movement inside – an OMEGA Cal. 351 – was a bumper automatic that could be chronometer certified. Plus, at the time, Omega literature touted the 351 as using the wartime technology from the brand’s WWII watches for civilian use.
These timepieces were designed to be “one-watch collections,” bridging the gap between something you can wear with a suit and tie yet still be robust and waterproof enough for any activity. Fun Fact: They were water resistance to 30 meters – not bad for the late 1940s.
The idea of the “one-watch collection” is still something we find today in Omega’s Seamaster Aqua Terra line (which is one of their most popular models). Indeed, from the boardroom to the beach, the demand from the general public for versatility has always been there. However, prior to this moment in time, there were tool watches in steel and dress watches in gold, but not many timepieces bridged that gap.
It’s a concept so obvious today that it’s hard to believe it was ever revolutionary!
It Belongs in a Museum
So how did I end up with this watch in my collection? By accident.
My love of cars, along with my love for Omega watches, is not exactly a secret. So, one day, a friend of mine sent me a link to this Omega Automatic that was being sold by Jacek Kozubek, a well-known and regarded vintage dealer who is now the man behind Tropical Watch in California. I purchased the watch and have not really looked back since.
Then, about a year later, I remember sitting next to Jacek at Rolliefest in New York and asking him how he happened to come across it. The story was relatively simple: A family member of Curtice’s reached out and sold him the watch.
That’s it. Story over.
For vintage watch collectors, it’s hard to believe that a family member would part with something so special so unceremoniously (especially given the well-preserved nature of the watch and H. H. Curtice’s position in society). However, I think it’s for those reasons that it is safe to assume he kept this as a trophy of his time at GM and likely wore a far more impressive piece as his “daily beater.” MAYBE, he had one of the custom Patek Philippe Ref. 1578 “GM” watches.
Don’t know about those? That is a story for another day.
(Photography by Liam O'Donnell)