Timeless appeal: history of the Omega Speedmaster

29 Jan 2019 | Updated on: 27 Sep 2022 |By Dominic Jeffares

One of the most iconic watches of all time, the Omega Speedmaster played a hugely important role in the Apollo 11 mission. Half a century after those storied steps, we look back at its creation.

One Giant Leap for Watches

15 minutes and 28 seconds; the duration of time Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin spent on the surface of the moon during Apollo 11, becoming only the second person to complete a moonwalk after Commander Neil Armstrong. Communications from Earth were kept brief, while both men carried out their lunar tests. President Nixon, in an address heard by half a billion people, proudly stated “I just can’t tell you of how proud we all are of what you’ve done…for one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one.” And for a moment it seemed like time stood still. As both astronauts made a crisp west point salute at the American flag, even the ticking of clocks in living rooms went silent.

In space, there is a deathly silence. Astronauts recount all that can be heard outside their spacecraft is the sound of water and air that pump and circulate around their spacesuits. Occasionally there’s radio fuzz and rhythmic bleeps from instrumentation. For Apollo 11 only one watch made it to the surface of the moon- Armstrong, famously, left his back in the command module- cementing its status as a cult object.

Buzz Aldrin; the Speedmaster is visible on his right arm

First Man (2018)

The watch in question was on Aldrin’s right wrist, just above his glove. On an elongated black NATO strap- an Omega Speedmaster Professional ref. 105.012, making it the first watch to be worn on the surface of the moon and the only timepiece to be certified for ‘extravehicular activity in space.’ Mysteriously no one knows of its whereabouts, as it went missing when Aldrin posted it to the Smithsonian museum. Were it to be discovered, we can only guess at the price it would fetch at auction (Paul Newman’s personal Rolex Daytona ref. 6239 sold for $17.75 million in 2017 at the Phillips Auction in New York)

So, what makes the Speedmaster an icon? Wind back the clocks to 1957 and the first Speedmaster- ref. CK 2915 housing the legendary Calibre 321 movement- was a radically different offering compared to what was available on the market at the time. It was the first chronograph in the world to feature a tachymeter scale on its bezel, as opposed to on the dial. Stylistically, it was noticeably different to the small and delicate gold wristwatches available at the time, with a much larger face and sportier design. Remarkably, the watch was never designed for space exploration but rather as a sports chronograph for timekeeping, since Omega held the title as official timekeeper to The Olympic Games. The price for this timepiece? $185 back in 1968, which by today’s standards would equate to $1334.

Time to Test

The Speedmaster’s ascent from earth to space was to a certain degree, spontaneous. By coincidence, astronaut Walter ‘Wally’ Schirra wore his personal Speedmaster during NASA’s Mercury missions, in October 1962. By the time of project Gemini however, NASA realised the need for all astronauts to have an officially approved watch for safety and technical purposes. For NASA’s Gemini tests, three watches were deemed suitable for testing: a Rolex Cosmograph ref.6239, a Wittnauer (Longines) Genève Professional Chronograph 242T and the Omega.

The tests were brutal, pushing the watches’ capabilities to breaking point; there were shock tests (six shocks of 40G, each 11 milliseconds in duration, in six different directions); there were temperature tests (48 hours at 71ºC followed by 30 minutes at 93ºC); there were also tests relating to pressure, acceleration, decompression and vibration tests. After all this, the crystal warped on the Wittnauer and then came loose; the Rolex stopped running on two occasions; but the Omega soldiered on, recording only a slight deterioration in its luminescence and a gain of several minutes during decompression tests. There could only be one winner. The deal was sealed, and the glorious affirmation followed, “Flight Qualified for all Manned Space Missions”- Omega unsurprisingly, were over the moon.

OMEGA Period-correct Speedmaster ST 105.012

July 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, and we have yet to hear anything from Omega with regards to how they will commemorate the occasion. Throughout the years, various limited editions and special iterations of the Speedmaster have been released, though arguably the most desired of ‘Speedys’ will be the rarer models such as the CK2915, CK2998 and 105.002. The CK models were the first two generations of the Speedmaster- the CK2998 was the one that Schirra wore in 1962. In a way, the CK2915 is the point of origin for just about every chronograph with a tachymeter scale on the bezel. It is a fitting testament to the original that the Speedmaster’s design remains so unchanged after more than 50 years, and from its inception has proven itself as one of the greats of sports chronographs. And for this reason, we should salute not only those men who bravely set off into the silence of space, but the watch that kept them on the same time as us mere mortals.

2019 Omega Speedmaster Lineup

A selection of our favourites from Omega’s hugely diverse lineup:

Omega Speedmaster ’57; £5,540
Omega Speedmaster ‘First in Space’; £3,640
Omega Speedmaster Moonphase; £8,030
Omega Speedmaster Grey Side of the Moon; £9,350
Omega Speedmaster Dark Side of the Moon; £8,940
Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch Professional; £3,810
Omega Speedmaster 38mm; £3,890