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Some watches have their moment in the spotlight, but some are still fresh decades later. As part of the ICONS series, HYPEBEAST looks into the continued relevance and significance of these cornerstones of watch collecting.
The Speedmaster was created by Omega in 1957, part of a now legendary trio of tool watches including the Railmaster and Seamaster, with each design leaning into a different speciality; chronograph/tachymeter, anti-magnetism and water resistance respectively.
But it wasn’t until the following decade that the Speedmaster found a mission that would cement its reputation as one of the perennial pillars of the watch industry, an association that is genuinely out of this world.
While the Omega Speedmaster wouldn’t land on the Moon until 1969, the watch first arrived at America’s National Air and Space Administration (NASA) in 1962, when astronauts Walter Schirra and Gordon Cooper purchased a couple of CK2998, the second proper Speedmaster reference. Schirra would go on to wear his watch during pre-Apollo Mercury and Gemini missions into space.
At this point, Omega’s place in space had been entirely organic, based purely on the personal preference of two astronauts. But NASA soon established official procurement and testing procedures for such equipment, with an eye on the forthcoming Gemini and Apollo missions, with a clear set of guidelines relating to the kind of performance necessary from any potential candidate.
In 1964, it was decided to test six chronographs and a call went out to 10 watch brands just one month ahead of testing. Just four brands sent in watches – Omega, Longines-Wittnauer, Rolex and Hamilton – which clearly didn’t read the brief and sent in a pocket watch.
The procedure began with Rolex’s 6238 “Pre-Daytona”, Longines-Wittnauer’s 235T and Omega’s Speedmaster 105.003 being exposed to temperature extremes, humidity, oxygen rich environments, acceleration, pressure, decompression, shock, pressure, vibration and noise.
While the Omega passed with flying colors the Rolex is reported to have stopped completely during the humidity test and also failed the high temperature test, while the Longines-Wittnauer lost its glass during when exposed to high temperatures.
Barely five months later, the newly flight-qualified Omega Speedmaster 105.003 was worn during the Gemini III mission and later that year by Ed White – who the reference would later be named after by collectors – during the first American spacewalk. Some of those original 105.003 watches were still in stock at NASA well into the 1970s and were issued to astronauts such as Gene Cernan in 1972, who became known as the Last Man on the Moon.
Between this point and the 1969 Moon landing several different references were sent to NASA to fulfil its order, including the 105.012 and the 145.012, both of which now featured the word “Professional” on the dial. The later watches also included examples with the Calibre 861 lever cam chronograph movement [used in the Speedmaster from 1968 until it was eventual retired in 1996], which replaced the fan-favourite column wheel Calibre 321 and required a fresh round of flight qualification tests at NASA.
Buzz Aldrin’s Speedmaster became the first watch on the surface of the Moon after Neil Armstrong left his on the lunar module when the onboard clock malfunctioned. Both watches were 105.012 models, while the watch on the wrist of Michael Collins, who was left manning the lunar module, was a 145.012.
Aldrin’s watch would later go missing en route to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, making it easily the most famous of the “lost” watches.
Two Apollo missions later, Omega’s Speedmaster wouldn’t just be involved in the missions to the moon, it would be instrumental in saving the stricken astronauts of Apollo 13, when astronaut Jack Swigert used his to time a crucial thruster burn to get the crew back to Earth.
No other watch brand can lay claim to have contributed to such a monumental real-world event and Omega has certainly taken advantage of the fact, preserving its Moonwatch line since 1969, adding the Dark Side of the Moon ceramic watches in the 21st century and even extending its space legacy with the analogue-digital Speedmaster X-33, which has been the preferred choice of modern astronauts since launching in 1998.
But it’s the Moonwatch variants that continue to fascinate collectors.
“It’s a design that never went out of style,” says Robert-Jan Broer, founder of Fratello Watches, the #speedytuesday hashtag and the most influential voice on Omega outside of the brand itself. “But I don’t think it’s entirely timeless because it was designed in the 50s and the current one is based on one from the 60s, so there’s definitely a timestamp to the Moonwatch. But, for a lot of people, it’s a classic like the Porsche 911, the shape is just classic with the lyre lugs and the monochromatic theme with the black dial and white printing, white baton hands. It has just become a classic looking chronograph.”
As with any collector subset, the uninitiated might well consider the many varying Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch references to be indistinguishable from one another, dealing as they do with tweaked fonts, hand shapes and, most famously, whether a dot on bezel sits to the side of the 90, or over it as with the DoN (Dot Over Ninety) bezels.
“When the current one came out, I have to say I was a bit worried because the printing is a bit larger than the previous one,” says Broer. “The ‘Speedmaster’ and ‘Professional’ are the same width where in the past it was a bit more like a triangle and, for me, I had to digest that change, but I showed the new watch and the previous one to my friends and they were like ‘uh, what’s the difference?’”
According to Broer, it’s these near imperceptible changes that preserve its connection to the original watches that made it to the Moon and ensure the Moonwatch maintains a loyal legion of collectors.
“If you put today’s [Rolex] Submariner next to a very early one from the 50s, you can see it’s related, it’s family, but it’s a very different watch,” says Broer. “The watch has become bigger in diameter, also more bulky, they started using ceramic, the hour markers are bigger, the hands bigger, everything’s on steroids with the Submariner. With the Speedmaster it’s different because if you grab a Speedmaster from the fourth generation, from 1965-66, it’s very similar to the Moonwatch that you’re looking at today and I think that makes it even more classic than a Submariner, perhaps more iconic, because so little has changed.”
Despite having such a seemingly stringent design, it would seem there is still enough room to manoeuvre to allow for the creation of “successful” – and presumably less successful – Moonwatch designs.
“Today’s one, the current Moonwatch, I think it’s the best one of all the Moonwatches because its based on that watch that was used on the Moon, the 105.012, it has that same case, the stepped dial, it has a bracelet that I think is more suitable for this watch than the previous one and of course it has the new  movement,” adds Broer. “That for me was tricky because they used the 321 for a long time, then they used the 861, the 1861 – which is basically the same – and now you come with the 3861, which is a little bit different you could say, I questioned whether people would buy the watch, will they still consider it the Moonwatch? But I think it’s the best one so far and I think the sales are really good.”
For the newcomer, there’s 65 years of minutiae to absorb before you can navigate confidently around the Moonwatch space. Where would Broer, someone who reels-off reference numbers, recommend new collectors start?
“Early 90s Speedmasters,” Broer answers without hesitation. “They still used Tritium [instead of Super-LumiNova] so you get discolored hour markers and discolored hands and the cool thing is, the Tritium that they used in the 1990s tends to turn a bit yellowish, so it really looks cool, yellow on black, and there’s still some white of the dial and hands, so it really gives a nice combination of colors, aethetically the 90s models are really pleasing. They also had bracelets that were very similar to the ones of today with the small in-between links, the 1479. And it has the 861 movement, so it has a good movement with a proven track record that was used during the Space Shuttle period in the 80s and 90s. The cool thing with the 90s models is you can still find them with box and papers. Before that people often left, especially the box, at the jewelers.”
“If you want to go into vintage, now’s the time to buy a Calibre 321 watch from the 60s, 1967-68 were the last of the 321, so that would be a 145.012, a reference also used on the Moon, for under Euros 10k (approximately $11,100 USD).”
Compared to the earliest examples of the Speedmaster – which made headlines last year when a 1957 example sold at auction for $3.4m USD in Geneva – there still appears to be plenty of value to be had from watches that made a name for themselves by heading ‘to the moon’.