Introduction

“Basho,” he said, handing me a fresh drink, “you know your watches, right?”

“Sure,” I answered.

“Well, I need a good watch.” He paused, swilled his glass and then looked at me. “If you could have any watch, just one, which one would you pick?”

That was a very good question, one I have been asked many times. And as always, the answer is that “it depends on the man”.

I considered the man in front of me; my wife’s cousin. He was a youngish man in his late twenties and a successful executive CEO. I smiled, as, in fact, he was one of those people who it is quite hard to believe actually exists outside of a James Bond casino scene.  He was very handsome (an ex-model for Aquascutum) and had that English noble adventurer look down pat. In his spare time, when not running his company, he snowboarded and rode speedboats. He had been incredibly expensively educated, all the while remaining a lot of fun to be around. An elegant ladies man and yet a total “lad” with it.

What to recommend?

I took a sip of my glass and considered my surroundings. I was on holiday in a cottage rented by my father-in-law for his closest family. I had just served up an enormous steak dinner, enough for 10 adults, and was now sipping a glass of scotch from the good doctor’s (another guest) private cask, we were waiting to set up for a games evening. Nothing much to help with watch statements amongst the men here, as I was wearing something by Christopher Ward and my father-in-law didn’t wear a watch at all ever, which – given the man – was as strong a watch statement as I have ever heard; but, not much help.

So, I thought about work. Many of the people in my office wore watches. Indeed, you get the more junior employees usually wearing fashion brands and perhaps the odd Apple watch. Then Managers and Senior Managers will normally have something suitable for the office, something elegant and aspiring as those in that position want to demonstrate. A Tag Heuer maybe? Then up to Directors, and well, here you get “serious” with smart Omegas, and plenty of Rolex choices. Then finally, once one has scaled Mount Olympus and spoken to the Oracle to become a Partner, well, then the sky is the limit. One guy wears a particularly impressive and bold Hublot and I see lots of oh-so-subtle Pateks hiding under the cuffs of handmade shirts.

This was the right world for my relative here; but, where to place him without insulting him? What watch is suitable for someone who was either constantly on a jet plane or, within minutes of leaving the office, would be bounding up a mountain, sitting on a beach or skipping onto a jetty? What could keep up with him? Then I realised who he reminded me of: a special and rare type of person, and one just as smartly adventurous as he.

“Come on -” he said, snapping me back from this consideration, “I thought you knew watches?”

Do I know watches?

“Omega Moonwatch Professional,” I said, reaching behind me for my iPad and booting up the Omega website. “It is the watch that astronauts wear into space and onto the moon.” I handed him the tablet. “It would be perfect for you.”

A few watches have been on the moon and, since we stopped going to that quite dusty rock, an even larger selection have been into space. But they all have something in common: they are the choice for Astronauts. So, what is an astronaut like? The first Americans into space, and especially those who walked on the moon, were truly the best of the best. Given the gene pool the US has to choose from that is really saying something. Much is made of making it to the moon, but the more impressive feat was for me the fact that they didn’t slam straight into it.

You see, when attempting their landing the computers, if one could call them that – big punch card programmed monstrosities, made a mistake. The landing point selected was no good. In fact, it would have forced an abort. So, Neil Armstrong switched the lander to manual and flew it over the nearest hill. He had only a few seconds of thrust left at this point. You can hear it clearly in the video of the landing. There is this voice in the background counting down. That is the seconds of burn he has left and he had to leave enough to, you know, launch back into space. Without a bead of sweat, while the world held its breath, this incredible pilot crested the hill, span the lander and planted it perfectly into the dust. OMEGA must have been gutted that Neil didn’t wear his OMEGA on the surface of the moon, but it was for the greatest of reasons; part of the timing module in the lander had broken and Neal was timing the mission by leaving his OMEGA in the capsule running its chronograph.

Think on that, it wasn’t on his wrist to look good, although it does, it was a proper tool and had a job to do. In many respects that this “back up device” was selected for this task without hesitation was a larger endorsement for OMEGA than merely gracing Neil’s wrist. Of course, Buzz, ever the watch guy, wore his.

OMEGA had won a victory for the wristwatch, beaten the competition – none of which survived the NASA tests – and actually been used on the mission. No wonder they keep the classic Moonwatch model in their inventory.

NASA put the Moonwatch through a bonkers level of tests to qualify for space missions. Of course, a modern Casio G-Shock could pass all of these, but I contend that this was in the 1950’s and – speaking as a very happy owner of one of the top “Mr G” models – G-shocks are not exactly elegant.

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NASA’s tests were carried out on the ST 105.003 (NASA reference 6049 according to the designation used in the USA), which formed part of the official gear of the Gemini astronauts. The ST 105.012 (NASA reference 6126) was chosen for the Apollo missions.

  • High temperature test: 70° C for 48 hours, then 93° C for 30 minutes in a partial vacuum.
  • Low temperature test: -18° C for 4 hours.
  • Vacuum test: Heated in a vacuum chamber and then cooled to -18° C for several cycles.
  • Humidity test: Ten 24-hour cycles in >95% humidity with temperatures ranging from 25° C to 70° C.
  • Corrosion test: In an atmosphere of oxygen at 70° C for 48 hours.
  • Shock-resistance test: Six 40 G shocks in six different directions.
  • Acceleration test: Progressive acceleration to 7.25 G for about ?ve minutes and then to 16 G for 30 seconds in three axes.
  • Low pressure test: Pressure of 10’6 atmospheres at 70° C for 90 minutes, then at 93° C for 30 minutes.
  • High pressure test: In an air pressure of 1.6 atmospheres for 60 minutes.
  • Vibration test: Random vibrations in three axes between 5 and 2,000 Hz with an acceleration of 8.8 G.
  • Sound test: 130 decibels at frequencies from 40 to 10,000 Hz for 30 minutes.

The Moonwatch is still issued to astronauts today, especially rated as standard equipment for spacewalks, but it isn’t the only choice for the modern spaceman. Some wear digital timers, some have sponsorship from other manufacturers, namely Breitling – another watch brand synonymous with pilots and very popular therefore with certain space roles filled mostly by Navy pilots. However, even though many other brands have been into space with the American missions, it is still OMEGA that holds the distinction of being certified equipment. To retain this, and attract the modern astronaut, OMEGA brought out a new model of Speedmaster, with a combined digital and analogue display. This was designed in conjunction with astronauts themselves and featured specific mission timers designed for timing seconds since a mission started, which is how you must count time when away from Earth as, after all, you have sunsets and sunrises every 40 minutes or so when in orbit.

This upgraded modern OMEGA Speedmaster graced the arm of the commander of the International Space station and went through a boon time in the European missions. However, back on Earth, the model – as lovely as it is – is not jewellery like the original. This then points to an important fact regarding this watch; it very precisely straddles the dual worlds of being a very serious, life-saving tool, while at the same time being a fascinating object to look at and wear.

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Fascinating is the right word. Diving into the world of the Speedmaster is to meet fanaticism on an epic level. At first, I believed this to be merely carefully cultured marketing by OMEGA, a branding exercise; but, ever alert to fake branding as I am, I realised quite quickly that OMEGA lost control of the Speedmaster fan juggernaut quite a long time ago. Forums are dedicated to it, museums exist to it, large and expensive coffee table books are published and dedicated to it, artworks are commissioned to honour it, endless papers are written regarding its glory and the second-hand market is so hot it threatens to burn to a crisp anyone’s bank balance who comes near it. Compared to that level of love and adoration, anything that OMEGA tries itself, like the interesting and yet cringe-worthy shorts featuring Buzz Aldrin and George Clooney, come across as pastiche fakery, even though OMEGA are probably spending millions per minute.

I can’t think of another watch with such a fan base. Sure, one could mention the Rolex forums and internet love; but, mainly I believe due to the price barrier to entry being 2k more, Rolex doesn’t have quite the link to history. The Rolex divers, are, of course, linked to the Royal Navy in WWII, and is a serious tool watch as well; but, their appeal is nowhere near as broad and capturing as many touch points. A Rolex diver no-date submariner is more a mark of financial achievement it seems to me, a mark that says you have “made it”. How many actually get dived with?

The OMEGA fanaticism is a lot of fun, it enables one to totally geek out on the details, and there is enough information to provide for all levels of obsession. One must just promise not to become a bore on the subject!