Remembering The First Omega Speedmaster
Omega’s Speedmaster family of chronographs celebrates its diamond jubilee in 2017, and most of the watch world is preoccupied with tributes to the famed “Moonwatch.”
But while watch writers contort themselves to recount every one of those sixty years through the lens of a NASA telescope, this survey celebrates a single Speedmaster model that split its seconds beyond the bounds of the done-to-death space narrative. This is the story of the first Omega Speedmaster – the one that forged a path not in mankind’s “final frontier” but within his the first: Earth.
The first ever Speedmaster, 1957’s reference CK2915, was born with a view to geocentric heroics. That Promethean Speedmaster launched into a market more enamored of auto racing than the space race. Designed by Omega’s Claude Baillod, the CK2915, or “Broad Arrow,” was the company’s standard-bearer in a motorsports chronograph market already becoming crowded by 1957.
The postwar environment of the 1940s and 1950s was desperate for inspiring diversions. From 1914 to 1957, humanity had been wrenched by two world wars, a global depression of historic proportions, the collapse of colonial empires, and a new kind of war – “Cold War.” Motorsports provided a welcome relief to a weary world.
Postwar motorsports differed from prewar racing in one key respect. While the interwar racing circuit served as a nationalist proxy battle between the state-sponsored industries of imminent belligerents, auto racing during the 1940s and 1950s consumer economy was the domain of small manufacturers and individual sportsmen looking to burnish their brands, pride, or both.
Competitive industrialists including Enzo Ferrari, William Lyons, Donald Healey, Colin Chapman, Briggs Cunningham, Ferdinand “Ferry” Porsche, and David Brown built racing machines, campaigned them, and provided complete racing cars to likeminded sportsmen.
This was the heyday of production-based racing on the road and track. Wealthy campaigners were able to test their mettle in their personal cars at endurance events like the traditional 24 Hours of Lemans and the then-new 12 Hours of Sebring. On public roads, the 1940s and 1950s witnessed the golden age of road rallies including the Targa Florio, Mille Miglia in Europe, and the short lived (read: lethal) Carrera Panamericana of Mexico.
The United States, which had been spared direct ravages or World War II, played host to the greatest assembly of ambitious sportsmen, manufacturers, and thrill-seekers. From the club driver competing on the west coast at newly minted Laguna Seca Raceway to manufacturer-sponsored “stock car racing” on the sands of east coast Florida’s Daytona Beach, American racers created an unprecedented market pull for chronograph watches.
Prior to this era, chronographs had been a rare and slow-selling class of watch. Expensive, complicated, and seldom used outside of engineering, aviation, and medicine, chronographs were a niche product. But by 1957, Breitling, Eberhard, Rolex, Universal Genève, and a Swiss army of others had arrived on the scene; Heuer even offered a range of specialized dashboard timers and freestanding sports-chronograph modules.
Enter Omega, a late arrival to the motor racing scene. But while Omega waited to embrace the sports chronograph market, the Swiss major did own two potent advantages: a vast distribution network and the chronograph caliber 321.
The first of these advantages – economies of scale – makes more sense upon historic reflection. Today’s world, which Rolex bestrides like the proverbial colossus, is a difficult one in which to imagine Omega as the dominant name in Swiss horology. But in 1957, that was a fact. The 1930 creation of “SSIH” – a depression-induced combination of Omega and Tissot – forged one of the most powerful players in the global watch industry. In 1932, the SSIH collective absorbed movement specialist Lemania.
Omega, not Rolex, was the dominant name in Swiss watches when the first Speedmaster bowed in 1957. With as strong a retail network as any in the industry and a reputation to match, Omega was poised to make up for lost time. Moreover, Omega’s well regarded Seamaster line of water resistant watches had conditioned buyers in the U.S. and abroad to regard the durability of Omega products in demanding conditions.
For a dedicated motorsports chronograph, only a stellar “engine” would do, and Omega was able to provide a great one: caliber 321. This movement had been designed and launched as a joint-effort of SSIH captives Omega and Lemania during the early years of World War II. Born as the “27CHRO C/12,” the caliber 321 was a traditional manual wind chronograph movement with 17 jewels, an 18,000 VpH (2.5hz) beat rate, and column wheel function cycling.
Caliber 321, as Omega designated its variant of the movement, was fairly thick, tough in the face of concussive impacts, and offered a sound basis for tool and trophy watches alike; in a future era and a world transformed, the 27CHRO C/12 would be finished to the level of art and lodged with honor beneath the display case-backs of Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, and Breguet grand complications.
In its early years, the Lemania base caliber, later known universally as the 2310, became a workaday companion to many mid-level models from a range of Swiss brands. And while virtually every consumer-market Omega Speedmaster “Moonwatch” has been delivered with the cam-actuated caliber 861/1861, the actual Apollo XI moonwalkers shuffled to the beat of the original 321.
But in 1957, tarmac and Daytona Beach sand, not moondust, were the order of the day for the earliest Speedmasters.
Omega knew that in order to gain the confidence of its demanding target clientele, some assurance of quality was necessary. Due to the popularity of the “Seamaster” water resistant watch line since 1948, Omega’s brand fathers decided to launch the CK2915 Speedmaster as a logical extension of the Seamaster family. This early marketing move explains an enduring Speedmaster caseback mark that has puzzled subsequent generations of watch enthusiasts: the presence of the Seamaster’s “hippocampus,” or seahorse emblem on Speedmaster Professional Moonwatches.
Moreover, 1957 also served as the launch date of the Omega CK2913, the “Seamaster 300.” This, the first Omega entry in the red-hot 1950s dive watch segment, helped to reinforce the sporting credentials of the visually similar Speedmaster chronograph.
Indeed, style is one of the most remarkable chapters of the earliest Speedmaster’s story.
The mere historical record of designer Baillod’s name is exceptional. Prior to the modern era of luxury watches, the names of watch designers were, as a rule, kept in confidence. More often than not, designers were freelancers whose identity was withheld from the public in the interest of routing all credit to the client brand itself. By contemporary convention, Baillod’s identity should have been lost to history; even future superstar designers such as Gilbert Albert, Charles Gérald Genta, and René Bannwart often worked anonymously for major brands during the 1950s and 1960s.
While the key elements of today’s Speedmaster – tri-register dial, tachymeter scale, printed black dial, and rough proportions – were present from the first, many features of the CK2915 owe more to inner space than outer space.
In short, the first Speedmaster was a chronograph translation of the Seamaster 300’s diving aesthetic. Both steel watches featured the same sharp pre-bevel lugs, the same guard-less crown, the same 39mm steel case diameter, the same white-on-matte black dial print, and the same combination of metallic dauphine minute and “broad arrow” hour hands. Certain idiosyncratic features of the CK2915 including the metallic “alpha” sub-dial hands, base 1000 tachymeter scale, and bare metal bezel have fallen by the wayside.
The era of the Speedmaster-as-race timer was short lived. By 1959, the successor reference CK2998 had launched, and by 1962, NASA’s Wally Schirra had worn his own example of this Speedmaster into space aboard the Mercury program’s “Sigma 7” capsule. Three years later, NASA trials concluded with adoption of the eventual Speedmaster “Professional” reference 105.012; this and its 145.012 successor entered immortality in 1969 as the charter class of “Moonwatches,” the first of a long line.
Omega’s Speedmaster series has expanded so wildly and broadly that any comprehensive history requires an encyclopedia and obsessive passion. Simply cataloging the many NASA-associations and variants is an exhausting task for horological scholars. But the Speedmaster’s 2017 60th anniversary has provided a rare platform to celebrate the original CK2915; a limited series re-issue has been announced by Omega, and a “window” – NASA style – has opened to recall and celebrate the motorsports companion that spawned a dynasty.
Since Apollo XI in 1969, the Omega Speedmaster Professional has become a genuine article of mainstream pop culture. But while the roar of the NASA’s Saturn V rocket resonates in eternity, it also drowns out the wail of smaller V8 and V12 engines timed to the beat of Omega’s CK2915. The time has come to celebrate Omega’s original Speedmaster; collectors, start your engines.