When I first thought about writing something about the fabled Moonwatch, I was stumped; it is a watch that probably all watch enthusiasts have heard about, it is a watch that many have written about (indeed whole books have been devoted to it), it is a watch about which various reviews have been written. Furthermore, I don’t actually own one though I have worn one in the past. So what could I do that was at least a little bit different? My answer was to take an example that I have known from new, give a few opinions and experiences of the type and combine this with some pictures that (hopefully) readers will enjoy. So perhaps this article is a small and eclectic mix of specification, history and opinion.
Why then is the Moonwatch referred to as such? As far back as 1963 the predecessor to the model herein discussed was being used in space by NASA astronauts. From Mercury through Gemini and Apollo to the Shuttle, the Speedmaster has accompanied these ‘Star Voyagers’ on successful and not so successful missions. Indeed the watch has been hailed a hero for the part it played in helping the Apollo 13 astronauts time a critical burn in order that they should return to earth safely. Whilst the ‘Professional’ label came some time after the watch had been into space, it had certainly proved its professional status when in 1965 Edward White wore the watch on the outside of his space suit on the first space walk by a USA astronaut (Gemini IV).
When one considers the extremes to which the watch was put during this space walk – searing hot followed by freezing cold then it is a testament to the standard build quality of the watch that it came through unscathed on this occasion and ticked away happily.
The version used by White featured a different movement to that used in later watches, likewise a different case design without the curves and facets which were to come a year later in 1966 (when, incidentally ‘Professional’ was added to the dial). There have been a few changes to the watch over the years, some more obvious than others; the case and movement change being perhaps most significant. The issues, debates and complexities regarding the procurement of wrist chronographs for the astronauts are well covered in various publications; the crux of the matter is that the Omega beat the competition in a battery of environmental tests to go on and accompany Apollo 11 to the moon. Interestingly, the Omega was not actually present when Neil Armstrong uttered his famous words at the foot of the Lunar module. There had been problems with onboard timers therefore it was decided that one timepiece should be left on board the Eagle as a backup. It was Buzz Aldrin who was the first man to step on the moon wearing an Omega!
Given the bulk of spacesuits, the watch was worn on an extremely long Velcro strap which was secure yet allowed the watch to be removed easily when on board the spacecraft; whereupon the the strap could be wrapped around the wrist a few times and worn normally.
The sad end to Omega’s triumphant first landing on the moon is that Aldrin’s watch was stolen whilst on its way to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington; someone out there has possession of what may be the most historically important wristwatch of the 20th Century. The Speedmaster hasn’t always performed flawlessly on the moon; in a later mission it was noted by one of the astronauts that the crystal had popped off the watch during a particular moonwalk; given its overall reliability record though, it is understandable why it was NASA’s first choice.
I have known this particular watch since the day it was purchased in 1995. Indeed, this example has belonged to my father for five years. On 31 May 1995 I traveled to an authorised dealer to pick up the watch which I had ordered some weeks previously. I had worn a Speedmaster the year before though had sold it; however I had no hesitation in recommending it to Dad as a reliable, relatively accurate and above all legible watch.
True, he had no use whatsoever for the chronograph function but given that he isn’t exactly over active then manual winding was a good idea and the lack of a date function was immaterial in this case as I can’t recall any anniversary, birthday etc. that he has remembered! Aside from the historical aspects of the watch, this is one watch where you can actually see the time! There are, in my opinion, far too many so called aviator’s watches which you would be struggling to see what time it is or indeed, see the elapsed time of the chronograph sub dials.
I brought the watch home and I have to admit that the reaction to it wasn’t ecstatic at first. He thought it slightly large and a little odd looking though he had seen it in a brochure. I told him to wind it every morning and wear it; five years later and he will not wear another watch. It suits him perfectly, he is happy with the name on the dial and just doesn’t need anything else.
The dimensions are the standard 39mm in diameter (across the bezel) and 13.5mm in thickness; the watch doesn’t seem as thick as this given the design of the case sides. This one is of course a 1995 model featuring two very slight differences to the model sold for the previous few years. I noticed these straight away: first, the accent over the ‘e’ of ‘tachymetre’; UK models hadn’t had this for some time. Second, the case itself was slightly different in cut/shape. More of a downward curve on the lugs when viewed from the side and likewise, less flat metal protruding from under the bezel on the crown side when viewed from the top. My only explanation for this was that for a few years there was another case supplier/specification used by Omega. The back (screw down) features the well known ‘Flight Qualified By NASA For All Manned Space Missions’ engraving along with the central Seahorse and yet another inscription:- ‘The First Watch Worn On The Moon’.
I have always been impressed with the finish of the case. It is well cut, the brushed sections are beautifully executed and match the curvature of the lugs perfectly. The lug width is 20mm which means that standard sized straps can be fitted no problem if so desired. Some owners prefer a black leather strap though I have tried a Speedmaster on a fabric strap and it looked (and felt) pretty good.
The watch is fitted with an acrylic crystal which has been used from the start. I like it as its domed nature befits this watch and of course it is easy to polish should it become scratched. There is little glare under bright light so quite literally, the watch doesn’t look too flashy!
The case has worn well though Dad isn’t hard on the watch. The polished sides of the case are vulnerable to scratches and I haven’t yet had the necessity to test Omega’s ability to refinish a case to original spec. That said, I’ve seen these watches pretty bashed up but they still seem to look good!
In this example, the Omega Cal. 861 is used; basically a Lemania calibre dating back some 30 years, it is equipped with 17 jewels and beats at a relatively leisurely 21,600 bph. As previously stated, it is manual wind with a power reserve in the order of 50 hours. The chronograph is of course a 12 hour variant with central seconds, 30 minute register at 3 and a 12 hour register at 6. It is operated in the normal way with the button at 2 for starting and stopping and the button at 4 for resetting to zero. It does not use a switching wheel; rather levers and cams. Purists might argue that the real Moonwatch used the older Calibre 321 which was more traditionally put together though it would appear that the 861 does its job well given a few minor quirks which most people seem happy to live with.
This watch has run continually for the whole five years without fail. It has always been a little on the fast side but to a tolerable degree for my father. He has used the chronograph function now and then, for timing walks and the like. Admittedly, this particular example hasn’t been subjected to abuse but I have had correspondences with owners of the same model who have worn theirs for maybe twenty years without any problems under severe conditions in countries within the Arctic Circle. Perhaps the reason for such reliability is simply that the movement is simple; certainly in terms of its basic timekeeping function it is a traditionally designed movement which is large, thick and if you will, not over designed.
Amazingly, my father has yet to forget to wind his Speedmaster! Regarding winding, the crown is of a decent size though it can be a bit fiddly to get to when pulling it out to its time-setting position. It is however, quite well protected from knocks both by the fact that the chrono pushers will get it first and that the case itself features crown protecting shoulders. If I have any complaint then it is that the winding has always been a bit stiff; due no doubt to an effective and necessarily tight O-ring on the winding shaft – not a big problem but worth mentioning.
Now this is where the Speedmaster Professional excels. And this is one of the reasons why Dad loves this watch so much. Yes, you can see the time! The statutory ‘close up of the dial’ picture gives an idea of this legibility:
Bright white matt painted hands against the matt black dial which itself isn’t cluttered with unnecessary markings or accolades. Simple batons at the hours complete what is for me the best chronograph dial in existence today. In terms of luminosity, this example is equipped with Tritium on the hour batons and timekeeping hands (and a little diamond on the chrono seconds hand). It still glows enough after five years but I have seen many older examples where the luminous has quite literally disintegrated. Of course, the good thing is that these dials and hands haven’t changed for decades. As long as this watch is offered by Omega then it should be possible to renew the dial and hands yet still have the watch looking original. Admittedly, Luminova is used nowadays but as far as I am concerned, that it not a problem, the dial is still matt black, the hands look the same. For me, this is a big plus factor – the Speedmaster is timeless!
The bracelets used on The Speedmaster Professional have changed over the years; in 1995 the bracelet used was what has become known as the ‘hair puller’:
I would say that the bracelet suits the watch well and have to admit that Dad has never complained about inadvertent hair removal! The links are solid all the way through which in my opinion is a prerequisite on a sports watch of any kind. A nice touch is that the end links are also solid so they can’t bend and thus become loose over time. My advice to anyone who requires links removed from this type of bracelet – get a watchmaker (who has the right tools) to do it. Omega bracelets are notoriously difficult when it comes to removing links and damage is almost inevitable if it is tried in a do-it-yourself way. One good thing about this bracelet is the clasp – once it is clicked shut then it certainly is hard to open accidentally, whilst a simple catch is used it is very effective and not once has this bracelet popped open. The bracelet has worn well over the last five years, it hasn’t stretched at all and aside from a little cleaning on occasion hasn’t required any refinishing. Any scratches are hidden quite well due to the curvature of the links. The clasp does get scratched quite easily, though a little judicious use of a fine wet and dry paper and all is back to normal.
What Is It About The Speedmaster Professional?
I have always had a kind of love hate relationship with the Speedmaster Professional. I have certainly enjoyed watching my father wear one for the last five years. Indeed, as I stated earlier, I owned one some time ago.
As a relatively young man I hate this watch: it doesn’t have a date, I would need to wind it every day and I would be silly to swim in it. At today’s (2000) price of some GBP1275.00 it seems a bit expensive too. But that is a purely practical perspective. Oh, and the Speedmaster Professional does have its little quirks too; reports of the watch stopping when engaging the chronograph are not unheard of; poor resetting of the chronograph hands is another one.
Despite this, I love the watch…and so do many other people. There are a lot of pluses: manual winding means less to go wrong than with an auto, this watch will last forever! Likewise, the date (or lack of it); does it really matter? People used to live without it, why not keep it simple?! And perhaps the odd shower won’t hurt the watch after all – if I go swimming then take it off! I think that there is a combination of factors which make this watch very desirable; leaving aside the space program for one second, it is perhaps its simplicity that makes it desirable. This is a watch for purists. This is also a watch that hasn’t changed noticeably in over thirty years; it has not been changed by fashion. It also seems to be a watch that can run for a very long time with little or no maintenance: wind it and forget it?
So to the space program which I am certain hasn’t been a bad thing for sales of the Speedmaster. Well, I have to admit that there is a certain feeling about knowing that the type of watch you are wearing was worn by the likes of Jim Lovell or Buzz Aldrin or Pete Conrad. It’s also good to read about the tests performed on the watch by NASA and which were passed with few problems. So here is a watch that has been worn in space, on the moon and has been punished probably more than any other watch. THIS makes me love it!
I have enjoyed watching my Dad enjoy his Speedmaster. I sold mine years ago because I wanted to be able to swim, have the date and not have to wind my watch. But his has been such a good performer and there are of course all the other reasons why it is a good choice.