Monday, April 16, 2012

Watch Brand Review: Omega

The second installment in the Brand Review series takes a look at one of my personal favorites, Omega.


Omega's recent history is a somewhat tumultuous one.  Most of the tumult can be traced back to the Quartz crisis of the late 1970s and 1980s.  While once a true manufacture, by the 1990s and 2000s most of Omega's mechanical movements had become modified versions of stock ETA movements, which lowered the brand's esteem in the eyes of many enthusiasts.  Omega has made significant progress toward returning to true manufacture in recent years with their adoption of Co-Axial technology, starting with the Omega 2500 movement (a heavily modified ETA 2892-A2) and moving on to their in-house Omega 8500 and chronograph Omega 9300 calibers.  With the burgeoning ranks of models powered by their Co-Axial movements, Omega is making a strong case for its return to the ranks of brands like Rolex, Zenith, and IWC.  The only downside to this up-scaling is that those enthusiasts who favored Omega as a solid value proposition in the realm of luxury watch brands may now find their price-value ratio to be nearly indistinguishable from other, pricier brands.


With one exception that I'll come to shortly, Omega hasn't been afraid to update the look and feel of its models as tastes have evolved over the decades.  The exemplar of this trend is the Seamaster line, which has undergone radical redesigns on almost a per-decade basis, although certain design elements have endured and periodically reemerge.  This in my opinion makes Omega's vintage market far more interesting than those populated by long-standing designs like those from Rolex, which leaves collectors clamoring over the most minute variations (e.g., the "Bart Simpson" Rolex crown, "tropical" dials, etc.).  Omega's back catalog is nowhere as easy to categorize, with a myriad of case, dial, and movement variations.  The wider field also makes it easier to score a deal on the secondary market, netting a rare or long out-of-production variation for significantly less than a showroom-new model.

One other design consideration is that, in a market saturated by 40mm+ watches, Omega remains one of the few that still offers versions of their mainstay watches - the Seamaster Professional and Aqua Terra in particular - in 36mm and 38.5mm versions.


Omega's offerings have started to slant toward more flashy and fashionable design elements, such as applied indices and exhibition case backs, in their bid to reposition themselves as a rival to Rolex in the luxury market.  Like Rolex, however, their pedigree comes from reliable tool watches meant to perform their duties in the midst of the extremes the real world can offer.  Despite their new in-house calibers and more refined trappings, Omega watches continue to weather everyday stresses with poise.

My Pick

The most storied and paradigmatic example in their catalogue is the Speedmaster Professional, aka the "Moon Watch," which was the chronograph certified for use by NASA's astronauts and which was both the watch worn by the Apollo 11 crew when they touched down on the moon, and the device which the Apollo 13 crew used to time the calculated thruster burns that brought them safely back to Earth.  Beyond its history, the Speedy Pro has a rock-solid and proven workhorse movement, and a dial design that, in my opinion, is the standard against which all other dials must be measured.  (And against which a startling number of dials on the market today would be found wanting.)  With the advent of the in-house Co-Axial movements, especially the new chronograph offered by the 9300, the original Speedmaster Professional remains the most venerable and timeless offering in Omega's current lineup.  It also represents one of the few iconic models in the wider watch collecting world that is both attainable at a sub-$5000 price point - a range filled with a dearth of otherwise horologically unremarkable watches - rendering it an excellent starting point for a serious watch collection.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Watch Brand Review: Rolex

Today's post will be the first in a new series that focuses on assessing watches at the brand level, looking at commonalities, strengths, and weaknesses of models under a single manufacturer's aegis.  It seems to me that there's no better place to start than the brand that is most widely recognized by the general populace, the name that is arguably the poster child for Swiss watches: Rolex.


Rolex has earned its position in the public consciousness through a combination of solid engineering, classic design, and a meticulous marketing strategy.  Several of its models have attained iconic status in watch collecting circles, but none moreso than its diver watch, the Submariner.  The original silver-screen Bond watch, as worn by Sean Connery in "Dr. No," it is perhaps the most widely recognizable (and most often immitated) watch of the 20th century.

The flipside of Rolex's farflung reputation is its notorious popularity as a hipster status symbol and "blingable" accessory.  Donning one invites associations with the considerable cultural zeitgeist that has formed around the brand, both good and ill.


Most of Rolex's lineup falls under the category of sports watches, though within that definition they tend to remain on the conservative side of the spectrum.  With the exception of its recent releases - specifically the Sky-Dweller, Explorer II, Day-Date II, Deepsea, Yacht-Master II, and Datejust II - Rolex models have maintained diameters of 40mm or under, with many examples from the DateJust and Oyster Perpetual lines topping out at the 1960-era sweet spot of 36mm.  While its conservative sizing and styling may reflect a conscious decision by the brand, it may also indicate a resistance to fickle changes among watchmakers and consumer taste, a recalcitrance that is at least somewhat warranted, given the proven success of Rolex's lineup.  Rolex is also a true manufacture, which means that it designs and produces all of its watch movements in house.  This sort of vertical integration improves a watch brand's standing in enthusiast circles, especially in comparision to brands that employ off-the-shelf movements from dedicated suppliers like ETA and Selita.


Before it became the unofficial Bond watch and a signet for the nouveau riche, Rolex's watches earned their reputation as solid tool watches meant to perform under real-world conditions.  The Oyster case, now standard across the wide majority of its lineup, represented an innovation in proofing a watch's movement from water penetration.  While many now acquire and wear Rolexes for their recognition and brand identity, they remain solid examples of the watchmaking craft and rank among the most robust and dependable mechanical timepieces on the market today.

Nevertheless, some design and functionality issues plague Rolex's past, and at least one (in my opinion) lingers to the present.  While it maintains a group of avid supporters, the perceived flimsiness of Rolex's older bracelets has garnered its share of criticism.  In particular, older hollow-link Jubilee and President-style bracelets noticably "stretch" over time, where the individual links flatten with tension and elongate over time.  Also, all but the newest iterations of models utilized a folded clasp that felt less solid than the molded clasps found on watches from other comparable brands.  Rolex's redesigned molded clasp (which, with the advent of the new Submariner No-Date in 2012, is now available on all current models) is a vast improvement, though some owners claim to prefer the lighter weight of the folded design.

The biggest design concern I have with Rolex's present lineup lies in the ubiquitous use of screw-down crowns.  While it remains a standard if not necessary feature for diver watches - or any watch intended to be used underwater - its presence introduces an assured point of failure that will inevitably wear out with frequent use.  Unless worn frequently enough to maintain its power reserve, each winding and resetting of the watch applies wear to the screw-down threads, and runs the risk of an unwary owner damaging the crown by crossthreading.  This seems an necessary risk for the Submariner, Yacht-Master, and Deepsea models, and an understandable one for the DateJust, Milgauss, and Oyster Perpetual models, it becomes something of a liability on the GMT Master II, Explorer II, and Sky-Dweller models, which by their nature welcome more frequent adjustments to their multi-timezone functions.  The Daytona epitomizes the dilemma, however, as it employs screw-downs for its chronograph pushers as well.  This means that both pushers must be unscrewed with each use of the chronograph, and re-tightened after every use.  In my opinion, the added complication constitutes both a nuisance and the introduction of an unnecessary point of failure.

While this design element is hardly exclusive to Rolex, it is noteworthy because every model in Rolex's catalog - even its dress watch line, the Celini - employs a screw-down crown.  Thus, if you, like me, vastly prefer a push-down crown in all but those watch types - i.e. diver watches - that require them, the ubiquity of the screw-down crown represents a potential dealbreaker when shopping for a watch.  That, coupled with the flimsy-feeling clasp and slightly short-of-the-minute-indices minute hand on the 36mm Explorer I (less noticeable than the 39mm version's egregious design flaw) led me to part with mine.

My Pick

While my penchant for blue dials might make me lean heavily toward the 36mm Oyster Pepetual No-Date with a blue Explorer I-style dial (ref 116000), my pick of the current Rolex lineup is the newly redesigned 2012 Submariner No-Date, reference number 114060.  It features the classic Submariner design with an updated clasp, Parachrome hairspring movement, and ceramic bezel insert.  And the lack of a date function ensures that the crown will only have to be unscrewed in the event of a winding or time adjustment.