Welcome to the third installment of Reference Points, our series that takes an exhaustive look at some of the most important families of timepieces in history (Episode 1 featured the entire collection of perpetual calendar chronographs from Patek Philippe, and Episode 2 featured the Rolex Paul Newman Daytona). In this episode, we examine the legendary Omega Speedmaster, a watch that has become a brand unto itself over the last 50 years. We'll examine the origins of the Speedmaster, its progression into the "space watch" that we know today, and how it has evolved over the years.
I will begin by pointing out what this is not. This is not a look at every watch to wear the Speedmaster name, but rather those that we would classify as true "moon watches" – meaning those with a manually wound movement from Lemania, three registers, and no date. Over the years, Omega has produced hundreds of offshoot watches, but for purity's sake (and brevity's, for that matter), we will focus on the purest of all Speedmasters here. Further, this is not a look at how the Speedmaster made it to space, but rather how to examine individual references to know what they should look like. Let's get down to it.
The Origins Of The Omega Speedmaster – For Men Who Reckon Time In Seconds
Omega Speedmaster Reference 2915-1 original drawing.
The very first thing that one must understand about the Speedmaster is that in 1957 when it was launched, chronographs made up a very, very small percentage of watch sales – for all brands. A chronograph, or a watch with "stop watch" functionality, whether it be from Omega, Heuer, Rolex, Vacheron, or Patek Philippe, would be a purpose-built tool designed to be used by an engineer, a technician, a doctor, or a sportsman of some kind. The chronograph for the casual timepiece wearer was not a concept that would develop until some years later – really into the 1970s – and we have explored how that transition took place with the help of the Jack Heuer and the number three cigarette in America here.
This is part of the reason why sports-oriented chronographs from any maker – including Omega – are so much more coveted than their simpler counterparts. Not only are they more complicated, but they are also far more rare, with a target market much narrower than their simple time-telling brothers. Consider this original advertisement for the 1957 Omega Speedmaster seen below.
Original 1957 Omega Speedmaster advertisement.
Here we see two men, one piloting what appears to be a performance car of some kind, and the other with his hand on the brand new "Omega high-precision wrist computer" that allows the wearer to determine the car's speed with "no calculating. no paperwork." How is this done? With the T.P.M. – or Tacho-Productometer scale "etched into the rim of the case."
It's very easy for all of us to forget that mechanical watches were neither the fashion accessory that some consider them today, nor were they a retro throwback nice-to-have for the well-to-do and upwardly mobile – they were tools.
This is what we were dealing with back then, folks. A Tacho-Productometer! That is what Omega first called its engraved tachymeter bezel. (Incidentally, if we can revive that term for the tachy-bezel, I will consider my life a success.) It's very easy for all of us to forget that mechanical watches were neither the luxury fashion object that some consider them today, nor were they a retro throwback nice-to-have for the well-to-do and upwardly mobile – they were tools. The 1957 Speedmaster, with its engraved tachy bezel, three-register chronograph, and anti-magnetic, shock-proof, triple-sealed case, water resistant up to 200 feet, was what Omega thought to be the most durable, highest precision, most useful wrist computer in the world.
The Speedmaster Wasn't The Only Legendary Omega Born In 1957
While the Speedmaster is undoubtedly Omega's most famous watch to come from the year 1957, we must remember that it was launched as one part of an entire family of technical watches. The very same year, we would see the introduction of the reference 2913 Omega Seamaster, a new serious diver's watch aimed at competing with Blancpain's Fifty Fathoms and the Rolex Submariner, both introduced four years earlier in 1953. Further, 1957 saw the birth of the reference 2914 Railmaster, a highly anti-magnetic watch aimed squarely at engineers, and combating the Rolex Milgaus, IWC Ingenieur, and even Patek's 3417. Like the Speedmaster, the original Seamaster and Railmaster references (CK2913 and CK2914, respectively) remain remarkably difficult to track down in original condition. The Railmaster, for example, is the pride of Mr. Eric Ku, who showed his early example in his episode of Talking Watches. While both the Railmaster and the Seamaster remain in production today – the Seamaster 300 revived in its original form just last year – the reference CK2915 Speedmaster remains the most sought after and valuable of all technical Omegas introduced in 1957.
Omega Seamster Reference 2913 (courtesy of Precious Time).
Omega Railmaster Reference 2914 (courtesy of Antiquorum).
Omega Speedmaster Reference 2915 – Circa 1957 Through 1959
Omega Reference 2915-1, circa 1957.
As discussed in the above video, the reference 2915 Omega Speedmaster is indeed the progenitor of the entire Speedy family, but I would hesitate to call it the archetype – I believe that to be the reference 2998. Still, the CK2915 is the most desirable and valuable of all Omega Speedmasters due to its importance, rarity, and completely different look. Launch in 1957 with reference 2915-1, the entire reference, including 2915-2 and the transitional 2915-3, would last barely three years. Identifying a 2915 watch is perhaps the easiest of all Speedmasters, due to some very noticeable differences from later watches, not the least of which are the broad arrow hands.
Broad arrow hands are the easiest way to identify a reference 2915.
The other easy to understand trait of the 2915 reference Speedmaster is the stainless steel bezel with tachymeter scale – or what Omega first called the Tacho-Productometer scale. Consider that at the time, a tachymeter scale existed – at best – on the outer rim of chronograph's dial. The large case with external bezel, Omega believed, would allow wearers to quicker reference the scale for measuring speed. Rolex's Daytona – born a good six years later in 1963 – was to borrow this concept by putting a tachymeter scale on an external bezel, as did Heuer with its Autavia. The Heuer Carrera, however, would not receive a tacyhmeter scale at all until the mid to late 1960s with its 2447 reference NST and SNT – the "T" denoting tachymeter scale. Still, these scales were printed on the dial, not a bezel. Heuer would make up for this in the 1970s with the introduction of the rotating tachymeter bezel.
Speedmaster reference 2915-1 and 2915-2 should always have a stainless-steel bezel.
While the hands and bezel are absolutely the most easily discernable differences between the super early Speedmasters and just plain early Speedmasters, the 2915 is actually a dramatically different watch when you begin to examine the little things. The dial, for example, should feature an "Omega" with an oval shaped "O." The tail of the "R" in "Speedmaster" should also be quite long on early watches.
Notice the "O" is oval shaped in "Omega" on this early reference 2915-2.
On reference 2915-1 and 2915-2, the case back actually may not feature an Omega hippocampus, instead being totally blank for the most part with "Speedmaster" written on one edge. Having said that, it is indeed possible for there to be a seahorse on the flat part of the back – though "Speedmaster" must always be written on the edge of the back in this instance. All backs of the 2915-1 and 2915-2 feature a single bevel to the edge.
Reference 2915-1 and 2915-2 should feature mostly blank case backs, with "Speedmaster" engraved on one edge.
The reference 2915-3 is where things get tricky. This watch was made for only one year –1959 – and is the very definition of the "transitional" watch. What we mean by this is that just about anything goes here. It bears the reference of the earliest Speedmasters – 2915 – but that doesn't mean it may not look just like the watch that came next – reference 2998-1; you can find 2915-3 models with both a brushed metal and a black bezel with "base 1000" script. So it could look like a 2998, but at the same time, it may look just like an 2915-2.
The word "transitional" may well have been invented for Speedmaster Reference 2915-3. Just about anything goes.
I have seen 2915-3's with steel bezels and broad arrow hands. I've also seen them with black bezels and alpha hands (what you'll find on the next watch, reference 2998). I've seen 2915-3's with a steel bezel and alpha hands; I've seen them with a black bezel and broad arrow hands. The thing is, all of them could very well be correct. In 1959, Omega was finishing up production of its first Speedmasters, all the while ramping up to launch the next Speedmaster, and the 2915-3 was caught in the middle.
Reference 2915-3 may be a mish-mash of the first and second genaration watches – like this one with broad arrow hands but a black, base 1000 bezel.
The dial, case, and pushers of the 2915-3 should match that of the 2915 as described, but you should see a case back that, for the first time, says "Speedmaster" directly above the Seahorse logo. The back should also feature a double-bevel. However, if you were to find a 2915-3 with an earlier back, I do not believe anyone would challenge its authenticity. The 2915-3 is a remarkably complicated watch to authenticate and value because of all this, whereas the 2915-1 and 2915-2 sit more clearly in the upper echelons of watch collecting, thanks to the relative lack of ambiguity in identifying them and establishing that they're correct.
Omega Speedmaster Reference 2998 – Circa 1959 Through 1963
Omega Speedmaster Reference 2998-1.
As I mentioned above, the 2915 is certainly the earliest of the Speedmaster series, but I would argue the 2998 is potentially more important, and even the archetype for what we know today. I say this not with respect to value – I believe the 2915 should indeed warrant a premium over the 2998 due to age, rarity, and intrigue – but the 2998 is when the Speedmaster really came into its own. We see eight different sub-references of the 2998 from 1959 through 1963: -1 through -6, then -61, and -62. The difference between these eight sub-references can be minimal, so we'll do the best we can to break them down for you.
Reference 2998-1 features a "Base 1000" bezel.
The first 2998, 2998-1, can be virtually identical to some of the 2915-3's produced in the very same year – 1959. We now see, universally, the "base 1000" script on a black bezel. Gone are the broad arrow hour and minute hands, and in their place are alpha hands. What you still may see in the 2998-1, however, is is the squat, oval-like "O" in Omega, though that is not a must for the 2998-1. The sub-register hands remain "alpha" shaped in the 2998-1.
In reference 2998-2, we retain the Base 1000 bezel, the alpha hands for both hours and minutes and sub-registers, but no longer should we see an oval shaped "O." The hands and dial remain the same for the reference 2998-3, only we lose the "Base 1000" bezel to be replaced by a "Tachymétre 500" bezel.
Reference 2998-4 is where one might begin to see stick sub-register hands.
By 2998-5, we absolutely see stick sub-register hands, a "Base 500" bezel, a circular "O" in Omega on the dial. We retain the crown-guard-less symmetrical case, and applied Omega symbol, and the watch remains relatively static for reference 2998-6, -61, and 62 – the latter two sub-references indicating year of production.
The 2998, with its black bezel and alpha hands, set the stage for the Speedmaster that we know today. Also, it is with this reference that the connection to space begins to take shape. Astronaut Wally Schirra made his historic voyage aboard the Mercury Atlas 8 mission in October of 1962 wearing a reference 2998.
Astronaut Wally Schirra's personal Omega Speedmaster Reference 2998.
Schirra's Omega was indeed the first in space, and it was used as the model for "The First Omega In Space" released at Basel World in 2012. It should be noted that this Omega was Schirra's personal watch, not one issued to him by NASA. That would come shortly thereafter.
Omega Speedmaster Reference 105.002 – Circa 1962 Through 1964
Omega Speedmaster reference 105.002 is identical to the 2998-62.
What is funny about the next reference, 105.002, which was made from 1962 through 1964, is that it is in fact identical to the 2998-62. Further, one can even find 2998-62's that were made after a 105.002, so it is hard to say that the progression between models is linear. This is the very last reference to be born with alpha hour and minute hands.
Omega Speedmaster Reference 105.003 – Circa 1964 Through 1969
Here we begin to see larger pushers on the Speedmaster for the first time.
Here is where things get even more confusing. While an Omega has been in space already, we aren't yet at the point where NASA has flight-qualified anything. However, we do start to see the watch get a little beefier with larger pushers, and now thin white hour and minute hands that the Speedmaster would retain in perpetuity.
105.003-63 was the first reference to be born with luminous filled straight hour and minute hands.
While sub references -63 and -64 are quite rare, we do see many -65 105.003-65's in the wild. They were made all the way through the end of the caliber 321 period in 1969. Included here is also the reference 145.003, which is identical to the 105.003-65: symmetrical case, larger pushers, stick sub register and hour/minute hands. These are the last watches to be sized at 38mm.
Omega Speedmaster Reference 105.012 – Circa 1964 Through 1968
Reference 105.012 was the first Speedmaster to have an asymmetrical case with crown guards.
With reference 105.012 we really see the Speedmaster start to evolve and take the shape of what we know – and is still made – today. For the first time we have crown guards – in fact we have an entirely new, larger mid-case. The pushers are wider, and completely protected by the new case design. On the dial, we have "Professional" written below "Omega Speedmaster." Again, we must remember that Omega produced these watches at the very same time as other references featuring symmetrical cases and "Pre-Professional" dials. There is no linear transition with Speedmasters, and one must remember that when trying to date an example. With 105.012, we now also have a 42mm case.
With reference 105.012 we really see the Speedmaster start to evolve and take the shape of what we know – and is still made – today.
The 105.012 takes its place in the history book not only because it features the thicker professional case we know today, but also because it was in fact the watch that would play a central role in space exploration. While it was the 105.003 that NASA used in its testing of chronographs, the 105.012 would be used to accompany Apollo astronauts on several early missions.
Neil Armstrong wore a 105.012, Michael Collins wore the later 145.012, and Aldrin may have worn either – we just don't know. What's more, Aldrin's watch disappeared on the way to the Smithsonian in 1970, making it one of the great lost timepieces in history.
The case for the reference 105.012 was made by two different casemakers. The vast majority of manually wound Speedmasters came from Huguenin Freres, but for this reference, we see a different casemaker on occasion. These watches are called 105.012CB and come from La Centrale Boîtes of Bien. You'll see beveled lyre lugs (some call them twisted flat lugs) on the case as you see below.
Reference 105.012 was made by two different casemakers – those produced by La Centrale Boîtes of Bien feature wide beveled lugs.
On the inside of the case back you'll find the letters "CB" engraved, as seen here. It is quite rare to find an unpolished CB case 105.012 and they are certainly desired by many.
Omega Speedmaster Reference 145.012 – Circa 1967 Through 1969
145.012 was the last Omega Speedmaster to house caliber 321
The reference 145.012, while the latest and perhaps least valuable of all 321-powered Speedmaster, is in fact what I think of when I think of the term "Speedmaster." It was produced from 1967 through 1968, though at times we see a few pieces trickle out in 1969. The 145.012 is similar to the 105.012, but now we have larger, taller pushers. While it is the most common 321 Speedmaster, it was also worn by more Astronauts than any other, and because it is the latest and most common, it it is the least expensive. In other words, this is probably the best deal in Speedmasters because you get true NASA DNA and the famed 321 caliber, but without having to spend a fortune.
Omega Speedmaster Reference 145.022 – Circa 1969 To 1988
Reference 145.022 is the longest running of all Moonwatch Speedmasters.
Reference 145.022 marked another major turning point for the Speedmaster. No longer would the moonwatch house the legendary column-wheel chronograph caliber 321. Instead, the moonwatch would feature the simpler and less expensive caliber 861, a cam-controlled chronograph. It is no coincidence that it was around the same time that the Speedmaster gained international acclaim as the Moonwatch that Omega decided to try to pump up production numbers by lowering costs. We must not also forget that this was the exact time period when Switzerland would begin to feel the pressure of Japanese quartz for the first time. It is easy to express disappointment in Omega's decision to kill the mighty 321, but they themselves were in danger of death.
Because the 145.022 ran for so many years, there are many sub-references. The first, -68, can be considered a pre-moon watch because it was made in 1968 and though it contains an 861 caliber, it features an applied Omega logo on the dial. The case back is also identical to the 145.012, caliber 321 watch that predated it. Sub-reference -69 is the first to feature a painted logo on the dial while retaining the original caseback on early examples. Later example of the 145.022-68 feature engraved, straight text "The First Watch Worn On The Moon."
From 1971 through 1988, reference 145.022 would see a handful of sub-references with nominal changes to the dial printing. The first watch to feature the medallion case back is indeed the 145.022-71, and it was the last to feature a flanged dial. To many, it here where the concept of vintage Speedmaster collecting ends and the era of limited editions begins.
Collecting The Speedmaster
As I stated in the introduction to this story, our Reference Points pieces are not intended to tell you the stories behind the watches – but rather provide a detailed understanding of how to identify particular references through the eyes of a collector. We hope the above video and text does that for you, but I want to emphasize a few points for you to drive them home. First things first: with Omega Speedmaster collecting, anything goes. It is very likely that you could find watches with discrepancies from what I've described here, and they very well could be correct. This article is a guide to best practices and generally believed thinking on how each reference was made – not an exact science. Use this story as a guide, but be willing to do your own research to verify any watch.
A note about dates – nothing with the Speedmaster is sequential. I once owned a 2915-2 that was produced in November of 1957, before many 2915-1's. I've seen 2915-1's with case backs that said 2915-2. I've seen 2998-1's with bezels from 2998-4's that I was sure were born that way. I've seen 145.012's produced in 1969 and 145.022's produced in 1968. Again, almost anything goes, but this story should provide you a guiding light into what should be.
This problem seems to be even compounded when you begin to look at the early watches – those with reference 2915 and 2998. The number of replacement parts, even fake parts, is just remarkable, and when looking at an early, high-dollar Speedmaster, be extra vigilant. As Eric mentioned in the above video, full-spec early Speedmasters are remarkably rare, and trump the least common Rolexes and Heuers by a considerable sum in terms of how infrequently we see them. Realistically, there are likely just a few hundred 2915's out there that remain "full spec" and even fewer that remain not badly polished. However, there were between 40,000 and 80,000 321-powered Omegas produced in the middle of last century, so do not think for one second that a 321 Speedmaster is that rare. It is this scale of production that traditionally hurt the value of the Speedmaster, though now it appears as if the great examples are already in collections and not leaving anytime soon.
A full-spec early Speedmaster – Reference 2998 or 2915 – is remarkably rare, and deserves to be seriously coveted.
Next – and I say this knowing I will be hurting the feelings of many (sorry about that, truly) – even with the thousands of 321 Omegas being produced, the difference in quality, rarity, and long-term value of the 321 watches versus the 861's is considerable, and should be even more considerable with time. When Omega killed the 321 movement and jumped to the 861, the watch lost a big part of its charm – a truly world-class heart. The 321, as you likely know, is based on a Lemania chronograph caliber dating to 1941 that has been used in the likes of the greatest chronographs in the world – Patek 3970/5970/5004, countless Vacherons to this day, and now many Breguets. Of course, these high-end manufactures would dress up and finish the 321 in remarkable ways, but it did not change the fact that inside was still the same caliber as found in an Omega Speedmaster. Amazing bragging rights for the 321 owner, for sure.
The current Speedmaster Professional, sold by Omega for $5,250.
Finally, despite the watch-snob collector in me saying what I just said, I truly believe that every manually wound Speedmaster with any Lemania chronograph caliber in it is a spectacular watch. The Speedmaster does everything so well, and no matter the case style, dial type, or production year, a Speedmaster is an unbelievably satisfying watch to own long-term. What makes the Speedmaster even more fun is that is the only watch that I can think of that is still produced the same way, with the same case proportions and dial design, with almost the same caliber that it was in the late 1960s. Omega still makes the Professional, and sells it all day long for a retail price of $5,250. That means you can buy a great Speedmaster today and make it your very own – write your name on those papers, and own it and enjoy it every single day for the rest of your life, and there is a beauty in that, too. And quite frankly, even with the 1861 caliber instead of the 321, I don't think there is a better way to spend $5,000 on a new watch in the world.
The Quick Reference Guide
*Please allow for some variations – Omega Speedmaster collecting is anything but an exact science.
As always, our Reference Points stories are not a singular work but a culmination of others' independent studies and research. In the case of the Speedmaster, we would like to thank Eric Wind and the Christie's Watch Department for loaning not only their time but also several of the pieces seen above (to be sold in the Speedmaster 50 thematic sale on December 15 in NYC). We would also like to thank the late Chuck Maddox, our friends at Omega – both on the PR side and in the museum, and the gentlemen behind the amazing book Moonwatch Only, absolutely the finest guide to Speedmaster on the planet – which may be purchased right here.
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