Highlights from the Omega Museum
Last year during my trip to Switzerland I was lucky enough to visit the Omega museum in Biel/Bienne to see the finest collection of Omegas anywhere in the world. The museum is a short walk from the local train station and is directly opposite from their Swiss headquarters. Despite this proximity and seeing as neither myself or my wife spoke any French we ended up wandering past the museum several times and it was only after walking into an Employees only section we were directed to the right place....directly above the Omega Employees food hall.
The Omega Museum was the first of it's kind in the watch world: a brand owned museum dedicated to showcasing their history. Starting from the very beginning in 1848, it shows every step they took over 150 years to become the company and manufacturer they are today. We were lucky enough to have the museum almost completely to ourselves and spent a good few hours (very impressive seeing as the space is not actually that large) inspecting each of the cabinets to see what horological wonders lay within. Below are my highlights of the exhibition.
Omega Triple Calendar Moonphase
This triple calendar moonphase in 18K Yellow gold by Omega was probably my favourite dress piece out of the entire museum. There were much rarer watches on display and this piece doesn't have any unique history in itself. It wasn't worn on a President's wrist or blasted off into space, however it shows a timeless beauty that Omega's dress pieces are only just starting to have again. This might be a horological faux pas, but I find the triple calendar complication to be far more refined in appearance than a perpetual calendar, like the Patek Philippe 3587, as they leave the dial cluttered and cramped with a weird mixture of numerals and text. Everything in this piece is perfectly clear and well presented with lovely little touches, like the variation of hands from the leaf hands for hours and minute, the blue steel pointer hand for the date and the subtle stick hand for the small seconds. I wish I had been able to see the movement of this piece as I'm sure it would have been just as beautiful as the dial.
JFK's Ultra Thin Omega
Described by Jackie Kennedy as her husband's "thinnest most elegant wristwatch", this is the timepiece that John F Kennedy wore when he was sworn into office as the 35th President of the United States of America. Anything that was associated with JFK is incredibly valuable and this piece is no exception, with Omega winning the watch at auction in 2005 for a sum of $350,000. What makes this piece special in my opinion is the engraving on the back, "President of the United States, John F. Kennedy from his friend Grant". The friend in question is Grant Stockdale, a Florida businessman and later United States Ambassador to Ireland, who was so confident in Kennedy's ability to win the Oval Office that he gave him this watch with the engraving in 1960, one year before he won the election. The watch is currently on display with the caseback presented outward so the inscription can be seen clearly, it also serves to hide the dial which had some slight water damage when Omega acquired it so I was unable to see whether they had chose to restore it or keep it in the original condition. For me it is this watch's unique place in history that makes it interesting as I don't particularly care for the design of the watch. I don't like the ultra thin stick hand and hour markers as it leaves the dial empty . Perhaps it's the odd proportions of the case that make the dial seem lacking, not quite a square and not quite a rectangle. If you're interested in seeing what other Presidents wore on their wrist then I recommend reading this article over at Hodinkee.
Donn F Eislie's Speedmaster 105.012
Still on the original velcro strap that Lunar Command Module pilot Donn F Eisele used whilst on the Apollo VII mission, there was just something about this particular watch that captured my imagination. Perhaps it is because it's not in perfect museum condition, as you can clearly see dents and dings on the case and lots of scratches across the hesalite crystal. The fact that this watch was used in space is what makes it really really cool. The Speedmaster 105.012 was produced from 1963 to 1966 and was the first watch to have the moniker of "Professional" added to the dial in 1965 after America's first space walk by Ed White wearing a Speedmaster was completed. It was also the first Speedmaster to have the asymmetrical case to protect the chronograph pushers against damage.
Donn Fulton Eisele was originally selected to be part of the ill-fated Apollo I mission but was replaced due to a dislocated shoulder during training, and was eventually selected to be the Lunar Command Module Pilot for Apollo VII. In 1968, Eisele spent a total of ten days, twenty hours and eight minutes in space alongside Commander Walter M. Schirra (the man to wear the first Omega in space) and Lunar Module Pilot R. Walter Cunningham to become the first men in the Apollo program to go to space. Whilst researching Eisele, I came across a story which describes how no-one could pronounce his name correctly (it's EYE-se-lee) and whilst being introduced to President Johnson his name was pronounced Isell and from that point on within NASA, the Apollo VII crew were known as "Wally, Walt and Whatshisname" .
The Omega Museum is lucky to be in possession of several NASA and space-related artifacts: the only NASA command desk outside the US (complete with "Property of NASA US Government" sticker, in case anyone forgot), the solid gold Speedmaster presented to President Nixon and Vice-President Agnew (which I was lucky enough to handle at an Omega training) which both men rejected stating it was too expensive a gift and Apollo XII astronaut Richard F Gordon's 145.012 Speedmaster on his space suit glove. If you're into the history of space, the museum is worth visiting just for these pieces.
The Original Seamaster 300
The original Seamaster 300 Reference CK2913 was launched in 1957 alongside the two other Omega "masters", the Speedmaster and the ever elusive Railmaster. This classic has always been a favourite with collectors, however it has recently soared in popularity since last year's Baselworld where Omega announced the new version of this piece featuring their Master Co-Axial calibre movements. Personally I prefer the original and, needless to say, the museum example was in perfect condition considering its age. A nice even patina has crept in on the broad arrow style hands and hour markers leaving the lume a perfect creamy egg shell colour on a dark chocolate dial. I must say I prefer the thinner sword hour markers in this reference to the larger thicker markers of others.
Launched four years after the Rolex Submariner, these early examples of the first true dive watches are the perfect mixture of form and function in an age when these timepieces were truly cutting edge technology. What you might not be aware of is that the 300 in the watches name does not refer to the water resistancy but rather the movement calibre number. Omega contemplated calling it the Seamaster 200 (it's actual water resistancy) but decided that the name wasn't catchy enough so went with the 300, never actually stating the water resistancy was 300 metres but also never saying it wasn't.
If you ever find yourself in Switzerland, I implore you to get on a train and take a trip to see this collection as you will not regret it. The museum is completely free and if you're lucky you will be able to see one of the watch technicians working on a piece or perhaps catch the curator, Petros, who is a human database of Omega information. If you have a burning question about Omega that you've never been able to find the answer to then he will certainly know. To find out more about the museum and how to request an extract for your vintage watch then please visit omegamuseum.com