A Brief History of the Omega Constellation
The Constellation was Omega's flagship family before it went adrift in the 1980's. What happened?
I called this a 'brief' history of the Omega Constellation because as long as Omega-Constellation-Collectors.blogspot.com still exists then anything I write here can only scratch the surface. Desmond Guilfoyle has spent ten years chronicling, cataloging and writing about the Constellation and I highly recommend that anyone interested about specific references or collecting Constellations should visit his site. Believe me, you won't regret it.
The precursor to the Constellation was the Centenary, a limited edition chronometer that was released in 1948 in celebration of Omega's 100th Anniversary. Only 6000 watches were made, each with an 18kt yellow gold dial and case and presented in a sterling silver box. The 33mm Ref. 2499 (Caliber 28.10) was first released with a run of 2000 and 35.5mm Ref. 2500, with the slightly larger caliber 30.10, followed up with the remaining 4000. The beautifully faceted lugs and gold dauphine hands aren't identical to the Constellation's but you cannot refute the parental similarities. The Centenary proved so popular that Omega decided to create a new watch that would be held to the same standards of design and watchmaking as the Centenary.
The Constellation was released in 1952 and was named in honor of the Constellation jet that flew during World War 2. Available in steel, yellow gold and rose gold as well as three grades of finishing (Standard, Deluxe and Grand Luxe), the Constellation was Omega's flagship watch from the very beginning. Even its case back referenced Omega's commitment to horological excellence; the iconic observatory engraving referenced the location of the chronometer trials and the eight stars in the sky represented the eight chronometric records that Omega broke in 1931.
The first run of Constellations used the Omega Caliber 35x bumper movement which was replaced in 1955 by the full rotor Caliber 50x series. As fitting for a watch so steeped in reverence for horological precision, the movements of the Constellation were constantly upgraded and for decades it remained the watch to first see the best new movements from the manufacturer. Despite these inner changes, the design of the Constellation remained the same for almost twenty years.
To me, a 'true' Constellation shall always have that twelve-sided pie-pan dial, dauphine hands and elegant lugs.
Gerald Genta is often credited online with having designed the Constellation but the custom of the time was not to credit a freelance designer and even on Genta's most famous creation, the Patek Philippe Nautilus, it is Philippe Stern who is listed on the patent. In 2009, Genta admitted that his 'direct client wasn’t Omega, but Omega’s suppliers and it was in this manner that I participated in the creation of the Seamaster, or of the Constellation, for example by designing the case for the one, or designing a dial or a bracelet for another. Today, even within Omega itself they do not know all that I have done for them, but no matter!'. However Desmond Guilfoyle of Omega-Constellaion-Collectors.com managed to speak with Genta's wife who confirmed that her husband designed at least two Constelattions, the Ref. 168.005 and the Ref. 168.009 C-Shape. For many, the Ref. 168.005 remains the definitive steel Constellation.
The Ref. 168.009 was released in the later part of the 1960's when Omega were trialing new designs for the Constellation range including the Integral which had an intergrated bracelet and a rectangular case. It was during the quartz crisis when Omega had their own crisis of confidence as they struggled to stay afloat as a mechanical watchmaker in an age when everyone wanted convenience over tradition; this was when the Constellation began to drift away from it's formal dress watch roots into something different.
My father's own Constellation, Ref. 168.0044, was one of the last mechanical references before they were relegated towards the back of the catalog and cheaper quartz pieces were brought to the front. Despite design changes, the Constellation was still the home for Omega's high-end precision movements and in the 1970's a Constellation became the world's most accurate wristwatch. The Megaquartz f2.4 MHz was a hulking steel mass that debuted at the 1970 Basel Fair and it was the first Constellation to have a quartz movement inside. Four years later Omega released it the watch which was fitted with variations on the Omega Caliber 1500 series. The Caliber 1510 and 1516 remain the most accurate autonomous wristwatch movements ever produced as after sixty-three days of testing, they had a mean variation rate of no more than 2000ths of a second per day.
The Omega Constellation MegaQuartz still remains the only wristwatch ever to be awarded the title of Marine Chronometer.
The Constellation's next big change came in 1982 with the launch of the Manhattan and many of the design hallmarks that were introduced then are still present in the current day Constellation: the integrated bracelet, roman numerals on the bezel and four claws on the side of the case. Whilst they are purely decorational now, the four claws (sometimes called griffes) back in 1982 were crucial to the integrity of the case as they held the large crystal in place over the bezel. The intergrated, tapering bracelet has remained on the Constellation ever since though Omega had improved the quality of finishing along with using solid gold links rather than plated in two-tone models. The Manhattan launched with the quartz caliber 1422 and soon the automatic Caliber 1111 was also in use.
In 1995, a smaller domed crystal that didn't cover the bezel was used however the four claws remained. The automatic and quartz movements were upgraded however the quartz movements were no longer chronometer certified. The Constellation saw a few more new releases over the next decade with the Double Eagle line in 2003 but on the whole the design stayed in-line with the Manhattan re-design.
When the Globemaster, technically part of the Constellation family, was released in 2015, it accomplished two things. It proved Omega's commitment to their new METAS certification process & their Master Chronometer designation and it unwittingly wrote the eulogy for my hopes that the main constellation series would get a design change similar to the old Constellations. The Globemaster is the closest a regular production Constellation has come to the classic designs of the 1950's and 1960's and comparing the Globemaster to a regular Constellation shows just how dated the Manhattan design is.
I'll be perfectly honest and say that I dislike the Manhattan and I loathe that it's dated design has stayed within the Constellation for over thirty years.
The design is stale and apart from a limited edition series from a few years back, the modern Constellations have constantly disappointed me when compared against the other line up of Omega watches. The De Ville collection might be a little vanilla ( Other than the Tresor which I love) but if you're looking for a traditional dress watch then it's perfect. The Seamasters have pretty much every base covered for sports and diving watches and the Speedmaster is the essence of timeless design.
I understand Omega's refusal to change the design with the Constellation as its the most popular line for them in China and parts of Asia. When the Chinese market likes something, you give it to them and make money hand over fist so I can't fault Omega for wanting to make money but I'm disappointed in how the Constellation has turned out over the years. So what's next? Frankly I don't know but I'm willing to speculate.
The Constellation has seen so many changes over the years that the sky's the limit for what they could do with a re-design Constellation. The Globemaster is a semi-seperate re-edition of the old Constellation, the Seamaster 300 of the Constellation family if you will, so it's unlikely that we'll see the main Constellation family follow suit in design. Omega likes releasing watches in anniverary years but 2022 is a long way off so perhaps in 2018 we'll see a line of Centenary-esque watches for their 170th Anniversary? Not an exact re-edition as Omega did that for their Museum Edition collection in 2004/5 but something inspired by it.
What do you think Omega should do with the Constellation? How should Omega reinvigorate the design? What is your favorite Constellation reference? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments below.