Clash of the Titans: Omega vs. Rolex
Fifty years ago Omega and Rolex were very similar companies. Now they couldn't be more different yet people still compare the two, why?
I can already see furrowed brows forming and disapproving tuts being uttered from some reading that but I believe it's true. Their watches were never identical nor always of the same quality it would be foolish to deny certain similarities. However as the years advanced the company's became two very distinct entities, Rolex solidified into the very definition of luxury watchmaking to many whilst Omega's poor decisions led them to be considered forever in the Crown's shadow.
This change in the two companies started in the almost dwindling twilight of the traditional Swiss watch industry, the quartz crisis. As cheap as they were efficient, the quartz movement dropped like an atom bomb over Switzerland as the result of centuries of horological advancement. It was the most advanced timekeeping possible at the time but it also stood against everything the watch industry had become; it was impersonal, it was mass-produced, there was no artistry involved and perhaps the most damning blow to the bastions of watchmaking, it wasn't Swiss.
Swiss watchmakers were not completely ignorant of the advancement of electronic and quartz watches and in 1962 twenty maisons formed the Centre Electronique Horloger to begin development on a Swiss electronic movement. It took the CEH seven years to develop the Beta-21 quartz movement with the first production watch featuring Swiss quartz being the Omega Electroquartz Ref.196.005, followed by a limited sold-out run of 1000 pieces of the Rolex Oysterquartz Ref. 5100.
It was the decisions that Rolex and Omega then made that would affect the next forty years and would form the basis for the Rolex vs. Omega argument for the next fifty years
Whilst Rolex continued to produce their in-house Oysterquartz movements until 2001 they never became the focus of the brand. By elegantly pivoted their focus to the luxury market and maintaining traditional designs in spite of current trends Rolex were able to stay above the fray of quartz watches and maintain their quality in difficult times. Omega moved in the opposite direction by embracing quartz movements by the 1980s and 1990s their reputation and quality of watches had suffered. By experimenting with countless new families of watches and embracing the styles of the period Omega developed a fractured and sporadic line-up that looked haphazard compared to the refined portfolio of Rolex.
The Emerald, the Dynamic, 2nd generation Ranchero, Dynamics and Saphettes & the 3rd generation Dynamic all fell by the wayside until the consolidation of Omega's watches into the four main families: Seamaster, Speedmaster, Constellation and De Ville. Omega seemed unfocused and unsure of direction whilst Rolex's commitment (Either through luck, pigheadedness or incredible foresight) to their traditional designs meant that Rolex's of the 1970s and 1980s remain desirable and valuable today in a way that Omega's never can be.
I asked Toby Sutton, Co-founder of Watches of Knightsbridge, about his experiences with vintage Omega and Rolex at auction. "When comparing a vintage Datejust to a Constellation, Datejusts are generally worth more because of the Rolex brand, the 36mm diameter and robust case etc; whereas the Constellations are 34mm and slimmer with fancy designs more 'of the period (Referring to 50's to 70's). The early Constellations were probably better quality than the early Datejusts but Rolex maintained their quality through the 70's, 80's and 90's whereas Omega struggled".
Rolex's decision to remain steadfast in their design, current style trends mostly be damned, has allowed their watches to remain essentially timeless for over fifty years.This is not to say that Omega watches were bad but the appeal of a Speedmaster Mark III, IV, IV.5 is going to be a lot less than a Daytona of the same period. Both Toby and Alex Stevens, also of Watches of Knightsbridge, enjoy collecting vintage Omega because of the sheer variety of watches available. Alex has a vintage Seamaster with 'waffle dial' that he's never seen before, something that is unlikely to happen with a vintage Datejust.
Ultimately personal taste trumps any critique of quality when it comes to discussing one's passion. I happen to love the television cases of 1970s watches but that doesn't take away from the timelessness of a Datejust.
Still there will always be arguments about which brand is "best" so I thought I'd talk about the merits of certain facts brought up by fans on either sides, firstly the Crown's use of the apparently superior 904L stainless steel. Rolex says it has superior anti-corrosion properties comparable to precious metals and compared to the industry standard of 316L used by Omega. 904L was first used in certain Sea-Dwellers 1985, then widely introduced in 2000 and ultimately used in all steel components (including bracelets) in 2006.
There are differences between 904L and 316L, namely the quantities of other metals used in the alloy and the PREN or Pitting Resistance Equivalent Number. This PREN is a measurement of the corrosion resistance of stainless steel with a higher number being more desirable. 316L has a PREN value of 24.1 and 904L has a value of 34.2. How much difference to a daily wear this higher value actually makes is perhaps debatable but there is a difference. 904L has a higher nickel content meaning that some wearers can have skin irritation when wearing the watch if allergic to the metal. 316L scores better on the Rockwell hardness scale but for a watch the differences in corrosive resistance and hardness are negligible (Unless you plan on dowsing yourself in acid and by then your hand will have melted a lot sooner than your watch),
Both brands use a variation on the silicon balance wheel and hairspring that was developed in partnership with Patek Philippe, Omega calls it Silicium and Rolex Parachrom. As with the proprietary advancements on the Beta-21 system there are differences between each brand's balance wheels and hair springs but ultimately they are cut from the same cloth. Omega's co-axial calibers however start to make direct comparisons of movements difficult as it is so different from the traditional Swiss Lever escapement.
We're nine years out since the launch of the first true Co-Axial caliber (the 8500) so it is yet unknown how this new technology will fair over the course of time. Omega's unbridled exuberance to embrace new technology has not always been beneficial to the brand and in the mind of many they are still working to cast off the shackles of their darker quartz days. Their lower prices and expansive product placement seems to confirm to some that they are still a 'mall brand' that will never reach the heights of Rolex.
That belief is foolhardy and relies on ignoring the genuine commitment to the advancement of watchmaking Omega clearly has; first Co-Axial calibers and now the METAS certification show that Omega is fully invested in mechanical watchmaking. There are still quartz models in the range, namely smaller ladies pieces in the Constellation and Deville families, but it's not secret that Omega eventually wants to have all their watches be mechanical. Maybe when that happens then they will be seen as equals of Rolex?
The irony in all of this is that this 'battle' between the brands is created in the minds of those wearing the watches, not those making them. Speaking to an employee at the Omega Museum a few years ago, he said that when the whistle blows at 5pm, brothers and sisters, parents and children will leave out of the doors of Rolex and Omega and play football and drink beer. This is a fight that the watch community has created that ultimately the brands are not concerned about. They have worked together multiple times in the past and will continue to do so in the future and as long as they keep creating great watches we should all be happy.