A Brief History of the Omega Railmaster
The Omega Railmaster was one of the classic Omega watches from the 1950s.
Released in 1957, the CK2914 Railmaster (along with the CK2913 Seamaster and the CK2915 Speedmaster) was part of Omega's new collection of tool watches. Whilst the other two watches catered to deep sea divers and race car drivers, the Railmaster was for electrical engineers and scientists. Not quite as glamorous a job but the Railmaster had enough technical chops to match either of its siblings as what made it special was the anti-magnetic shielding that protected the movement.
There have been any attempts over the years to protect watches from magnetic fields. Whilst invisible to the human eye and harmless (in most cases), magnetic fields can damage the most delicate and crucial parts of a watch, the escapement and balance spring. Magnetic fields can pull on the balance spring to ruin the oscillating frequency and thereby mess with the accuracy of the watch. As technology advanced in the 21st Century, it was clear that those working with large magnetics and electric fields needed timepieces that could do the job.
By the time the Railmaster was released, other anti-magnetic watches had already hit the market; Rolex had released their Milgauss Ref. 6541 in 1954 and IWC released the Ingenieur Ref. 666 in 1955. Omega had been prototyping anti-magnetic watches since as early as 1952 when they made an anti-magnetic watch for the British Royal Air Force. Since World War II, the RAF had been requesting watches capable of resisting the magnetic fields generated by the Spitfires' radial engines. After the RAF prototype, Omega released the Ref. 2777-2 to the Canadian market in 1953 and it is this watch that acts as a stepping stone towards the CK2914.
Thanks to the Faraday Cage protecting the movement, the CK2914-1 was Omega's first watch resistant to 1000 Gauss. Named after Michael Faraday, the English scientist who pioneered the study of electromagnetism, the Faraday Cage is a box made of conductive material that stop electromagnetic fields from affecting what is inside. The Faraday Cage is still used by many watch brands today when making anti-magnetic watches. By placing a NuMetal (a branded name for soft iron) plate on the case back, Omega were able to protect the movement inside from magnetic fields. Omega chose to use 30T2 base movement for the Railmaster which would be renamed the Calibers 284, 285 and 286 throughout its years of use. To further add to the magnetic resistance of the watch, Omega made the dial 1mm thick instead of the usual 0.4mm
The Railmaster case was 38mm and made of stainless steel (At the time known as Staybrite) and was water resistant down to 60 meters/200ft.
Like the CK2913 Seamaster 300, the CK2914 Railmaster did not have a screw-down crown. Instead, the Naiad crown (identifiable by a small Mercedes symbol within the Ω) would push tighter against the seals as the water pressure increased the deeper a diver went.
The dial design to the original Railmaster is similar to the CK2913 Seamaster 300. The high contrast black dial with white arabic numerals and luminous triangular hour markers is now one of the most iconic that Omega made, even though the Railmaster was unpopular at the time. There were of course several rare dials of a different color, including an very rare white dialed version with thin leaf shaped hands. Omega would change the type of hands used on the Railmaster throughout its production and different models can be found with broad arrow (as used on the first model), dauphine and baton hands.
During the early 1960s, Omega began producing a version of the Railmaster for use on the North American and Canadian Pacific Railways. This version still had the anti-magnetic properties of the original but the design changed to accommodate the requirements of railroad staff; the dial was now white and all hours markers were large, black numerals rather than the iconic triangles. Some versions of the watch have the hours for twenty four hour time printed in red, just next to the black numbers. This Railroad edition Railmaster was short lived because Ball, who had been making railroad pocket and wristwatches for decades, sued Omega for their use of the 'Official Standard' text on the Railroad Railmasters. Omega lost and stopped production of the Railroad edition. As watch collectors know, anything that had a short production cycle combined with an interesting story usually becomes desirable eventually. The Railmaster Railroad Office Standard is one of those watches.
The two pieces that are even rarer than Railroad Railmasters are those created for the Pakistani Air Force and the Peruvian Air Force. The Railmasters made for the Pakistani Air Force are unique because it reads Seamaster on the dial rather than Railmaster. Ages ago I saw a comment on Hodinkee offering an explanation for this but I can't find it so here is the best my memory can do:
Due to the negative connotations between the railroads and the British Raj's control of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, there was a distaste for anything connected to the railroads. Railroad conductors were seen as servants of the British Empire so the independent Pakistan didn't want its Air Force wearing watches with anything train/rail related. This is a half remembered theory based off an internet comment but I think it's quite believable. Whether we'll ever find out if its true or not is another matter.
The other PAF Railmaster was made for the Peruvian Air Force and this one also did not read Railmaster, instead it said Flightmaster. What is strange about this piece is that at the time of production, Omega hadn't started making the Flightmaster line. On the case back there was the engraving F.A.P for Fuerza Aerea del Peru.
Whilst its two contemporaries from 1957 went from success to success, the production of the Railmaster ceased in 1963. I can understand why an everyday consumer might not be interested in such a plain looking watch whose benefit was to combat levels of magnetism that only a handful of people would see.
The Railmaster was missing from Omega's line up until its return in 2003.
This was when Omega were reinventing themselves by rolling out more calibers with Co-Axial escapements and the Railmaster seemed like a perfect fit. What better watch than the Railmaster could Omega reissue that could live up to the technical achievements put forward by the Co-Axial escapement? This new Railmaster was available in three different sizes (36, 39 and 42mm) and for the first time there was a chronograph Railmaster as well. The watch used the Aqua Terra style case with slightly twisted lugs, a screw-down crown and an exhibition case back. Oddly enough, there was no special anti-magnetic properties, unlike past and future models of the Railmaster. Omega would also release the very strange Railmaster XXL Chronometer, a 50mm hand-wound behemoth that was a combination of Aqua Terra and Railmasters designs. I have managed to see one in the wild before and it is huuuggeee.
The Railmaster seemed like a perfect watch for watch enthusiasts. We're always going on about daily beaters with sensible designs, good measurements and a quality movement so you would have expected the new Railmaster to be a great hit? It wasn't. It didn't sell as well as Omega wanted and they pulled the line in 2012. I think part of the problem of the Railmaster's limited appeal was actually Omega's other lines were too good. The Aqua Terra range went from strength to strength over the course of a decade and in comparison, the Railmaster line must have seemed like a throwback in the worst possible way.
Five years later and the Railmaster is back. Twice!
As part of their 2017 releases at Baselworld, Omega unveiled two new Railmasters that will soon become available. The Railmaster 60th Anniversary is a limited edition of 3,557 pieces, made to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the release of the original Railmaster, Seamaster and Speedmasters. The Railmaster 60th Anniversary is designed to the exact physical specifications of the original piece so its has the same 38mm case, same bracelet, same dial and same hands albeit it with a modern movement and faux patina instead of Tritium. Thanks to the use of silicium parts used in the escapement, the Omega Caliber 8806 is 15 times more resistant to magnetic fields than the original Caliber 30T2. The 60th Anniversary Railmaster is available on its own for $6340 or it can be bought as part of the 60th Anniversary Trilogy, along with the Seamaster and Speedmaster, for $20,000. This Trilogy set is limited to 557 pieces and includes an extra line of text on the dial.
From the coverage it got, the standard issue Railmaster seemed like a surprise to most journalists attending Baselworld as it had not been included in the Omega press pack. This new Railmaster is an entry-priced watch that introduces the latest Omega movements at a more affordable price. Looking at the Railmaster, it's clear to see that there is a genuine appreciation for the lineage of the Railmaster and the name has not been slapped on any ol' watch. The same triangular luminous markers and Arabic numbers at 12,3,6 & 9 are back on the watch, along with the new baton hands and cross hair that runs along the brushed steel dial. The case is 40mm wide, 12.65m and is water resistance to 150m. Like the original Railmasters, this too does not have a screw-down crown, a printed dial and a closed steel case back.
These changes are compromises made to make the watch cheaper despite the excellent Omega in-house caliber inside. At $4,900 on a leather strap and $5,100 on a steel bracelet, the new Railmaster is one of the most affordable Omegas with a full Co-Axial Caliber. That being said, it is $900 more expensive than Omega's best-seller, the Omega Seamaster Pro 300M which is approximately $4000. That watch uses the Caliber 2500, an older Co-Axial Escapement movement, as opposed to the full Co-Axial Caliber of the new Railmaster. The difference might be big for watch geeks but for a general consumer, much like the original Railmaster, I wonder if technical merit hidden behind a simple design will be enough to open their wallets. Only time will tell.