Originally published in International Wristwatch
Number 62, December 2002
July 20, 1969 is without doubt one of the most significant dates in the history of the storied Omega Watch Company of Bienne, Switzerland. Carried into space and worn on the moon by NASA astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin on that date, Omega’s Speedmaster Professional chronograph became the first (and, Omega has claimed, only) watch to be worn on the surface of the moon. Other reporters and horological historians have, in great detail, chronicled the association of the Speedmaster with NASA, and the successful marketing that has ensued. This article focuses on a single Speedmaster model: the remarkable watch introduced by Omega in late 1969 to commemorate the historic Apollo XI mission to the moon.
The First of its Kind
The 1969 Commemorative Speedmaster, model BA 145.022-69, was the first Speedmaster ever made of gold. Aside from the case material, the only differences between it and the NASA-issue Speedmasters are the gold dial, burgundy bezel, and the inscriptions on the back. Its heart is the same Calibre 861 as the steel model; the same as Omegas worn by NASA astronauts from 1969 until the revised Calibre 1861 became the standard movement in the Speedmaster “Moon Watch” in the mid-1990s.
Initially, the Apollo XI Commemorative “was offered to each of the astronauts active at that time at a gala dinner November 25, 1969 at Hotel Warwick in Houston.” The first thirty watches were, according to John Diethelm of Omega Public Relations, “created in tribute to the sensational exploit of Man's first landing on the Moon.” Numbers 3 through 28 were personalized and presented to astronauts in NASA’s space program. The lower numbers were reserved for those astronauts who had been with NASA the longest. Each of these first 30 watches was inscribed with the slogan:
man’s conquest of space
Additionally, the astronaut’s watches were inscribed with their name and rank (if any), and the names of the missions which they had flown to date. (Click here to see a list of recipients of watches and the historic events in which they participated.)
The watches numbered 1 and 2 in the series, having been refused by their intended recipients, presently reside in the Omega museum in Switzerland. Number two was created for then-Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. Number one was intended for then-President of the United States Richard M. Nixon. Each of these was inscribed with the man’s title in place of the space mission information found on the astronaut watches. Omega intended to take this historic opportunity to follow a precedent set by other Swiss watchmakers. Several Swiss houses had previously made a gift of a timepiece to an American president and capitalized on the presidential ownership. Revue-Thommen markets its Cricket alarm watch as that worn by Lyndon B. Johnson. Rolex’s “President” day-date model is reputedly so-named because it was the watch worn by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Similarly, an example of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Atmos clock is routinely presented to foreign dignitaries during their official visits to Switzerland.
The saga of Omega’s premier solid gold Speedmaster Professional does not end with the watches delivered in 1969 to these noteworthy personalities. According to an Antiquorum auction catalog from their October 1995 sale in Geneva, “an initial series of 50 to 100 pieces was produced, followed by subsequent series until a total of 1014 pieces was reached in 1973. Correspondence with Omega revealed that they offered a small series for sale to the public early in 1970 which, due to unexpected demand, was expanded to the entire production of 1014 watches, all made in 1969. A run of the later numbers (Nos. 1001 to 1008) was given in 1972 to astronauts from Apollo 14, 15, 16 and 17. As Mr. Diethelm indicated, all the others, “up to N° 1014, have been sold or distributed for very special occasions.”
The watches that were sold to the public are identical to the others but for the engraving. The inscription on the caseback was changed to read:
Those who are familiar with the caseback of the post-Apollo XI steel Speedmaster Professional series will recognize this as the precursor to the engraving found there.
Other information obtained from Omega suggests that the watches sold to the public did not all bear this second engraved message. Contrary to other accounts of this model, Mr. Diethelm indicated that watches “from No. 31 up to No. 745, then from 747 until 1014…have been sold under normal conditions.” This excludes numbers 1001 through 1008 which, as previously mentioned, had been given to another group of astronauts. Mr. Diethelm’s correspondence accounts for all of the pieces presented except for two: No. 30, given to John M. Updegraph and No. 746, which was given, according to Omega archives, to a certain Mr. Rene K. Ruepp. The significance of these gifts is unknown. Oddly, another watch, No. 221, was recently found to have been made with the same inscription as the astronaut presentation watches. Omega was contacted by the current owner of the watch but they were unable to tell him to whom the watch was presented. They did, however, confirm that the special inscription was intentional, thus opening the question of how many more undocumented examples exist with the same engraving.
The visual impact of the watch is significantly different than that of its cousin the steel Moon Watch. The black-dial, steel-case chronograph is, by today’s standards, a relatively common watch. The 1990s boom in popularity of white metals and chronographs has made the steel mechanical chronograph a somewhat ordinary item, worn by dedicated collectors, sportsmen and fashion-conscious men and women on all continents. The Apollo XI 18k Speedmaster, however, has several features that distinguish it from the mass of chronos seen on the wrists of the world. By virtue of being a solid gold watch with a large case and massive bracelet (the total weight of the watch and bracelet is a spectacular 5.8 ounces), this watch catches one’s eye. The distinctive case shape and bombé lugs are immediately recognizable as those of an Omega Speedmaster, but subtle differences draw one closer. Every other Speedmaster to date had been issued with either the engraved steel bezel of the original models or the familiar black bezel of the later models, including the NASA-certified Speedmasters. This model, however, included a tachymetric bezel of a burgundy color--a lovely complement to the yellow gold case and an idea replicated on a later Mark II Speedmaster with gold-plated case.
Equally eye-catching is the striking gold dial. The engine-turned sub-dials and script common to all Speedmasters are there, but for the first time Omega created a “dressy” dial for the previously instrument-like Speedmaster. The Apollo commemorative dial features several textures, giving it a two- or even three-tone effect. The majority of the dial surface is vertically brushed, while the sub-dials are concentrically grooved and surrounded by a beveled edge containing the registers’ chapter rings. The entire dial is bordered by another beveled ring printed with a chronograph seconds chapter divided into fifths of a second. The hands are black lacquered and the markers are raised gold rectangles, beveled and filled with black lacquer as well. Two subtle touches are the applied gold Omega logo (reminiscent of the applied silver logo on the pre-moon Cal. 321 Speedmasters) and the letters “OM” printed twice at the bottom of the dial. Speedmasters from 1964 onward, which used Tritium in the luminous material on hands and dial markers, display the letter “T” at the bottom of the dial on either side of the text “SWISS MADE.” The presence of “OM” on an Omega dial denotes Or Massif, the French phrase for “solid gold.”
In 1970 the suggested retail price of the 18k Speedmaster offered to the public was 3,917 Swiss francs (approx. $1,340 at the time, compared with $185 for the standard steel model). A survey of prices on the secondary market revealed that examples of these collectible watches are indeed available, but for a premium.
Late in 1999 a retailer in Germany sold one on leather straps for approximately $5,200 and on eBay in October 2002 a similar piece sold for $5,600. An example with the original bracelet was offered in January 2000 by a reputable American dealer for $7,350. These prices appear to be in line with other examples recently attained by private sellers and auction houses. The prices for watches owned by celebrities, however, tend to be three to four times higher than the prices for the rest of the series. In October 1995, the horological auction house Antiquorum offered the watch belonging to Astronaut Charles M. Duke as lot number 470. This watch, number 1005 of the series, was estimated to sell for between 20,000 and 25,000 Swiss francs. The hammer price was 19,500 Swiss francs, roughly $17,300 in 1995 US dollars. Another notable offering was at Christie’s East in New York City, where the venerable auction house offered a once-in-a-lifetime array of items pertaining to Space Exploration. Lot number 2, Astronaut Donald K. "Deke" Slayton's 18k Omega Speedmaster watch (No. 27) with bracelet, sold for $28,750. The pre-sale estimate was $8,000-12,000. Needless to say, the first-ever 18k Gold Speedmaster is a desirable item to collectors of Omega and other watches, as well as collectors of “Space Race” memorabilia. Another of the astronaut-issued 18k Speedmasters was recently sold through an on-line auction. This watch, which was presented to the widow of Ed White and, therefore, was never personally owned by the famous astronaut, fetched a price in the nieghborhgood of $15,000 indicating that perhaps there is a premium which savvy collectors are willing to pay for provenance that involves the actual historical figure named on the watch.
ADDENDA:In 2005, several fine specimens of BA 145.022 came on the market at prices over $10,000. Two were sold by Antiquorum for $12k-15K including Lot 294 of their March 23 sale, which fetched $13,800 including buyer's premium. Lot 245 in Antiquorum's July 10 sale went even higher, selling for 126,500HKD (over $15,000 US). Two others were offered via eBay and other on-line sales venues for prices ranging from around $12,000 to more than $17,000. Clearly, the market is active where fine examples are concerned. In 2007, Antiquorum's "Omegamania" auction featured two BA 122.045s which sold for $25,000-$50,000. Interested readers should visit antiquorum.com for auction results.-CBJ
Collectors should be aware that these watches are sometimes found on the secondary market in other than original condition. Available information pertaining to these watches has been inconsistent, and the seller of a watch of this series may not know exactly what he has, so be aware that unintentional misrepresentation of these watches can occur easily. A simple example is that while there were 36 watches personally inscribed and intended for US government and NASA dignitaries, numbers 31-36 of the series were available to members of the public, thus a watch marked as number 31 was not created for an astronaut. The astronauts’ watches will be so inscribed and a potential buyer should be aware of this and not be swayed by unintentional misinformation.
It is important to note that several of the examples seen on the market in recent years have had the original red bezel replaced with the common black one or even with a bezel set with diamonds. When asked about the correct bezel for this series, Mr. Diethelm replied “all these watches were having a red bezel. The very same watch but with a black bezel (still available) was therefore made for ‘civilian’ sales after the Number 1014 was handed-over.” Note that later solid gold Speedmasters also have a different dial. Mr. Diethelm further stated that “the 18K solid gold watch BA 145.022 was in fact always having the matching 18K solid gold bracelet.” A couple of different bracelets were delivered with these watches, one that is perhaps the most common is marked 1116/575 on the underside of the clasp. A difference of more than $2,000 can be found in the market prices of watches of similar condition depending upon the presence of the original bracelet.
The presence of original boxes and papers is important to many collectors. This model was delivered in a box decorated to look like moon rocks, my own experience over the last four years has revealed that these boxes are scarce; the collector is probably well advised to seek the watch and box separately. Current values for such boxes are unknown.
During the 1970s, when the public’s desire for large, tonneau (barrel-shaped) watches was peaking, Omega made several additions to the Speedmaster line. The “Mark Series” (Marks II, III and IV), non-Professional automatic models, tuning-fork and quartz electric models and limited editions with various complications have followed in the earthly footsteps of the popular moon watch. Among them, only a handful have utilized yellow gold, and only a couple of designs have included a red tachymetric bezel. The tonneau-shaped Mark II (MD 145.034, gold-plated, 1970; BA 145.0014, 18k gold, ca. 1972) and the Speedsonic with tuning-fork movement (MD 188.0002, gold-plated, 1973)) were issued with the red tachymetric scale that is covered by the crystal, unlike the exterior bezel of the 145.022 design. Other Speedmasters, including these, have been made with gold-colored dials but no other watch has been made with a dial exactly like the original from 1969.
The next time Omega saw fit to create a solid gold Speedmaster Professional of the classic shape was to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Apollo XI in 1979. Versions in both yellow gold (BA 345.0802) and white gold (BA 145.0039) were made available, each with a transparent caseback allowing a view of the Calibre 863, an improved Cal. 861. The white gold version was sold with a white gold dial and leather straps. The yellow gold version with yellow gold dial was available with matching gold bracelet. It interesting to note that both dials are marked simply “SWISS MADE.” Though it is obvious that no luminous materials were employed on the hands or markers, it leaves the observer to wonder whether each dial is indeed made of gold. Production numbers for these models were not available when I made my request.
Interestingly, though Omega has produced many versions of the Speedmaster Professional and non-Professional models with designs most unlike that of the original “Moon Watch,” only one of their solid gold models has strayed from the original shape (BA 145.0014). The two early-70s gold-plated models are noteworthy because they are unusual among Speedmasters, but they are not overly valuable except for their comparative rarity. The remainder of the gold models have been made very much in the image of the original Speedmaster that survived NASA testing, multiple space missions, and the decline in popularity of mechanical watches due to the advent of quartz technology. The Speedmaster line, in all its forms, seems destined to survive indefinitely.
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