An essay on the responsibilities of being the caretaker of heirloom watches—and how it can be liberating.
A review of RGM’s homage to American railroad watches: the 222-RR, powered by a rare vintage Hamilton movement.
A comprehensive look at the 1969 Omega Speedmaster Apollo 11 Commemorative watch, Ref. BA 145.022
The 1969 Omega Speedmaster Professional
Apollo XI Commemorative Watch
by C. Bradley Jacobs
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.”
- APOLLO XI 1969 -
THE FIRST WATCH WORN ON THE MOON
(edition serial #)
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.
To view more images on this topic, Click here.
Text and images: © C. Bradley Jacobs and WatchCarefully.com; some photos provided by Omega Watch Company and Antiquorum
Bulova Accutron II Telluride (Model 96B216)
a WatchCarefully Review
Text and images © C. Bradley Jacobs (watchcarefully.com) unless otherwise indicated.
I have been surprisingly smitten by this watch. Most quartz watches have failed to retain my interest following a regrettably brief period of introduction. Despite this history, after a couple weeks' continuous use this one already seems to have longevity. [Author's update: for a year or more after writing this review, the Telluride was on my wrist more than any other watch, save one (RGM Ref. 116). It's a keeper]
Nicely proportioned, the watch sits quite flat on the wrist and feels less bulky than 41mm x 11mm.
The bracelet is well constructed--were it not marked as HK-made, I would have found it believable that it came from CH or DE. I didn't take a shot of the clasp in closed position, but each end meets up quite securely, which adds to the overall comfort of wearing the watch. I removed quite a few links to make it fit, so there's room in the stock bracelet for chaps with quite large wrists. From my point of view, this bracelet represents a good $100 or so of value; I've paid more than that for bracelets less comfortable and/or less solidly built.
The photo above shows there is a B5 marking on the case back-- this is a continuation of the old style of Bulova dating (B=2010s). Also, newer examples of watches from this line have an Ultra High Frequency logo. Note: the Bulova website states that all Accutron II models employ their UHF technology, whether or not this is indicated on the dial or case back. (There is also a sticker announcing JAPAN MOVEMENT HONG KONG BAND dead-centre on the case back. Thankfully it can be removed...and it was, after the photo above was taken.)
Unfortunately, I cannot convey a sense of the smooth sweeping motion of the lovely blue seconds hand. Anyone who has owned a vintage tuning-fork Accutron will be familiar with it. Despite the retro-ness of this piece, I do miss the authentic hum of the 214 movements.
Having raised the spectre of this type of movement, I must admit I'm not well enough informed to comment on the new Accutron II movement with any authority. I've read that it is a Precisionist movement, but have also read that it is a slimmer, less accurate version of the Precisionist movement, with longer battery life. Regardless, it is allegedly more precise than just about all other quartz movements (barring thermo-compensated chronometers?) and vibrates at 57,600bph, or twice the rate of the most common modern mechanical movements most of us enjoy.
For those of you wondering whether a display back would be a welcome feature of a watch with such cool technology, rest assured that Bulova is doing us a favor keeping this thing hidden (with an exception noted below); the majority of the movement is obscured from rear view by a thin battery about the size of a US dime. One on-line reviewer reported that the slimness of the Accutron II watches (in contrast to the noticeable bulk of Precisionist models) can be attributed to their requiring a less powerful battery, also suggesting that this movement might be technologically somewhat of a little brother to the full-blown Precisionist.
It has a decent luminous glow, but only on the hands. This is one of my few complaints: it would benefit from some simple luminous dots placed outside the applied markers for reference in total darkness.
Despite my preference for a date display, I'm very tempted to pick up one of the Alpha models (think modern update of the Spaceview with the funky shape) which is available with a black-coated case and mesh bracelet. This model, shown below, has a nicely (though not elaborately) decorated exposed top view of the movement, very reminiscent of the 1960s Spaceview Alpha.
Image above courtesy Bulova Watch Company
I think it would be a very nice alternative to purchasing a vintage Spaceview--more reliable and durable, and most likely less expensive than a completely original vintage example. Another model that tempts me is the blue version with the hour-marked bezel (Moonview, I believe it is called) shown below. I believe the MSRP of all the Accutron II models is $600 or less. With used ones hitting the market and discounted new ones spotted all over the web, they certainly won't break the bank and might make wonderful gifts.
Thanks for your time,
Addenda: Below is a 1967 Accutron which may have influenced the design of the modern Telluride model:
Note, I bought this Telluride watch for myself--it was not provided by a dealer or manufacturer for purposes of this review.
Here are images of a 2014 model from the Accutron II line - Model 96B204:
A chronicle of working with RGM to build a custom wristwatch, from choosing the movement and hands, to designing the dial.
The Creation of a Custom RGM Wristwatch
RGM Ref. 222E
by C. Bradley Jacobs
Originally published in iW Magazine, September 2006
In the Spring of 2003 I embarked upon a journey to create some custom wristwatches based upon the finest small American pocket watch movements available. There are a small number of watchmaking workshops who will accept commissions for custom-built watches and I hoped to match each project to the strengths of a particular firm. The first watch to be completed was a skeletonized and engraved Elgin Grade 543, decorated and cased as a wristwatch in the workshop of Jochen Benzinger. Though the initial idea for this project was mine, I was quite happy to let Mr. Benzinger work his magic and, thus, the final product was as much the result of his vision as of mine. The process of creating that watch was documented and published in the NAWCC Bulletin (#349, April 2004). In the meantime, another project was getting underway which had a much more focused personal vision as the driving force: an American-built custom watch using a fine Hamilton movement.
In the pantheon of American watchmaking, there is no more hallowed name than that of Hamilton. Their commitment to quality, the accuracy of their railroad watches, and the daring design and technology of such watches as 1957's Ventura are but a few aspects of the Hamilton mystique that attracts collectors of fine watches to the vintage wares of that company, formerly of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In the realm of modern American watches, there is no more respected name than that of the RGM Watch Company. The young firm headed by Roland Murphy is commonly regarded as the finest representative of American watchmaking since the sale of Hamilton to a Swiss company over 30 years ago. A significant source of pride to the company is their reputation for building one-of-a-kind wristwatches to meet the needs of discerning customers. This fact, plus the proximity of the RGM atelier to the old Hamilton factory--a distance of less than fifteen miles across Lancaster County--made it obvious to me that RGM would be the right partner in creating my custom watch based on a Hamilton pocket watch movement.
The series of small American movements I have chosen for these "conversion" projects are all known as "10-size," one of a group of designations commonly used more than half a century ago to denote sizes of American pocket watches. The most prevalent American watches of the 20th century were 16-size (standard railroad grade) and 12-size (mainly gentlemen's dress watches). Hamilton made gents' pocket watches as large as 18 and as small as 10, the latter being the smallest size offered to men by the important American firms, also including Elgin, Howard and Waltham. Hamilton introduced their 10-size movements in the late 1930s as replacements for their 12-size dress models that had been on the market since the 1910s. Coincident with a re-designing of the classic 16-size railroad grades 992 and 950 (subsequently the 992B and 950B), Hamilton issued the 10-size grades 917, 921 and 923. Each numeric designation of these small new models also indicated the number of jewels present in the movement, something Hamilton had not previously done. The 10-size movements mostly came cased in gold-filled or gold factory-supplied cases with silver dials sporting applied gold markers. A small percentage of Hamilton 10-size movements were cased in Platinum with rhodium-plated numerals and markers on the dial. The finest case materials were generally paired with the highest grade of movement: Grade 923.
Grade 923 is a very high-quality movement, intended by Hamilton to exhibit accuracy on par with the finest railroad chronometer watches the company produced. Featuring such high-grade (and high-tech) elements as Elinvar-Extra hairspring and balance wheel, 23 sapphire and ruby jewels, jeweled motor barrel, and adjustment to 5 positions & temperature, the 923 was Hamilton's premium dress watch movement, and was therefore made in much smaller quantities than the other grades. Of the more than a quarter-million 10-size watches made by Hamilton in Lancaster between 1936 and the end of movement production in 1969, only 3542 Grade 923 movements were produced (according to Hamilton production figures published by Roy Ehrhardt). This grade is among the finest and rarest gentlemen's dress watch movements ever serially manufactured in the United States and, along with its replacement (Grade 945, which was somewhat less elaborate), it has the highest jewel-count of any 10-size American watch.
Having chosen the rather Spartan Elgin 543--with 21 jewels, the highest grade of 10-size watch made by that company--as the canvas for decoration by Jochen Benzinger in my first custom watch project, I was resolute that the conversion project involving a Hamilton movement must involve the magnificent Grade 923. Not only are 923s accurate and technologically wondrous, they are among the most attractive pocket watches of the post-Art Deco era. Early 20th century movements tended to have ornate damaskeening and engraved lettering. After the First World War and into the Depression era, many watch designs were comparatively sober. The Howard and Elgin 10-size watches are prime examples. Simple striping or other machine finishing replaced swirled engine-turning, gold-lettered engraving and decorative fonts. Hamilton's basic 10-size movement, Grade 917, followed suit for the most part, but the more upscale Grades 921 and 923 eschewed the straight-line striping for lovely côtes circulaires and the 923 featured shiny jewel settings and gold-filled lettering which highlighted the polished wheels in the train. This beautiful movement was the perfect choice for my custom project and thus my quest to find a useful example began. As luck would have it, I was able to locate a well-preserved Grade 923, which had previously been removed from its original solid gold case (presumably sold for the value of the gold) and replaced in a simple gold-filled case intended for a lower grade movement. My intention (and that of RGM) was to create this watch without destroying a serviceable, original example of a fine Hamilton pocket watch.
Enlisting such a fine movement to pay homage to Hamilton's great history was an easy decision. But the question of how to encase it and how to adorn the dial was a much more difficult one. Being a relatively young operation (in the realm of mechanical watchmaking), RGM does not have a long, storied history to suggest design direction. I considered dial designs based upon classic Hamilton watch faces--and I attempted several mock-ups--but ultimately this did not satisfy my desire to celebrate both Hamilton and RGM with this watch. Upon realizing that this project should pay equal homage to each watchmaking house, I knew what course to take in designing the dial. In the world of modern watch design, RGM is one of the few firms, and the only one in America, to insist upon dials that are engine-turned by hand. Indeed, they are the only US-based watch company who owns and operates an antique rose engine on their premises. Because of this, they are capable of producing in-house guilloché decorations on the dials, movement parts and cases of RGM watches. Clearly, my custom watch must feature an authentic guilloché dial, but how to decide among the multitude of styles available?
As I was researching the American dress pocket watches of the 1920s-1950s, I came across a remarkable style of hands used by E. Howard (Boston) and Illinois Watch Companies. Modeled on classic Breguet "moon" or "pomme" hands, the particular examples that I encountered exhibited something akin to a cubist interpretation. I was determined to feature these lovely blue hands in some future project, but was unsure how I could reconcile their use on a watch intended to combine and honor two great watch companies from Pennsylvania. The answer came as I perused some old Hamilton watch catalogues. In an early-1930s advertisement for the Masterpiece Group (fittingly, Hamilton's top-of-the-line series of gents' dress watches) a model called the Nobel was pictured with just the style of hands I desired. I could now include these marvelous hands on my project watch and have no qualms about whether they represented Hamilton. Bolstering my defense of this decision is the fact that both the Howard and Illinois watch companies were taken over by Hamilton around the time of the Great Depression. Even if they did not introduce this style of hands, Hamilton can lay claim to their use as much as any American company. Thus, they became the focal point for telling time on my project watch and a significant influence on the dial design.
I had so far made many preliminary decisions and was enthusiastic about the project. But in order to make this a practical project, I needed a case to fit this vintage movement. The cases readily available on the market to fit watch movements of this size are generally intended for the 16 1/2-ligne (36.6 mm) Unitas 6497/6498. The RGM watch company itself offers watches that employ this caliber, and has ready-made cases which could potentially be milled to fit the 38.1 mm Hamilton movement. This did not suit the nature of my project, however. The RGM Ref. 150 case has a modern shape that is akin to watch cases of the latter half of the 20th century--not exactly suited for a movement designed in the 1930s. Something with more of an antique flair would be required. Fortunately, Roland Murphy had been thinking along these lines prior to my contacting him about my project. RGM was already exploring the feasibility of issuing a small series of watches with vintage-style dials and Hamilton 10-size movements (a plan brought to fruition as the recently-released Ref. 222 "Signature Series"). A suitable case design was already in the prototyping stage. It was a relief to know that a quality case, unlike anything offered by other watch companies, would be available for my watch. I could return my focus to the design of the dial.
Among the guilloché choices RGM Watch Company offers, are two that my watch collecting friends jokingly call the "Q-bert" designs, after the landscape upon which one manipulated the video-game character of that name. It has also been called "Escher-esque" in deference to the complex and illusory structures created by M.C. Escher. Regardless of the name, these engraving patterns seemed to meet my criteria for this watch. They represented a classic style of design, they represented the modern RGM signature element of engine-turned dials, and facilitated the coalescence of a few uncommon, if not disparate, components. Some significant discussion and coaching from RGM's General Manager and chief designer, Rich Baugh, helped me to make the final decision. The use of the unusual hands (including a 1920s Hamilton seconds hand with a diamond-shaped counter-balance), the unconventional engraving pattern, some small radial Roman numerals, and another layout feature to be discussed later, made this design a radical departure from what might be considered the norm at RGM. Yet it would still be readily identifiable with RGM products due to the quality, the clarity of the design, and the case's distinctive bezel.
All that remained was to build the watch.
After waiting some months for the dial to be cut, printed, lacquered and delivered back to RGM, I got a note from Rich. Without warning, he informed me that the dial was ready, that my set of vintage hands could be made to fit the movement, and that the assembly of my custom watch would begin in a matter of days. I was, of course, excited. Rich informed me that the RGM team was also enthusiastic about the watch. To be sure, it was an unconventional undertaking, but one each person took pride in helping to realize. In fact, one of RGM's top watchmakers spent considerable time and effort to comply with a request I made. The only concession to my own tastes that is visible on the backside of the watch is the presence of blue movement screws. I did not want to alter the beauty of the Hamilton design, but felt that the lovely blue hands on the watch's face would be nicely complemented by blue screws holding the bridges in place. To my surprise, the aforementioned RGM watchmaker polished and heat-blued every visible screw before servicing and re-assembling my Grade 923--even down to the tiny screws that secure the swans'-neck regulator spring. Some Hamilton-collecting purists might criticize my decision to alter the movement in this way but I believe it is an appropriate and acceptable modification, and one that can easily be undone by replacing the blue screws with factory nickel-plated ones if I ever wish to do so.
The completed watch represents a few "firsts" in the history of RGM and watch design in general. This example (officially known as Ref. 222E) is the first left-handed watch RGM has ever produced. It is the first production wristwatch ever to be powered by a Hamilton Grade 923 movement (RGM has since produced a few more 923-powered Ref. 222s as part of the Roland G. Murphy Signature Series, and the 2017 Railroad-inspired 222-RR). It is the first wristwatch I've encountered to use the "square moon" hands and the cubist guilloché pattern. In addition, the minute hand overlays an inner minutes chapter rather than pointing to an outer chapter as is more conventional. By framing most of the markers, the aperture of the hand can be used for reading of the time to the minute. But, the milestones aside, it is important to me for far more idealist reasons.
Within a couple weeks of Rich's announcement, I visited RGM and took great pride both in taking delivery of my new watch and in wearing it while driving through Lancaster County, the source of much inspiration. The watch even has a name: the Lancastrian. To me, this simple moniker ties the notable history of Hamilton and the elegant potential of RGM together by identifying not only a spatial proximity, but a devotion to quality and heritage.
Photos 1, 8-12 courtesy RGM Watch Company
Vintage Rado Automatic Watches
by C. Bradley Jacobs
Originally published in International Watch
Number 69, July 2003
In 2002 the Rado Watch Company, Ltd. of Switzerland celebrated the 40th anniversary of the introduction of their groundbreaking oval DiaStar ('The Original') scratch-resistant watch. Rado, who is best known today for their elegant dress watches and use of high-tech materials, is one of a select group of companies who have continuously produced automatic watches during the past four decades. The DiaStar is certainly Rado’s most recognizable automatic watch, however, the company produced literally dozens of different automatic models during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s many of which are stunning, some of which are remarkable and most of which can be found even today in good condition and at excellent prices.
Among the myriad watches created by Rado between the 1960 and the late ‘80s quite a few stand out. The Green Horse line of watches are noteworthy for their popularity and longevity; the Captain Cook for its rarity; and the Manhattan for its style and complex construction. Several other Rado automatic lines are noteworthy for their fascinating and modern designs; photos of a number of these watches are shown on the following pages. But before we explore variations of the aforementioned watches, let’s take a look at a feature that is shared by all Rado automatics and is found nowhere else.
The rotating logo on the dial of Rado automatic watches is an oft-overlooked feature (one of many) that helps set these watches apart from other automatics of the same era. A variation of Rado’s anchor emblem, the rotating logo is attached to the dial by means of a post, jutting from the rear of the anchor, that fits through a red bearing mounted on the dial. This construction mimics two elements of the watch’s automatic movement: a pinion seated in a ruby jewel and the swinging of the winding rotor. The logo swings freely and is not tied at all to the winding of the watch or its running. It is, however, a subtle and most interesting feature. The rotating version described here was first used in 1962; on some older products, the anchor symbol was simply printed. The anchor, representing the success of the automatic watches, is now an integral part of the Rado logo. (Author's note: Additional information from the original patent application is found here.)
Another common feature of most Rado automatics from the era is the use of the Seahorse motif. Rado water-resistant case backs of the era were engraved with a medallion picturing two or three seahorses with the words “Water-Sealed” beneath.
The Sea Horse theme was also used on bracelet clasps and in model names such as Purple Horse and Green Horse. These “Horse” models are legion and were made in many different variations (often in relatively small production runs of 5,000 pieces or fewer). Some models were only available regionally and their names may be specific to their target markets. A survey of auction websites and on-line vintage watch sellers (located mainly in Asia) will reveal a substantial number of Rado “Horses” with various dial styles and colors; case shapes and sizes; and movements. Some noteworthy models are powered by 30-jewel A. Schild movements with calendar, and are found with tonneau and round cases as large as 38mm in diameter.
The Green Horses (and similar lines) represent a good entry-level vintage watch value. Well-preserved pieces can often be found for prices starting under $100 and the combination of interesting design, reliable movements, and low production numbers make them fun to own and wear.
Start of production: 1980
End of production: 1982
Quantity: ca 2,000 pieces
Start of production: 1965
End of production: 1967
Quantity: ca 5,000 pieces
Note, literally dozens of reference numbers exist for the models named Green Horse, Purple Horse, Golden Horse, etc. This information pertains to just a couple of representative models shown in this article.
As mentioned before, Rado is known today for modern design, experimental case materials and elegant, dressy quartz watches. Sporty automatics make up a very small portion of their production, but some intriguing diver’s watches have come from Lengnau, including those named for the 18th Century explorer Captain James Cook. In 1962 Rado began production of a water-resistant watch with black rotating bezel and large, luminous hands. Emblazoned on the dial was the name Captain Cook. At a glance, the design offers little to set the watch apart from divers’ watches of other brands, but a few features make this a remarkable and hard-to-find piece. The fact that it is a divers’ watch made by Rado makes it unusual and, of course, it has the ubiquitous rotating anchor, but other facts make it notable.
The model shown above was made for only a short period. Production began in 1962 and ended in 1968, during which time only about 8,000 pieces were made. Eight thousand watches, made 40 years ago (before mechanical watches became something of an anachronism in the 1970s) and intended to be used underwater helps account for them being in short supply today. The second notable feature of this watch is its automatic movement, which is perhaps the finest offered by Rado at the time. A lovely automatic movement based on the A. Schild calibre 1700/01 powers the Captain Cook Mk I. The movement sports a gold-plated rotor and is adjusted and outfitted with thirty jewels.
Rado revised the Captain Cook in both men's and ladies'; versions later in the 1960s, changing the shape to a tonneau and using an internal rotating bezel adjustable by a second crown at 4:00. A 25-jewel automatic movement (AS 1859, shown above) powers this iteration. These watches are also difficult to find today but were made in much higher quantities and seem to come on the market more frequently than the earliest model. A newer model has helped carry on the spirit of Captain Cook in the Rado collection. In 1998, Rado issued a DiaStar diver’s model, which utilizes a similar rotating inner bezel, in a limited series of 5000 pieces. The current line-up of Rado's The Original (Diastar) includes a pair of colorful diver models (see www.Rado.com). [Update, Jan 2020: Since 2017, Rado has also introduced modern revisions of both the Mk I and Mk II Captain Cook models, as well as a larger Mk III.]
Start of production: 1962
End of production: 1968
Quantity: ca 8,000 pieces
Dial versions: black only
Start of production: 1962
End of production: 1968
Quantity: ca 3,000 pieces
Start of production: 1966
End of production: 1972
Quantity: ca 15,000 pieces
Ref. 11773 (new Ref. 589.3004.4)
Start of production: 1965
End of production: 1972
Quantity: ca 50,000 pieces
Ref. 11868 (new Ref. 999.3004.4)
Start of production: 1967
End of production: 1972
Quantity: ca 5,000 pieces
Perhaps the most distinctive of vintage Rado automatics is the Manhattan line, the focus of a cult following among Rado aficionados. Of the brand’s radical and funky designs, this is the most distinctive and perhaps the most often copied, a recent example being the rectangular models of the Seiko S-Wave collection that was available at the time of this article's publication. Some vintage Seiko models are also almost exact copies of the original Manhattan line that pushed the envelope of design…it is easy to see why it was so often copied.
Two case styles were offered in the men’s Manhattan watches. With large rectangular shapes, wide dials, and unconventional hour markers, the Manhattan line: the original model with squared edges, and the more rounded second model (often referred to as the New Manhattan). Both are large, imposing watches with the larger measuring a massive 37 mm wide and 40.5 mm lug-to-lug. The thickness of the watch is more than 12 mm at its center.
The visual impact of this watch notwithstanding, the true innovation exhibited by this watch is its construction. Appearing at a glance to simply be a square bezel and crystal with a snap-on back, disassembling the watch reveals a design that may be unique in the genre and is watertight, Rado claimed, to a pressure of 22 ATM (a depth of 220 meters or 726 feet). Such protection is accomplished with a crystal-and-gasket system and a very tight and massive snap-on back that completely envelops the movement (see photos). The acrylic crystal, far from being just a protective cover for the dial, is actually integral to the seal of the watch. Though some later versions of the Manhattan employed a standard snap-on back, the original models all utilized this innovative design and, for this reason, often have very well-preserved movements.
MANHATTAN Ref. 11815 (new reference: 625.3011.4)
Start of production: 1965
End of production: 1973
Quantity: ca 50,000 pieces
Dial versions: white, light grey, dark grey, black, blue and red
Special dials: with blue and green plots
Bracelet: ref. 00571
Price: CHF 340.- in 1970
Comments: super-waterproof (22 atmospheres)
MANHATTAN de LUXE SS Ref. 11914 (new reference: 625.3025.4)
Start of production: 1970
End of production: 1978
Quantity: ca 40,000 pieces
Dial versions: 6 different white, 5 different black versions, blue
Bracelet: ref. 00571
Price: CHF 340.- in 1970
Comment: succession-model to above watch (11815)
Price comparison ca. 1970 US$
Rado Manhattan: $116 (43,800 Yen in 1972)
Omega Speedmaster Professional: $185
This noteworthy brand, most often recognized as a current leader in design, a pioneer in the use of ultra-hard case materials and a sponsor of professional sporting events, has been on the cutting edge of design for more than four decades. The Rado watches shown here, as well as others featuring radical case and dial designs--Starliner, DiaMaster, NCC models—can be found at prices that are attractive both to the collector and the person seeking an extraordinary and reliable watch for daily wear.
The second installment of this series of articles features rare watches such as Rado's first automatic chronograph and first automatic Alarm. It was published February 2008 in iW magazine and at WatchCarefully.com
Text and images © C. Bradley Jacobs and WatchCarefully.com; some images provided by Brandon Sparks, Sam (OneSound) and Rado Watch Company.