It’s the sort of debate over which watch devotees will sink many pints. Which is the greatest of all the chronographs? First, the rules. One: no further complications are allowed. Two: submissions must be at least 25 years old – durability is key. So long, then, to post-Quartz Crisis inventions such as the Datograph, the Patek Philippe 5070, and the footballer’s favourite, the Hublot Big Bang. And three, don’t even bother unless you’ve got a damned good story to tell.

Rules taken into account, the list of contenders isn’t actually all that long. You might start with Heuer’s Carrera or Autavia, or perhaps both. These were (and in the Carrera’s case remain) chronographs that gave expression to the easy relationship between man’s love of cars and his love of watches, and Heuer is unquestionably one of the great chronograph marques. Great watches, but in the Carrera’s case in particular, too diluted to be the greatest.

Heuer Carrera
A 1963 Heuer Carrera
Claudine

No doubt there would be at least one voice that brought the El Primero to the floor, if only because the very idea of a 5HZ automatic chronograph in the 1960s was completely audacious. But because of its chequered history, not least the fact that its continued existence owes everything to the movement-hungry Rolex of the 1990s, and the inescapable truth that it has no single defining form, it would be quickly dismissed – in a tenth of a second, let’s say.

Then there’s Breitling’s Navitimer, the oldest of all the Swiss mechanical chronographs still in production. Forgetting the unnecessary recent addition of a GMT version, it scores well because its fundamentals are consistent with those of the 1952 original, longevity being a reliable test of greatness. That it’s been copied so often, although never as successfully, is a clear indication of just how good a piece of design it is.

Breitling
A 1952 Breitling Navitimer
Breitling

But somehow it falls just short of ultimate greatness. There’s its unfortunate popularity with wannabe flyboys, and it is a bit too fussy. More than that, though, it’s so specifically a tool watch. Yes, it transcends its function (no statistics detailing the number of Navitimer wearers ever actually to use its circular slide-rule were available at the time of writing), but as a pure expression of what a chronograph should be, it’s let down by being able to do too much.

Which leaves two, neither of which by now will need naming to any but the most novice of watch enthusiasts. For the record, the two heavyweights left in the ring to slug it out are Omega’s Speedmaster Professional and Rolex’s Cosmograph Daytona. And here the margins are tighter.

ROLEX DAYTONA 1963
A 1963 Rolex Daytona
Jean-Daniel Meyer

The origin story

Both go back – the Speedmaster to 1957 and the Daytona to 1963. Both are still very much here and command universal respect. Both have had robust, legendary movements – most famously, the Valjoux 72 and subsequently the El Primero for Rolex; the Lemania-derived 321 and 861 for Omega – which mustn’t be overlooked, because reliability is completely and utterly critical if we’re going to confer greatness on a watch.

Both are beautifully designed products of a largely post-Bauhaus era in which the best designs still genuinely married form and function. Both could be worn with a suit or jeans (a point still being hammered home by the fashion-focussed modern media’s obsession with icons of 1960s Hollywood cinema).

Omega Speedmaster
A 1964 Speedmaster Professional - see below for details on the original Speedmaster 57
Omega

Philosophically, they’re both interesting, too. Both entered the market before the creative freedoms of the 1960s kicked in proper, and are products of a more certain, or at least more inflexible, era in which existentialist doubt rarely troubled the creative mainstream. They are – and to my mind the original Carrera can claim this, too – the last chronographs designed to be the only watch a man would ever want to wear.

These days, the Daytona pips the Omega on desirability, although only because Rolex produces far fewer than the market demands. That could count either for or against it in our little debate, but what we can say is that its rarity makes it one of the few watches – if not the only one – under £10,000 that can genuinely be called a good investment.

But – and it’s a big but – there’s no getting round the fact the Speedmaster has been to the Moon, and the Daytona hasn’t.

Omega Speedmaster
Omega

Yes, other watches – including Rolex models – have “flown” (collector jargon for a watch that’s been into space). But if you want to know how embedded the Speedmaster is in the lore of the NASA space programme, consider the fact that the first thing – the very first – that anyone sees on entering Mission Control in Houston, opposite the entrance, is a bank of Speedies in a glass case: 22 of them each representing a different mission.


Speedmaster Geek Facts

Speedy obsessive Robert-Jan Broer, editor of Fratello Watches, offers four nuggets of Speedmaster lore

1. “Professional” was added to the model name before NASA certified it in 1965
Until recently it’s been assumed that the Speedmaster became the “Speedmaster Professional” after the watch was certified by NASA for equipping its astronauts. Recent research by Grégoire Rossier and Anthony Marquié (authors of Moonwatch Only), with the help of the Omega Museum, has revealed that Omega used “Professional” on earlier Speedmaster models than 1965.

Omega Speedmaster
Omega

2. Which reference actually was the first watch on the moon?
There have been a lot of wild guesses around this, with refs 105.003, 105.012 and 105.003 in the mix. We now know Aldrin and Armstrong both had 105.012 Speedmasters, and Michael Collins had a 145.012. But Armstrong left his watch in the Lunar Module because the on-board clock did not work. Collins didn’t set foot on the Moon in July 1969, so it was Aldrin’s 105.012 that was the first watch worn on the Moon.

3. NASA chose Omega’s Speedmaster over other watches more than once

In 1978 NASA asked Omega for a few watches for re-certification, in preparation for the coming Space Shuttle programme (1981 – 2011). Needless to say, NASA chose Omega’s Speedmaster Professional as the official watch again in November 1978, this time from 30 candidates. NASA ordered 56 of these models, which had a “radial” dial, referring to the angled numbers around the sub-dials.

Omega Speedmaster
Omega

4. Researching vintage Speedmasters does not always make sense
There’s a lot of conjecture around Speedmaster originality and authentication. Even Omega doesn’t always know in which configuration a certain Speedmaster left the factory. In the ‘60s and ‘70s Omega used parts from different reference numbers on watches, using simply was left in stock, resulting sometimes in new watches with older styles of hands etc. Do your homework when looking for a vintage Speedmaster.


I wrote a piece in these pages last year detailing the story behind the “Moonwatch” and the slightly tragic tale of the Speedmaster MkII, which unlike the original was designed to go to the Moon but never did, and this isn’t strictly the time to go into it again. But it’s worth repeating that so much of the Speedmaster’s street cred is tied up in that fact it’s NASA approved, and – to come back to that point about reliability again – therefore a very good bit of kit. Let’s not forget, after all, that the Speedmaster Professional has carried the same, virtually unchanged movement for almost fifty years. That’s reliability.

So the Speedmaster is the greatest of all the chronographs, then. Well, hang on. Unfortunately, the Speedy has one big problem, and that is this: it’s a really boring watch. I know. It hurts to say it, knowing the hell NASA put it through before accepting that something it didn’t make itself was good enough to go into space, and indeed what it did for Captain Jim Lovell and his Apollo 13 crew.

"So much of the Speedmaster's street cred is tied up in the fact it's NASA approved"

But it just kind of is. And the reason is this. It’s everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. It’s not quite the Ford Mondeo of Swiss watches (although Omega does hold that particular accolade in the form of the Seamaster 300M).

But it is up there with the watches people buy because they can’t think of anything else. Sorry, Speedmaster Man.

The Speedy's Identity Crisis

And over the past decade or so, it has seemed at times that no matter what Omega did with it, it didn’t really help. There just wasn’t a lot new to say or think about it. Omega played with metals, made countless anniversary/limited edition pieces, introduced a few new iterations… some of which were great. I was in Switzerland the other day and got talking to a guy wearing the white-dialled Alaska Project model from 2008 – 1,970 of those were made and it gave me a kick to see one in the wild. But others only served to underline the collection’s waywardness – the motorsport-themed Speedmaster Racing remains an uncomfortable nadir.

The Speedmaster needed fresh impetus. And Omega must have known this because in 2013 it launched the Speedmaster Dark Side of the Moon – a total surprise for a watch that seemingly had no more surprises to offer, and one that really should not have worked. The first all-black version of the Speedmaster, on paper it could have seemed like barrel-scraping – a desperate attempt to eke new life from a tired old warhorse, and to make it – heaven forbid – trendy, cool, a little bit rock and roll.

Omega Speedmaster
Omega Dark Side of the Moon - photographed exclusively for QP by Matthew Beedle
MATTHEW_BEEDLE_PHOTOGRAPHY

But the result was bizarrely magnificent: a sleek, sculptural version of the Speedmaster Co-Axial Chronograph introduced in 2011, in a monocoque black ceramic case from which the movement – Calibre 9300, Omega’s bulletproof in-house engine – seems to extrude in a sapphire dome on the back. That case was so difficult to industrialise it took Omega far longer to deliver the first batch of the things than it had expected – almost another 12 months from launch, in fact.

Omega Speedmaster
Omega

Omega calls it a Moonwatch, though it isn’t the Moonwatch – using an automatic, two-register movement on a watch so-labelled has raised the hackles of some devotees of the Professional. But by and large we’ve been turned by the Dark Side (good to get that out of the way), and the consensus is that it’s given the Speedmaster back its mojo. Retailers report the same, which, let’s be honest, is a far more reliable litmus test of a product’s success.

:The Dark Side of the Moon should not have worked, but the result was bizarrely magnificent"

And that success seems to have given Omega a newfound confidence in the Speedmaster. In the first case, there are now multiple versions of the Dark Side itself.

Last year came the Grey Side of the Moon, with a treated platinum dial; and this year it was followed by the (very Essex) White Side of the Moon and four further black variations – Sedna Black, Vintage Black, Pitch Black and the brilliantly tautological Black Black.

Omega Speedmaster
Three of the four new DSOTM models - see link below for full details
Omega

Click here for our full piece-by-piece write-up of the 2015 additions to the DSOTM range

But there are others too. Suddenly the line-up is littered with astonishingly good watches, at times gently updating the Speedmaster look – see last year’s multi-metalled, NATO-strapped Apollo 11 or George Clooney’s utilitarian chic Speedmaster ’57, recalling the very first Speedmaster model; at others reimagining it, as with the latest, impossibly cool First Omega In Space, which is just landing in stores now. The re-released MkII, as I’ve said here before, is a magnificent watch, too.

But if you find these all just that bit too different, too “un-Professional” if you will, but still want some variation from the norm: there’s Snoopy. Charles Schulz’s canine character can be seen having a doze on the small seconds register of the latest piece to commemorate a specific mission, the white-dialed Speedmaster Apollo 13 Silver Snoopy Award.

Omega Speedmaster
Omega

The Speedmaster’s role in the successful return to earth of the Apollo 13 astronauts in their stricken lunar module (see box, page 74) – particularly the crucial 14-minute engine burn as timed by astronaut Jack Swigert – resulted in Omega being honoured with NASA’s Silver Snoopy award for outstanding contributions to the success and safety of space flight.

Omega Speedmaster
Omega

It’s not the first Snoopy Speedmaster Omega has made, but it certainly beats its 2003 predecessor for style – white dial Speedies being something of a connoisseur sub-genre in their own right.

Some will find it kitsch, and the “What could you do in 14 seconds” legend a bit trite. On the other hand, it’s a watch that tells a terrific story – and rather than just marking it, for once it actually harnesses its drama.

Omega Speedmaster
Omega

But while the Silver Snoopy is an intriguing addition to the Moonwatch canon, it’s the Dark Side that is the definitive Speedmaster of its generation. And ultimately, both the Dark Side of the Moon and the Silver Snoopy are reminders to those of us that care about these things, that the Speedmaster is not a boring watch – it is the greatest chronograph of them all.