Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series reflecting on the Apollo 11 mission, 50 years later.
This month, as the world revels in the memory of a giant leap for mankind, I’m reminded of a photograph. It is instantly recognizable: Buzz Aldrin sits inside a capsule, insouciantly staring into the camera. His hair is closely cropped, his left arm is raised across his chest, and on his wrist is a watch, with a black strap, black dial, and white hands.
That watch, the Omega Speedmaster Professional—also known as the Moonwatch—retails on the Omega website for $5,350, and has the words The First Watch Worn on the Moon engraved on the case back, along with the reminder that the Speedmaster is Flight-Qualified by NASA For All Manned Space Missions. It is the only watch to have earned that privilege.
A few thousand dollars for a watch might seem like a lot of money—and it is—but wearing a NASA-approved Speedmaster is the closest many of us will ever come to actual space travel, which is surely part of the reason for its enduring appeal. The model arguably helped Omega survive the “quartz crisis” of the 1980s—a disaster discussed by watch aficionados with the same intensity southern farmers might the boll weevil infestation of the 1920s—when quartz crystal-powered watches brought inexpensive timekeeping to the masses, effectively killing many storied Swiss watch companies.
Other brands, like Omega, that previously made relatively affordable watches survived by catering to the wealthy. The Speedmaster—a “mechanical” watch, meaning it is powered by a mechanism—remains one of the most popular Swiss watches around. Besides telling time, it has a chronograph, which basically means it can also work as a stopwatch, and a tachymeter, which measures speed. It also looks remarkably, to use a technical term, cool.
But the fact that people still buy watches—let alone ones that cost thousands of dollars—shouldn’t make sense. The wristwatch should have gone the way of the astrolabe, the astrarium, and the gramophone. The mechanical watch works much as it has for more than a century, but now it is surrounded by cheaper and more accurate alternatives. After all, a cellphone keeps time, too; a $400 Apple Watch keeps time and measures heart rate, and makes calls; and a $30 quartz timepiece from Target tells time with greater precision than a mechanical watch. The mechanical watch should be an anachronism. And yet it is not. Far from it—if successful funding efforts on Kickstarter are a measure. In January, Swatch, Omega’s parent company, reported that in 2018, its strongest sales growth was among brands such as Blancpain, Omega, and Longines, which are part of its “prestige and luxury range.”
“In this era of disposable technology, people want things that last,” Paul Boutros, the head of Americas for Watches at the auction house Phillips, told me.
In other words, the Speedmaster and watches like it provide a sense of permanence in an age with little of it. The Speedmaster available today is virtually the same as the one Aldrin wore on the moon, or indeed the one Omega introduced way back in 1957, as a tool for race-car drivers.
It is unchanged because there’s nothing to change: The mechanical watch is, along with the bicycle, an arguably perfect invention. If wound every day and serviced regularly, it can run for perpetuity. There aren’t many things you can say that about in our era of fast fashion and biennial phone upgrades.
Part of the lingering appeal is atavistic: Humanity’s desire to record the passage of time possibly dates back to the age when people cowered after sunset in the seeming permanence of darkness. Ancient Egyptians used the sundial more than 1,000 years before Christ. The Ancient Greeks used water clocks; the hourglass has been around since at least the Middle Ages. The first modern clock, the kind we’d recognize, was invented in the 15th century. Its mechanism was such a wonder that the Founding Fathers even likened God to a clockmaker, who, having created the world, was cheerfully absent as it functioned. And in the 1962 speech that launched the American conquest of the moon, President John F. Kennedy held up the watch as the exemplar of technological sophistication: The rocket that would go to the moon, he told the crowd at Rice University, would be “fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch.” It was—and the men inside relied on the Speedmaster, to do more than tell time.
“The watches … held deep significance” for the astronauts, given that time was so crucial for everything they did, Jennifer Levasseur, who is a curator of chronographs at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, where the astronauts’ Speedmasters and other NASA memorabilia are housed, told me in a recent interview.
Indeed, in 1970 when the oxygen tank on Apollo 13 exploded, astronauts used the Speedmaster’s chronograph function to time a crucial 14-second maneuver that allowed them to return to Earth.
Rob Staky, a watch enthusiast who collects Speedmasters and runs the watch website Bazamu, told me he uses the chronograph on his Speedmaster for more prosaic functions: to time everything from his morning commute to how long it takes to toast his bagel. “It’s a perfect machine,” he said.
The Speedmaster is not Omega’s only watch model, but it is its most historically iconic—a fact the watchmaker has capitalized on. Over the past 50 years, it has issued so many commemorative Moonwatches that the strategy has almost become a joke in the watch-collecting community.
This hasn’t hurt sales: Recent special edition Speedmasters priced in the five-figure range sold out in hours. Those pieces regularly appear on auction websites with substantial markups. Omega released two special editions to mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing—one of them in gold (yours for only $34,600).
Staky said the watch’s history is alluring to watch obsessives like him who take pleasure in being able to tell the subtle differences in the Speedmaster’s design since the 1950s. At the same time, he said, it also appeals to those casually looking for a new watch. “For the guy who wants his first watch, and will probably not buy another one, it’s the best everyday watch,” he told me. “It’s versatile. You can wear it with a suit and with jeans.”
“A guy has only so many ways to communicate what he’s about,” Staky added. “The Speedmaster says something about the person wearing it. It’s understated and appreciated by those in the know.”
We are, of course, talking about a tiny subset of people. After all, many car enthusiasts only admire the Porsche 356 from afar, and many art lovers only see the Dutch masters at museums. And when I asked the Smithsonian’s Levassuer whether she, because of her interest in the watches, wears a Speedmaster, she told me that doing so would be a conflict of interest, citing the Smithsonian’s rules. So what does she wear to tell time? “A Fitbit.”
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