Watches

Why collect vintage Omega?

By Simon De Burton
27-05-21

5 minute read

Opinions differ as to whether or not Rolex is more collectable than Patek Philippe or vice-versa, with both makers having good grounds to lay claim to being number one.

But it’s fairly unanimous that the number two spot should go to Omega, the historic dial name founded less than a decade after Patek and a full 60 years before the mighty Crown.

These days, you don’t have to be much of a horophile to be acquainted with the heroic space exploits of Omega’s halo Speedmaster model; while collectors also latch on to its two stablemates, the Railmaster and the Seamaster 300. Between them, they make up the Master trilogy of ‘professional’ watches launched in 1957.

Those watches alone highlight the decade as a golden era for the maker. However, savvy buyers are beginning to look beyond these obvious choices to the many more obscure, but equally worthy Omega models released around the same time.

The Omegas of the 1950s: Cosmic, Synchrobeat and Seamasters

Omega Pan Pie
Top: Buzz Aldrin wearing an Omega Speedmaster during the Apollo 11 Moon mission; Photography by NASA/Getty Images: Above: Top: Omega Constellation 'Pie-pan' watch, 1958

The Omegas of the 1950s: Cosmic, Synchrobeat and Seamasters

Take the spectacular Cosmic of the early 1950s, for example. An extraordinary, cushion-cased creation with ornate, curved lugs, it marked the first appearance of a calendar on any of Omega’s wristwatches

And what a start – the watch used a blued hand to point to the blue dates arranged clearly around the dial’s edge, while the day of the week and the month were shown in matching apertures opposite the ’11’ and ‘two’ positions respectively. The highlight of the design however, was an exquisite moon phase display contained within a running seconds subdial at the six o’clock position.

Far simpler in appearance, but equally covetable was the 35mm Synchrobeat, a classic round, gold-cased watch containing a chronometer certified movement with dead centre seconds, gold, dauphine hands and a crystal clear dial. Made specifically for the north American market, it should have been a sure-fire seller – but the 720 examples that were shipped to Omega’s US agent, Norman Morris, were recalled after the factory discovered the movements had an embarrassing lubrication issue. The cases are reported to have been melted down and the movements disassembled for use in other watches. 

Decades later, however, it was revealed that only 703 actually came back, leaving 17 in circulation. The last one to crop up at auction fetched $16,250 at Christie’s, in December 2019.

Seamasters, too, were originally understated dress watches, with the model name being introduced in 1948 to mark the firm’s centenary. At first, it didn’t denote a tough dive watch for professional use, merely a regular watch that guaranteed a good degree of water resistance –  and it was used on some superb and now highly collectable models.

The Seamaster XVI, for example, was a three-hand watch with distinctive, raised hour markers in yellow gold. Its intricately engraved case back marked the watch out as commemorating the 16th edition of the ‘modern’ Olympic Games in 1956.

The collab of the 1960s: Omega x Andrew Grima

Jewellery Designer Andrew Grima
Andrew Grima with an Omega 'About Time Stepping Stones' watch; Photography by Getty Images

The collab of the 1960s: Omega x Andrew Grima

While its front-facing appearance could largely be described as demure, Omega’s designers of the ’50s allowed their imagination to run wild on other models. It was the decade of the ‘honeycomb’ dial, of ornate cases with hooded lugs, ‘gadrooned’ bands and ‘canted’ corners.

These experimental pieces gave Omega the inspiration and courage to break away from its rather conservative image in the ’60s, through a collaboration with one of the most avant-garde jewellery designers of the era – Andrew Grima.

The commission came from Omega’s sales director, Robert Forster, who envisioned a shamelessly flamboyant Rococo-esque collection called About Time, which would re-imagine the elaborate watches worn by aristocratic dandies of the past.

Having demanded (and got) carte blanche to do anything he liked, so long as the watches were capable of containing Omega movements, Grima set to work creating his very first watch collection. The results were both prolific and dazzling.

Grima created no fewer than 55 exotic designs – the ‘chosen ones’ were realised by goldsmiths and gemsetters in Grima’s London workshops, with the help of craftsmen from around Europe (although the project was such a secret, none were told what their work was going towards). 

The finished commission amounted to a cool £1m; the equivalent of more than £15m today.                           

The collection launched in the spring of 1970 at London’s Goldsmith’s Hall, with a three-day public exhibition that then moved to Grima’s premises in Jermyn Street. For the full-capacity crowd, the £7,500 price tags on some of the watches seemed as fantastical as the creations themselves.

A four-year world tour followed and the watches were slowly sold along the way. As each one went, it was replaced by a new design, in order to maintain the unique element that was key to the project. In fact, Omega considered this approach so successful that it commissioned Grima for a follow-up collection called Jeux D’Or.

So, if you buy a Grima Omega today, you’ll not only own a rare and remarkable watch – but a fabulous piece of horological history, too.


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