Journey to the Moon
It is impossible to overstate the extraordinary achievements of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin when on July 21st, in the year of
our Lord 1969, at O-two-hundred- and-fifty-six Universal Time, they set foot on the surface of the Moon, fulfilling a promise made by John F. Kennedy a mere eight years before.
To place this in context, that same year the Concord’s first test flight was considered a technical revolution. Flashback a decade before to 1957 and witness America scrambling at the terrifying news that the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik 1 and thus claimed dominion over the heavens.
On the wrists of these amazing astronauts were their trusted watches: the fabled Omega Speedmaster.
The 1969 Yellow Gold Omega Speedmaster BA 145.022
In 1969, at a dinner that took place in Houston, Texas on November 25th, Omega presented NASA’s astronauts with a very special token to celebrate the profound courage of these men. The watch, housed inside a very special box that replicated the cratered surface of the Moon, was something that Omega had never created before: the brand’s first gold Speedmaster and also its first numbered series.
The BA 145.022 is something of a grail for watch collectors today, with prices for one of the 1,014 examples made ascending with aptly, rocket-like trajectory, to just under the one hundred thousand dollar mark at auctions. Says Aurel Bacs, the master of all vintage watches and auctioneer extraordinaire, “People often ask me what the next Paul Newman Daytona is. I would say this yellow gold Speedmaster from 1969 has some potential to capture the imagination, both because of its totally unique and stunning looks and also the incredible mythology related to it.”
Of the watches made the first two were allocated as gifts to Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, who were both compelled to turn them down due to their rather substantial value, a mistake the estates of both men probably regret today.
The Omega Speedmaster model 145.022–69 was a milestone model for the brand as it would forge the underpinning for all Speedmaster Professional watches that would come after, in ceaseless chain of production all the way to the present day.
Indeed, the faithfulness with which Omega has adhered to the iconic blue print of the 145.022 is certainly one of the reasons that a vintage-crazy new generation has become obsessed, because the modern watch is in essence the same watch as the original from 1969.
It is the same case, the same dial (with a change in luminescent material) and the same calibre 861 movement, the cam-operated successor to the legendary column wheel calibre 321.
But with the gold version of this watch, Omega pulled out all of the stops. First the case of the watch is a massive hulking hunk of solid yellow gold. The dial, which is unique in Omega lore, features the letters “OM” on either side of the “Swiss Made” hallmark which represents the words “Or Massif” or solid gold in English.
The markers on the watch are also unique in the Speedmaster visual lexicon in that they are square and onyx. The bracelet of the watch is also solid gold, the deployant clasp characterised by stripes running along its length and its links can only removed and re-attached by a goldsmith. In many vintage watches the bracelet has been swapped for a more modern version, which while more practical is not strictly original. I’ve also seen collectors rocking the watch head on a gold-plated JB Champion though I would have concerns about scratching the inner lugs of the gold case.
The bezel of this Speedmaster was equally unique in that it was burgundy coloured and features a “DON” or Dot over Ninety configuration as fits a pre-1970 watch. The iconic tome Moon Watch sheds insightful Promethean light as to how these watches were distributed.
As mentioned, watches ‘1’ and ‘2’ were destined for, but declined by the now infamous White House habitués. ‘3’ through to ‘29’ were given to NASA’s astronauts, including Alan Shepard (number 3), Wally Schirra (number 8) and Neil Armstrong (number 17).
‘29’ to ‘32’ were given to Swiss politicians and watch industry leaders, ‘33’ to ‘1,000’ were put on sale for the public, ‘1,001’ to ‘1,008’ were presented in ’72 and ’73 to astronauts who had yet to complete their missions back in ’69. ‘1,009’ to ‘1,014’ were given to “personalities”, though I’m not entirely certain what that means.
There were two types of dials used for the BA 145.022. Those with an oval “O” in Omega are believed to belong to early production watches and those with a round “O” used in later production watches.
Casebacks have four different types of engraving. All watches given to astronauts as well as watches ‘1’ and ‘2’ feature the owner’s name along with the words, “to mark man’s conquest of space with time, through time, on time.” The engraving on these watches were filled with burgundy paint.
Watches offered to civilians featured three different caseback engravings. The first generation casebacks had thin engraving, second generations had thick engraving and the third had thick engraving filled with burgundy paint.
Marking the 50th, or Golden, Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing
Fast forward to the present day and the year is 2019, marking the 50th or golden jubilee of the Moon landing and I am revelling in all these details when the train I’m on, destined for Omega’s headquarters in Bienne, comes to a sudden halt. Which is disconcerting because like the inevitable pull of gravity, you always imagine the Swiss rail system to run with plodding consistency.
I can tell you now it does not. Not one to waste time I grab my bags and hustle my crew and their equipment into two taxis to embark on what I will remember as the most expensive taxi ride of my life.
An hour and change later, we pull up to Omega’s headquarters to be greeted by the always effusive and charming Jean-Pascal Perret, the brand’s VP of Communication and PR.
We are whisked inside the gleaming modern manufacture and ensconced in a conference room. Soon a familiar host of characters I love are seated around me including Greg Kissling, the Head of Product Management and a member of the Extended Management Committee; and the legend that is Jean-Claude Monachon, the VP of Product and Customer Service.
Then we hear that voice, the booming voice as befits a man who spent many years commanding soldiers in the Swiss military, before transitioning to becoming what I consider one of the most dynamic leaders in modern horology. With that Raynald Aeschlimann enters the room and you are swept up in his dynamic energy.
I can feel these incredible individuals looking at me as a watch box is brought forward. The anticipation is massive. As a huge fan and collector of the original BA 145.022-69 (if you can call two watches a collection) I have headily awaited a tribute to one of my favourite Speedmasters.
But the thing about Omega is that all the men mentioned — and I would add to this Petros Protopapas, the Omega Museum’s curator — are sincerely and avidly in love with watches. If you were to open their veins they would bleed Omega red. And while other leaders in the watch industry make the mistake of considering watches “products”, these men regard each and every timepiece they create as a living, sentient organism, meant to bring an eternity of pleasure to its wearer.
Says Raynald Aeschlimann, “When approaching our tribute watches it is very important that we do not simply replicate the past, but bring some new dimension whether it is the inclusion of new technology, or a design reinterpretation, or ideally both to the new timepiece.
“The one exception to this is of course the 60th anniversary trilogy watches, but that was a very specific exercise where we wanted to make a faithful homage to a legend. The truth is that today, it is very costly and almost impossible for most collectors to wear a 1957 CK 2195-1 (watches hover at about a half million dollars), and as a gesture of appreciation to collectors we wanted to create a watch that would allow them to experience the emotion of wearing this icon.
“But for watches like our Ultraman tribute, or this new gold watch that celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, we had to innovate.” And with that the watch box lid is lifted and I can only gasp in awe and joy. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind a chorus of angels is singing the “Hallelujah chorus” from Handel’s Messiah.
If you ever wondered what was inside the mysterious suitcase in Pulp Fiction that glowed like gold and moved hardened men to near tears, it was clearly this new watch. Because in the immortal words of Benjamin Hammond Haggerty whose stage name is Macklemore, “This is f**king awesome.”
To begin with, the yellow gold is a proprietary alloy with a touch of palladium. Says Greg Kissling, “The alloy is named Moonshine and the palladium gives the gold a little more hardness but importantly prevents change in color and oxidation. It is much more stable than standard yellow gold.”
The first thing I check is the Swiss Made hallmark and sure enough, the letters “OM” for Or Massif are present referring to the gold watch’s solid gold dial. And yes the onyx hands and markers are all present and accounted for. The next thing your eyes gravitates to is the stunning burgundy bezel but now somehow characterised by a certain high gloss translucency and then you realise that it has been made from ceramic.
How Omega managed to match the exact burgundy of the original — you can see the BA 145.022-69 next to the new watch as proof positive of this — is an act of alchemy and aesthetic magic worthy of applause. And yes the configuration is the correct Dot over Ninety for a watch from 1969.
Flip the watch over and your already jack-hammering heart is going to go into overdrive. I sh*t you not. Make sure you have defibrillation paddles on standby. Because beating inside the watch is a very special Caliber 861, specifically the first appearance of the Caliber 3861, this particular movement executed with Moonshine gold-treated bridges and plates.
Now look closely at the mighty free-sprung balance wheel and feast your eyes on the very first silicon hairspring to appear on the hallowed 861. The inner caseback ring has the words “Apollo 11 — 50th Anniversary” and “The First Watch Worn on the Moon” laser-engraved on it, with a domed meteorite inlay set into the ring cavity representing the Moon, while a second colour treatment in matte blue is presented with a partial world map.
What’s most impressive is that the Earth and Moon on the case back are true to proportion! God as they say is in the details and the Holy Father’s presence is in full force here, evidenced by a deployant, which while modern and radically improved, features the exact same decoration as the original.
What I love about this majestic limited edition which will be produced in 1,014 watches, just like the original, is that it is a timepiece created for watch lovers by watch lovers, which is the enduring secret of Omega’s success with Raynald Aeschlimann in the cockpit.