For some, it’s the most famous wristwatch in history, certainly the highest flying. Omega’s Speedmaster Professional is that rare creation so rich with history – one could say mythology – that it has inspired at least three books and played a key role in a Hollywood blockbuster. As far as collector themes go, it’s a killer: the number of special editions exceeds 100. There was even a special “flight case” containing 23 Speedmasters issued in 1997, each watch’s dial bearing a different NASA mission patch on one of the counters, issued in a series of 50.

Because Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space – he probably wore a Shturmanskie when he orbited the earth in 1961 – the Speedmaster Professional cannot claim to have been the first watch to leave our atmosphere. What is indisputable, however, is its pre-eminence in space travel ever since it earned its place in history as the first timepiece to pass NASA’s stringent testing for mission certification.

Before the Speedmaster (yet to acquire its “Professional” suffix) achieved this, in the wake of Gagarin, the recently-deceased John Glenn had used a Heuer stopwatch when he piloted the first manned US orbital mission and Walter Schirra took a Bulova Accutron, a pre-approval Omega Speedmaster and a Breitling Cosmonaute into space in 1962. The space race wasn’t solely a competition between Russia and the USA: there was a fight back on earth to be the watch that the astronauts would wear as official issue.

Because NASA was not in the watchmaking business, it either commissioned sub-contractors for materiel, like powdered orange drinks and anti-gravity pens, or it would use something commercially available. All the latter had to do was survive its tests. The obvious benefit would be unparalleled prestige.

It’s a tale told many times, but briefly, it goes like this: In 1961, NASA purchased a selection of chronographs from a watch store Houston, Texas. The shopper, who apparently said nothing about being a NASA employee, purchased an off-the-shelf Omega Speedmaster and models from Longines, Rolex, Hamilton and others. Throughout a two-year testing period, the watch brands were unaware that NASA was testing their watches for space travel.

One wonders what NASA might have designed if it had been given a blank sheet. We’ll never know, but a watch that first appeared in 1957 fit the bill. NASA’s specifications included chronograph functions, and the ability to work in a vacuum and in zero gravity. Any watch entering space would have to survive exposure to unfiltered sunlight, coping with temperatures of over 100 degrees Celsius and surviving the G-forces of take-off and re-entry.

Controversy continues to this day about the political shenanigans of a certain American brand eager for the contract, while the “losers” remain defensive a half-century later. NASA’s archives, however, show that only the Omega “passed with flying colours.” This ensured that the Speedmaster would grace the wrists of astronauts from then on, its first mission-qualified usage taking place on 23 March, 1965, for the Gemini Titan III launch.

Omega has, with total justification, used the Speedmaster Professional as the core of a family that has encompassed moon-phase models, the company’s Co-axial movement, cases made of assorted materials, an array of dials ranging from photorealistic images of celestial bodies and even the cartoon character Snoopy. Of late, the watch has been blacked out to create the rapturously-received Dark Side of the Moon and last years’ drop-dead gorgeous “CK2998”, paying homage to a 1959 variant with blue-on-white “panda” dial.

It’s impossible to list the highlights because Omega rarely – if ever – puts a foot wrong with Omega Speedmaster Professional specials. A must-have selection would probably include a 1957 original with “broad arrow” hour hand, one of the models from 1965 that were the first to say “Professional” on the dial, a 1971 Speedmaster Mk III for variety, thanks to its “pilot’s case”, cross-shaped 60-minute chronograph hand and a 24-hour day/night indicator at 9 o’clock.

Moon phases, skeletonised dials, pavé bezels, racing dials, anniversary models with special engraving, the funky Alaska I Project replica with massive red protector sleeve – anything goes with Speedmaster Professional specials. While Omega always holds back the “big guns” for revealing at Baselworld, a couple of sneak previews have been released for the 2017 collection.

Calling it “big news’ seems silly as one of the most important of the new models is an exercise in downsizing. The aptly-named Speedmaster 38mm is targeted at the distaff client, even though 38mm is comfortably “masculine”. This all-new version of the Speedmaster Professional ladies’ model features a diamond-paved bezel with tachymeter scale on a brown aluminium ring. The Speedmaster 38s are powered by the Omega Co-Axial Calibre 3330 column-wheel chronograph, with the sub-dials placed in the 3-6-9 positions. This is a self-winding, officially-certified (C.O.S.C.) chronometer containing 31 jewels, and with a generous power reserve of 52 hours.

Its case measures 38mm by 14.7mm thick, with water resistance up to 10 bar (100m/330ft). The surfaces are both polished and brushed, while the variety of bezels include diamond-paved or polished gold with aluminium rings, grey, black or blue aluminium bezels or white ceramic. Case materials include all-stainless steel, stainless steel and 18k Sedna™ gold case with brown aluminium ring, and stainless steel and 18k yellow gold with green aluminium ring.

One to entice collectors who like their Speedmasters to stand out from the crowd is the Speedmaster Racing Master Chronometer. This model revives the dial details of the 1968 original, as well as the 1996 Schumacher model and the 2004 special for Japan. The dial is matte black, and Omega expanded the sub-dials to enhance legibility. The 44.25mm case is thinner than before, to improve comfort, while the polished ceramic bezel with brushed Liquidmetal tachymeter scale updates the model even further. But that’s secondary: this watch is all about its race-track chapter ring.

More Speedys undoubtedly will follow at Baselworld, so watch this space.

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