It is one of the eternal debates among seasoned watch connoisseurs: Rolex or Omega? Submariner or Seamaster? Paul Newman Daytona or Speedmaster Moonwatch? Throughout the decades-long shared history of two of the watch world’s most legendary and accomplished brands, Rolex vs. Omega has long been regarded by avid fans and industry followers as a classic rivalry on the level of Ali vs. Frazier, Lakers vs. Celtics, Ford vs. General Motors, Apple vs. Microsoft — you get the idea. How did these two heritage watchmakers earn their household-name status as titans of horology, and which brand holds the edge in the most important areas for fans and collectors? Read on for our take.
The watch manufacturer we now know as Omega traces its origins to 1848, when an ambitious 23-year-old watchmaker named Louis Brandt opened up his watchmaking workshop in La Chaux-de-Fonds in the Swiss Jura Mountains. Originally named La Generale Watch Co., the firm changed its name to Louis Brandt et Fils in 1880 after Louis’ sons Louis-Paul and César took over its management after their father’s death. The sons moved the company to a larger facility in the Swiss town of Bienne, and eventually to a building on 96 rue de Jakob-Stampfli, which remains its corporate headquarters today. The name “Omega” didn’t emerge until 1894. It was applied to the 19-ligne caliber that Louis Brandt & Fils developed that year, which was not only extremely accurate but historic in its adaptable construction, in which every component could be replaced, without modification, by any watchmaker, and thus heralded the eventual dominance of series-produced watch movements. The Omega Caliber — so named because it represented the company’s “ultimate achievement” at the time — was also one of the first in which both time-setting and winding were operated via the stem and crown. So proud were the Brandt brothers of their industry-altering accomplishment that they renamed the company “Omega” shortly thereafter. Before the 20th Century had even dawned, Omega had racked up an impressive list of milestones, including one of the first serially produced watch movements, the Labrador, in 1885, and the first wrist-worn minute repeater in 1892. In the 1930s, the company became an official timekeeper for the Olympic Games, a distinction it still holds today.
Rolex, by most standards the most famous Swiss watch brand in the world, was originally not even Swiss: it was founded by a German in the United Kingdom. Hans Wilsdorf (above) was raised in Kulmbach, Germany and began his career in the Swiss watch industry in 1900 as a clerk at the watchmaking firm of Cuno Korten in La Chaux-de-Fonds, just two decades after Omega had shifted operations to Bienne. In 1905 Wilsdorf, then living in London, partnered with another businessman named Alfred Davis to establish Wilsdorf & Davis, the company that would become Rolex. Wilsdorf & Davis, based in London’s Hatton Garden commercial district, was founded with a mandate to make reliably precise watches at affordable prices. In 1914, days before the outbreak of World War I, Wilsdorf changed the name of the company to “Rolex” — the name coming to him out of the blue during a carriage ride, Wilsdorf later claimed — and moved its HQ to Geneva in 1919. Rolex’s offices and main manufacturing hub remain in the Canton of Geneva today, in the suburb of Plan-les-Ouates. Rolex’s early 20th-century innovations, like the waterproof Oyster case and self-winding “perpetual” movement, as well as its trendsetting designs, have impacted the whole of the watch industry and it continues to play a leading role in watchmaking, and watch marketing, in the modern era.
Tale of the Tape: Rolex SA vs. Omega SA
Founded: 1848; Headquarters: Bienne, Switzerland; Ownership: Swatch Group; Notable models: Speedmaster, Seamaster 300M, Constellation, De Ville
Founded: 1905; Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland: Ownership: Hans Wilsdorf Foundation; Notable models: Datejust, Submariner, GMT-Master, Cosmograph Daytona
In 1948, the 100th anniversary of its founding, Omega launched a model that was destined to become one of its pillars, the original Seamaster. It was not a “dive watch” as we know it in the modern sense — the category didn’t really exist yet — but was instead marketed as a watch for “town, sea, and country,” a dress watch for gentlemen that was distinguished from its many competitors by its adoption of a new waterproofing system. Developed for the World War II-era watches that Omega produced for British military divers a few years before, this pioneering waterproof technology centered around the use of a rubber O-ring gasket, of the type used in submarines, to seal the crown and case against leaks; this type of gasket proved to be more reliable than the shellac and lead versions that watchmakers had been using at the time, and set the Seamaster on its path to becoming a full-fledged divers’ watch. In 1955, diver Gordan McLean wore the Seamaster for a record-breaking 62.5-meter dive off the Australian coast; in 1956, another Seamaster took a polar-route journey across the North Atlantic strapped to the hull of a Douglas DC6. Just one year later, the first generation of the more familiar “Professional” version of the Seamaster debuted. The Seamaster 300 — which debuted as part of a trio of legendary tool watches, along with the Railmaster and Speedmaster — boosted its dressy predecessor’s water resistance to 200 meters (though Omega was confident that the watch could handle pressures as deep as those at 300 meters, hence the name) and embraced the era’s growing masses of recreational divers.
In the 1970s, Omega started producing a more “extreme” version, the cult-favorite Seamaster PloProf, (an abbreviation for the French “plongeuers professionel,” or “professional divers”), with a hulking, asymmetrical monobloc steel case that could descend to 1,000 meters underwater. The 1990s saw the addition of the tool-oriented but stylish Seamaster Diver 300M (above), which incorporated a helium-release valve and an appealing wave-pattern dial, and the Seamaster has subsequently expanded into an even more diverse family since then, adding the dressier Aqua Terra line, the more boldly sized Planet Ocean, and even modern revivals of the 1948 and 1957 models, all with modern Omega in-house calibers.
In the industry-wide mission of making watches waterproof, Rolex got the jump on Omega (and everyone else, really) by several decades, and ushered in the modern era of water-resistant case design, with the introduction in 1926 of the first Oyster case (above). Named after the bivalve mollusk that inspired its two-part, clamping “shell” design, the case combined a threaded, hermetically sealed caseback and a crown that screwed securely into the side for a water resistance never before achieved in watches. The following year, in what would be the first of many celebrity-driven marketing initiatives over the years, Rolex partnered with British swimmer Mercedes Gleitze, who famously wore a Rolex Oyster watch on a necklace in her bid to become the first woman to swim the English Channel.
Oyster cases became standard on many Rolex watches in subsequent years, but the early 1950s, with the popularity of recreational diving reaching a postwar fever pitch and the era of the purpose-built divers’ watch in its infancy, Rolex took its quest for underwater robustness to a new level. The first Rolex Submariner, Ref. 6204, was introduced in 1953 and on the market one year later — predating the Seamaster 300 but sharing the first-generation spotlight with other genre pioneers like the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms. The Submariner, however, has proven to be perhaps the most iconic of all dive watches, its distinctive design emulated far and wide. It has also given rise to descendants with even more underwater robustness, like the Sea-Dweller, first released in 1967 and equipped with a patented helium-release valve for saturation diving; and the Deepsea, boasting a case water-resistant to a bone-crushing 3,900 meters.
Tale of the Tape: Rolex Submariner vs. Omega Seamaster Diver 300M
Omega Seamaster Diver 300M
Price: $5,100 - $26,000, Case Size: 42mm/43.5mm, Lug width: 20mm/21mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 300 meters, Movement: Automatic Omega Caliber 8800
Price: $9,150, Case Size: 41mm, Thickness: 12mm, Lug Width: 21mm, Lug-to-Lug: 48mm, Water Resistance: 300m, Movement: Auto Rolex 3235, Crystal: Sapphire
Extreme Depth Records
One area in which Rolex and Omega have battled for supremacy and bragging rights has been the ongoing quest for the record of deepest-diving watch, i.e., the watch that has descended to a deeper point underwater than any other watch on Earth. Rolex fired the first salvo as far back as 1960 with the first Rolex Deepsea, an experimental version of the Submariner with an ultra-thick, extremely waterproof case that was fastened to the hull of the Bathyscaphe Trieste (above), a submersible vehicle that ocean explorers Jacques Picard and Don Walsh piloted into Challenger Deep, the deepest valley of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean. The watch, and the Trieste, descended nearly all the way to the bottom, 35,797 feet below the surface, to set a world record. Years later, in 2012, movie director James Cameron helmed another expedition to Challenger Deep, attaching another prototype Rolex Deepsea watch to a manipulator arm on the exterior of his specially built submarine and setting a new depth record (for a solo diver) of 35,787 feet below the surface.
Omega spearheaded its own initiative in 2019 with explorer Victor Vescovo as part of his “Five Deeps” series of expeditions to the deepest points in the world’s oceans. Vescovo’s titanium-hulled submarine, the Limiting Factor, had mounted on its robotic arms two prototypes of a watch called the Seamaster Planet Ocean Ultra Deep Professional when it probed a slightly deeper point at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, at 35,853 feet, thus claiming a new record for deepest depth achieved by a wristwatch. As Rolex has done for years with the Deepsea and Sea-Dweller, Omega now offers a commercial version of the Ultra-Deep (above) in its lineup — substantially smaller than the massive 55mm of the prototype and water-resistant to 6,000 meters rather than the original’s 10,000 meters.
Tale of the Tape: Rolex Sea-Dweller Deepsea vs. Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean Ultra Deep
Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean Ultra Deep
Price: $8,950, Case Size: 45.5mm, Thickness: 18.2mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 6,000 meters, Movement: Automatic Omega Master Chronometer Caliber 8912, 60-hour power reserve
Rolex Sea-Dweller Deepsea
Price: $14,460, Case Size: 44mm, Thickness: 17.7mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 3,900 meters, Movement: Automatic Rolex Caliber 3235, 70-hour power reserve
Magnetism, as any watch owner knows, is the archenemy of timekeeping precision. Throughout the history of horology, watchmakers have striven to develop innovative solutions to countering the effects of magnetic fields on a watch’s mainspring and other metal moving parts. The issue became particularly prominent in the 1950s, when advancing technology ensured that the era’s scientists, engineers and technicians would be working regularly around magnetic fields. Rolex’s answer to the challenge of making a reliable, magnetism-resistant watch for these professionals was the Milgauss, which it introduced in 1956. Its signature innovation was a miniature magnetic shield called a “Faraday cage,” made of ferromagnetic material and placed inside the case to protect the movement from ambient magnetism. Its name was a contraction of “mille gauss” — mille being “1,000” in French, gauss being the international unit of measure for magnetic field strength, named for German physicist Carl Gauss — which signified the watch’s unprecedented level of magnetic resistance. Appropriately, the Rolex Milgauss became popular among scientists of the Atomic Age, including those working at Switzerland’s European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which had worked with Rolex to develop the watch.
One year later, as part of its influential Big Three of “Master” models that year (we’ll cover them all), Omega introduced its own antimagnetic timepiece, the Railmaster, which as its name implied targeted professionals like train engineers and other railroad industry workers. The original Railmaster battled magnetism in a similar fashion as the Milgauss, with a double-case construction whose inner layer protected the movement from magnetic interference up to 1,000 gauss. When Omega revived the Railmaster (above; technically as part of the Seamaster collection) in its 50th anniversary year of 2017, it did so in a more modern fashion: the movement itself incorporated magnetic-resistant components, including a silicon hairspring. Like the vast majority of Omega’s in-house movements today, Omega Caliber 8806, based on the three-hand-date automatic Caliber 8800, is a Master Chronometer certified movement, meaning it has met the strict criteria of the Swiss Institute of Metrology, or METAS, which cover not only timekeeping precision but also the watch’s performance under exposure to magnetic fields of 15,000 gauss.
Tale of the Tape: Rolex Oyster Perpetual Milgauss vs.Omega Seamaster Railmaster
Omega Seamaster Railmaster
Price: $5,200, Case Size: 39.97mm, Thickness: 12.68mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 150 meters, Movement: Automatic Omega Caliber 8086, 55-hour power reserve
Price: $9,300, Case Size: 40mm, Thickness: 13.3mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 100 meters, Movement: Automatic Rolex Caliber 3131, 48-hour power reserve
Both Rolex and Omega offer a chronograph watch in their lineup that can truly be considered iconic, and while both watches were made with a similar audience in mind initially, each took a very different path to fame and worldwide popularity.
The third and arguably most historic of Omega’s 1957 trilogy was the Speedmaster; as one might glean from its name, it was a watch intended for timing automobile races, as evidenced by its built-in chronograph with three-register dial and by the motorsport-influenced tachymeter scale that was printed on the bezel, the first time such a scale had moved from its traditional spot on the dial’s edge. The design was a trend-setter for chronograph watches, but the Speedmaster barely had time to establish itself as a favorite of racing drivers before it was pressed into service by NASA, which was looking for a watch tough enough and reliable enough to be worn by astronauts, in the early 1960s.
As I explore in much greater detail here, the Speedy was one of a handful of watches that underwent a battery of tests by NASA scientists to determine which was most mission-ready for the manned moon landing that President Kennedy had promised by the end of the decade in a speech in 1962. Omega’s watch took the prize, and accompanied Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins on the historic Apollo 11 mission in Summer 1969, which culminated in the first human beings setting foot on the moon. The Omega Speedmaster, which Aldrin was wearing when he stepped onto the lunar surface, has been legendary as the First Watch on the Moon ever since, and has remained all these decades later a vital piece of equipment for NASA astronauts on space missions, its racetrack origins nearly forgotten.
The Rolex Daytona, on the other hand, embraced its identity as a racing watch and never let go, though it became perhaps most well known for its association with one particular celebrity wearer who successfully straddled the line between Hollywood glitz and motorsport grit. While Rolex was not known for chronographs prior to the mid-20th Century, the company had established a connection to motorsports and auto racing early in its history: British racing driver Sir Malcolm Campbell wore Rolexes on and off the track during his storied career, including in 1935 when he set a world speed record in his famous Campbell-Railton Bluebird at Florida’s Daytona Beach. In 1959, the newly built Daytona International Speedway hosted the inaugural Daytona 500 stock car race, now a fixture on the American motorsport calendar, and Rolex became the race’s official timekeeper in 1962. One year later it released the Ref. 6239 Cosmograph, nicknamed the “Daytona” (though the name had yet to appear on the dial), which was notable for its three-register dial and engraved tachymeter bezel. Not particularly successful at the outset, the Daytona rocketed to pop culture icon status after it was spotted on the wrist of Paul Newman, the award-winning movie actor who had embarked upon a second successful career as a racecar driver. The specific reference associated with Newman, and nicknamed after him, is today one of the rarest and most desirable Daytona models on the secondary market.
Like a high-performance race car upgrading to faster and more powerful engines, the Daytona continued throughout its decades on the market to stay on the cutting edge of chronographic excellence. The original Valjoux movement in the original references eventually gave way to the Rolex Caliber 4030, a heavily modified version of Zenith’s legendary high-frequency El Primero movement (you can learn more about it here) in the late 1980s. That movement was superseded by the in-house Rolex Caliber 4130, with a column-wheel chronograph mechanism and a host of Rolex-patented technical details. A personalized, steel-and-gold Rolex Daytona (like the one above) is still awarded to winning drivers of all the races Rolex sponsors, including the Daytona 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Tale of the Tape: Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona vs. Omega Speedmaster Professional “Moonwatch”
Omega Speedmaster Professional
Price: $6,400, Case Size: 42mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Crystal: Hesalite, Water Resistance: 50 meters, Movement: Manual-wind Omega 3861
Rolex Cosmograph Daytona
Price: $15,100, Case size: 40mm, Thickness: 11mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 100 meters, Movement: Automatic Rolex Caliber 4130
When it comes to the auction market, no brand other than Patek Philippe can hold a candle to Rolex’s performance, and as previously noted above, few of its vintage models have achieved the Holy Grail status of the Ref. 6239 “Paul Newman” Daytonas from the 1960s. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the “Paul Newman” actually owned by Paul Newman made such an earth-shaking impact when it went on the block in New York on October 26, 2017. The 37mm-diameter stainless steel chronograph, with its telltale off-white dial, contrasting black subdials and minute track, and engraved tachymeter-scale bezel, was a gift to Newman from his wife, actress Joanne Woodward, its caseback engraved with the affectionate note of caution, “Drive Carefully - Me,” a reference to the beginning of Newman’s racing career around that time. Acquired in 1968, the watch had been kept within the Newman family for nearly 50 years before consigned for auction. At $17.75 million, the model remains the most expensive Rolex watch ever sold.
Omega has yet to attain such stratospheric heights for one of its watches on the auction block (and to be fair, the highest-selling Rolex is still many millions behind the highest-selling Patek Philippe), but some significant pieces have fetched eye-opening prices nonetheless. The record-holder for most expensive Omega sold at auction was a rare early Speedmaster offered in a 2021 Phillips auction. The 1957 model, with its brown “tropical” dial, classical “Broad Arrow” hands, and manually wound Caliber 321 movement blew past its $80,000-$120,000 estimate to sell for more than $3.5 million, demonstrating the growing popularity of the “pre-Moonwatch” versions of the Speedy. Distinguishing this generation of Speedmasters, launched in the model’s very first year, are the plain metal bezel (sans black insert or tachymeter scale) and the oval “O” in the Omega logo. As Omega watches, and vintage Speedmasters in particular, gain in collectibility, one might expect this record to be shattered before too long — and if Buzz Aldrin’s moon-worn Speedy ever makes it to auction, all bets are off.
Tale of the Tape: Rolex “Paul Newman” Daytona Ref. 6239 vs. Omega Speedmaster “Broad Arrow” Ref. 2915-1
Omega Speedmaster Ref. 2915-1
Production: Circa 1957; Specs: 38mm, stainless steel, “tropical” dial; Seller: Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo, 2021; Pre-Sale Estimate: $131,000; Final price: $3.4 million
Rolex Daytona Ref. 6239
Production: Circa 1968; Specs: 36.5mm, stainless steel, personally engraved caseback; Seller: Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo, 2017; Pre-Sale Estimate: $1 million; Final price: $17.75 million
In summation, fans of both Omega and Rolex can point to numerous milestones and accomplishments in the history of watchmaking to justify their appreciation of their respective favorite brand. Both brands can boast watch models in their collections that have become legitimate icons, and both brands have maintained a tradition of innovation and creativity in both technical and design aspects while never straying far from the original spirit established by their visionary founders. While records for auction prices and underwater depth achievements will probably remain subject to change, Rolex and Omega both show every sign of continued vitality and worldwide popularity as they enter another decade of the 21st Century.
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