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Top Gear Guide To Watches

The new Omega Speedmaster might be the best ever

It’s a bold call, Cotton; let’s see if it pays off

Published: 22 Sep 2021

Here’s a thought: pretty much every advertising campaign you’ve ever come across has, at some point, fallen back on the old chestnut that is ‘new and improved’. If it isn’t, then why bother replacing what we already have?

But there’s a fraction of cases for which the absolute opposite is true: to be new or improved is nothing short of heresy. And that’s because changing what is risks severing our connection to what was.

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It’s why people lose their minds over electric cars. It’s why something as life-saving as the halo in Formula One somehow managed to be controversial. It’s why ‘real’ BMWs are rear-drive and ‘proper’ Porsche are air-cooled. As Garth Algar said in Wayne’s World, “we fear change".

For the luxury watch industry – whose stock-in-trade is perhaps as much heritage as it is quality – this goes quite some way to explaining why the big players are so notoriously conservative. And equally far in explaining why the new Omega Speedmaster is enjoying its first major upgrade in 50 years.

Not that you’d notice from a cursory glance – barring a new metal bracelet, the new Speedmaster is broadly indistinguishable from the one it replaces. So far, so standard operating procedure for a luxury watch brand. It’s under the bonnet where the true upgrade lies.

In the world of mechanical watches, there’s really only been one truly game-changing development in the past 100 years. And there’s really only been one development to the fundamental workings of the mechanism since the 18th century. In both cases, it’s the co-axial escapement.

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Back in the 1970s, a Brit by the name of George Daniels came up with the co-axial escapement as a solution to an age-old problem of mechanical watches: the escapement (i.e. the complicated bit that measures time) relied on a system with a lot of sliding friction. OK, you say, so do cars – that’s why we have oil. But in a watch, as you might expect, tolerances are much, much smaller, and any friction at all interferes with precision. So a tiny change in the oil, due to age or temperature, means a big problem for the accuracy of the watch. It’s not the only thing that affects accuracy, of course, but it can be a biggie. So Daniels invented a way to basically eliminate that friction (and other things besides, but this is already a long article), ensuring greater consistency of timekeeping. It’s a huge development and something of a crowning jewel for Omega, who industrialised the mechanism and remains the only manufacturer to produce it at scale.

The Speedmaster is the latest to get the co-axial escapement, which means that the latest Speedy really is both new and improved. And now you see the problem. The new Speedmaster doesn’t have the exact same internals as the watches that took the Apollo astronauts to the moon – and famously helped save the lives of Jim Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise. It doesn’t have the same mildly modified movement as the five decades of Speedmasters that came after the Apollo missions. It hardly matters that the bulk of the mechanism is the same but for this one new and improved piece – for some people, this one change will change everything.

But for the rest of us, who – to put it in car terms – recognise that Ferrari can’t keep building the same Colombo V12 until the end of time, the new Speedmaster is the obvious next step forward. While newer has never automatically meant better, complaining because ‘it’s not the way they did it in the old days’ is a sure-fire way to end up on the wrong side of history. Nothing is permanent. Everything that shines must fade, and everything that man has built, nature will eventually destroy. So maybe don’t worry about heritage quite so much.

The new Speedmaster is the best ever because it’s the best mechanically, not historically. It uses the biggest development in a century of watchmaking to improve the job it’s designed to do, while still featuring the form and function of the classic original. And if that isn’t the best kind of new and improved, what is?

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