The Omega Speedmaster is the first, second, and third watch any watch collector imagines when space flight is discussed. Precisely which Omega Speedmaster chronograph comes to mind is dependent on which era of NASA spaceflight is in question. For Neil Armstrong, it was the Speedmaster 105.012. For Wally Schirra, the “First Omega in Space” was his personally owned CK2998. And for Ed White, the pre-moon Speedmaster 105.003 lives in legend. This episode of Collector’s Guide is the story of the modern-day Omega Speedmaster 321 “Ed White” re-creation.
Edward Higgins White II of the United States had an inspired career in his 36-year life. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; he earned his wings as an Air Force fighter pilot; he earned a degree in aeronautical engineering; he achieved the coveted status of military test pilot; he was an astronaut who performed America’s first space walk in 1965. For the purposes of today’s program, we explore the current Omega Speedmaster reference 3126.96.36.199.01.001, a faithful recreation of the chronograph worn by Ed White on the space-walking Gemini 4 mission.
At 39.7mm in diameter, the Omega Speedmaster Chronograph 321 is noticeably smaller than the standard Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch. The size disparity is amplified by the pre-moon Speedmaster’s lack of lyre-style lugs, crown guard profiles, and a shorter lug-to-lug span. Although the historic Speedmaster 105.003 included a thermoplastic crystal and an anodized aluminum tachymeter ring, the modern caliber 321 includes sapphire and ceramic components, respectively. This Speedmaster’s retail price of $15,400 necessitates greater refinement than Ed White would have enjoyed in the mid-1960s.
Each modern Speedmaster Caliber 321 is defined by the “pre-moon” Omega caliber 321. This manual-wind chronograph caliber achieved legend by flying with the NASA Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space missions during the 1960s and 70s. Based on the Lemania 2310 ebauche, the caliber 321 traces its roots to the early 1940s, and its story ostensibly ended in 1968 with the arrival of the definitive Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch and its caliber 861. But the column wheel caliber 321 continued to live in legend, and well-preserved vintage examples became valuable collectibles almost from the minute production ended.
Omega took note. The Swiss watch giant used the Apollo 11 50th anniversary in 2019 to announce the return of its celebrated caliber 321; 2021 brought the regular production Speedmaster 3188.8.131.52.01.001 “Ed White.” In a return to its watchmaking roots, Omega established a special workshop devoted entirely to the assembly of the caliber 321 by individual watchmakers. Each movement included finer finish than a standard Moonwatch caliber 3861.
Vintage refinements abound on the Omega 321. First, the return of the traditional column wheel is cause for celebration by Omega watch collectors. Its crisp operation and stately presence under a sapphire caseback are throwback to the way chronographs were built in the middle of the 20th century. The enormous balance wheel oscillates at an anachronistic but lovely 18,000 vibrations per hour while crowned by a carefully profiled overcoil hairspring. The power reserve of 55 hours is slightly more than a modern Omega Moonwatch, and the winding action of the mainspring barrel is crisply defined. For good measure, the decoration of the movement is manifestly superior to a standard Moonwatch caliber.
The marketplace for the reborn Speedmaster Ed White is robust. All complete-set examples command at least $21,000 as preowned watches. A complex and comprehensive set of boxes and papers must be expected when shopping for this Speedmaster. Omega includes an astronaut-style Velcro strap, a strap tool, a loupe, a “hippocampus” metal medallion, elaborate literature detailing the history of caliber 321, the Omega Speedmaster chronology, and its history as part of NASA’s space program. And the boxes feature a complex combination of textile wraps and metal hardwar.
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