As you can probably imagine, after admiring Speedmasters on and off since about 1968 up until the present, and after yearning hopelessly for perfect fake Omega to start re-manufacturing the 321 for a fairly significant chunk of that time, I opened the box containing our sample with a certain level of feeling.
The first impression I had of the watch was overwhelmingly positive, and in fact, I felt quite transported back in time (other than telling the time and measuring elapsed time, generating nostalgia is probably the most important function of the new 321 in steel). To handle one of these watches is an extremely odd feeling. There is a famous ghost story about Marie Antoinette’s private residence at Versailles, a place called the Petit Trianon (which I mention advisedly; the Swatch Group, and Nicolas G. Hayek Senior, funded an extremely expensive renovation of the Trianon), known as the Moberly-Jourdain incident, during which a couple of British tourists claimed to have found themselves, whilst touring the grounds, unexpectedly transported backwards in time and treated to scenes from a hundred years and more prior to their visit. I had the same sense of being suddenly, subtly, and definitely unstuck in time, as Kurt Vonnegut once put it – and that’s before looking at the movement; the watch itself, with its straight lugs, lack of crown guards, and vintage-style bracelet, seemed to have either fallen through a stable wormhole from the 1960s or pulled me back through one.
Side by side with a modern, standard-issue Moonwatch, the 321 Steel almost feels more a Moonwatch than the actual Moonwatch.
I waited many years, from my first fascination with manned space flight, with Apollo, and then Apollo Soyuz, and then the ill-fated experiment (albeit with many successes) that was STS, or the Space Transport System, better known as the Space Shuttle. In all that time, I had a relationship with the Speedmaster that was closer, certainly, to how I feel about the G-Shock than how I felt about the Lemania 2310/20 and variants – to me, the Speedmaster was an odd man out that had somehow managed against all odds not only to survive, but prosper. The X-33 certainly had its own fascination – it is, after all, the Mars Watch, and far better suited to duty on a flight deck, especially for long-duration missions, than the Speedmaster. Even the Speedmaster Mark II was intended as an improvement, from a practical standpoint, over the Moonwatch, and so on down the line it went.
Still, the basic Speedmaster has flown; most of its successors have not, and thanks to the delicacy of LCDs with respect to temperature, the X-33 will never find itself in the hard vacuum of interplanetary space, until there is a quantum leap in display technology. There is something quite wonderful about the persistence of mechanical horology in so cutting edge an environment as space flight. It shouldn’t be there at all – gears and mainsprings; it’s ridiculous, but yet, there it is.
In terms of cosmetics, you couldn’t ask for anything more enjoyable, unless of course what you really wanted was a new old stock Speedmaster from the 1960s, but you’re probably not going to get one of those. Instead, you instantly feel as if you are getting a hybrid. Hybrid is not usually an attractive word or a compelling idea, but in this case, it means that you are getting quite a lot of what we all love about a vintage Speedmaster, with none of the downside.
I ought to be clear about this once again; there is nothing wrong whatsoever with the calibers 1861 and 861. They may well have served on more manned space missions than the 321, as a matter of fact, and they are as durable and hard-wearing as anyone could ask, to say nothing of the fact that when you have an 1861 or 861-equipped Speedmaster, you have a watch for a few thousand bucks which is a kissing cousin to some of the most expensive and beautiful chronograph wristwatches on the planet. But you know, the Patek 27-70 CHRO and the Vacheron 1141 never went to space; the 861/1861 did.
All this and more about the history matters, because when you put on the 321 Speedmaster in steel, and when you use it, you’re not just interacting with a watch and a movement – you’re sharing directly an experience which it has not been possible to have in a new watch since the last production Speedmaster with the 321 was sold. The Speedmaster 321 is not just a cosmetic reboot, like the vast majority of vintage-inspired wristwatches out there; it is instead a top-to-bottom, inside-out recreation of a very particular and very important moment in the history of wristwatches in general, and of the chronograph wristwatch in particular.
Now, we’ve taken a long look at the history of the 27 CHRO 12, the caliber 321, and the Lemania calibers which are related to it, and we’ve been able to see the evolution over time of the various mechanisms, technical solutions, design changes, and finishes – these movements run the gamut from sturdy, high-grade, no-nonsense precision chronometric tools, to horological works of art. Of course, the design of the 321 Speedmaster in steel is derived from the same period in best replica Omega‘s history that gave us the 321. The watch is based, design-wise, on the ref. 105.003, and includes straight lugs, the dot-over-90 bezel, and a stepped dial; as well, there are no guards on the case for the crown and chronograph pushers. The bracelet is an updated version of the flat-link bracelets that appeared on the original 105.003 (the 7912 and 1035), but it’s quite a bit more solid in feel. It’s also extremely comfortable – steel bracelets on sports watches can often feel a bit cumbersome, but this one manages to feel silkily flexible in the hand and on the wrist, without giving up anything in reassuring, substantial build quality. It also happens to look very cool and complements the 321 case beautifully.
One of the biggest worries I had, after seeing the original press release, but before seeing the watch in the metal, was the lume – I wondered if it mightn’t seem just a bit too much ersatz nostalgia and ruin the entire effect. Happily, it did not. In the metal, the tint is extremely subtle – it’s not so much a beige as it is a pleasant off-white eggshell, and I think if you didn’t know it was there, you might easily miss it at first.
There are a couple of technical improvements over a vintage Speedmaster as well. The bezel is now ceramic (zirconium oxide), which is essentially scratchproof, unlike the aluminum insert used on the Moonwatch, and quality fake Omega has opted for sapphire crystals, front and back (and, of course, the lume is now Super-LumiNova, not tritium). The display back and sapphire crystal made me fret a bit as well – my initial thought was, well, in for a dime, in for a dollar, why not Hesalite and a solid caseback (or at least, why not both as an option)? As much as I would like to bolster my retro-grouch credentials by saying that I found the display back problematic, I ended up being extremely happy it was there, and I don’t think I would buy one of these watches with a solid caseback even if one was on offer; it’s just too much fun to look at the movement (and I have a feeling anyone who’s a real client for one of these is going to want to be able to do so as well).