Updated: Apr 15, 2020
One of the things that make watches to interesting is the history and the stories behind the manufacturers, the watchmakers and of course the watches that have been and continue to be produced by them. When I look at my Omega Speedmaster, I see mid-century car races in Italy, I see 600 million people huddled around their television sets watching Neil Armstrong step on the moon and I see the Apollo 13 astronauts measuring 14 seconds to save their lives. Omega has an incredibly impressive history and I’d like to share just a little bit of it with you.
The beginning of Omega
Omega’s genesis can be traced back to 1848 when the 23-year-old Louis Brandt first opened a small watchmaking workshop in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. When Louis set up his workshop his passion for watches, translated into a pursuit of precision, which is something that still remains deeply ingrained in the Company's DNA today. Upon his death in 1879, Louis Brandt was succeeded by his two sons Louis Paul and Cesar. The two brothers moved the family business from La Chaux-de-Fonds to Biel/Bienne. Within three years they created the famous “Labrador” movement and developed the world’s first minute-repeating wristwatch, achievements that began to solidify their place in history.
In 1894, Louis Paul and Cesar released the famous “Omega” calibre, which would of course also later become the name of their company. What made this movement so revolutionary was that it was modular and every component could be replaced without any special modification by a watchmaker. This reduced manufacturing costs, but it also reduced servicing and maintenance costs for Omega customers. Within a short timespan, Omega became Switzerland’s largest manufacturer of finished watches. When we think of mass-produced products today, we often think of them as synonymous with poor quality or with a manufacturer who tries to cut corners, but for Omega, there could have been nothing further from the truth. The company has always found pride in providing high quality, innovative and precise products (In fact, one may argue almost to their demise in the second half of the twentieth century....).
Precision and Accuracy Achievements
During the first half of the 20th century, Omega continued to grow, expanding its distribution channels across six continents by 1909. Throughout this time and even earlier, I think it is important to highlight that Omega’s greatest achievements were in the realm of precision. Consider that the “Omega” movement introduced the combination of winding and time setting via the stem and crown, which how we still operate most mechanical watches today. In 1900 Omega won the Grand Prize at the Universal Exposition in Paris for innovation and an extraordinary line of watches. The level of innovation isn't just a result of good luck, as Omega already dedicated a significant part of its business to research and development as early as 1894. By 1931 Omega became the leader in timekeeping accuracy when the company set precision records in all six trials at the Geneva Observatory. Later, in 1936 Omega set the world precision record at the Kew Observatory, a record that remains unbroken until this day.
Partnerships that have stood the test of time
Is it any surprise that Omega became the official timekeeper of the Olympics in 1932, a relationship that has now maintained for 88 years? Omega has built a significant amount of relationships with partners during the 20th and 21st centuries. The company was commissioned as the single largest supplier of watches to the British military and its allies during WWII. In 1965 the legendary Omega Speedmaster beat out its competition to become the official flight-qualified watch of NASA. It was the first watch on the moon and it later played a pivotal role in saving the Apollo 13 flight crew and Omega continues to maintain its relationship with NASA as one of its oldest partners.
As for many other Swiss watch manufacturers, the 1970s proved to be unkind to Omega. Even for the Swiss watch giant, the Quartz crises could have been fatal if not for a certain dive watch and the partnership it created in 1993.
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