In horology there are certain indelible associations. Perhaps the most enduring and the most iconic is the association with NASA and the Omega Speedmaster. The Speedmaster has set benchmarks that, in our opinion, are hard to surpass: the first timepiece to be flight-qualified by NASA for manned space missions, the first watch to be worn by an American astronaut during a space walk, the first watch to be worn on the moon.
Despite this extraterrestrial heritage, in the beginning the Speedmaster was only intended for terrestrial pursuits. Omega released the Speedmaster in 1957, in the midst of a craze for racing chronographs. The name "Speedmaster" followed the naming trend set by the Seamaster and Railmaster models, and was also a subtle nod to the innovative brushed stainless steel tachymeter bezel. The first reference of Speedmaster, the CK 2915, contained the Lemania caliber 321 movement, developed by famed movement-maker Albert Piguet in 1946. Over the next few years, the Speedmaster saw several changes in dial and hand configurations, but at its heart retained the design elements that would be carried down through the decades: the black dial with its triple-register layout, the domed hesalite crystal, and of course, the tachymeter bezel, signifying Omega's intention for the Speedmaster to be used in automotive sports.
Who knows--had NASA not pinpointed the Speedmaster for use in manned spaceflight, perhaps it would only be regarded among the great racing chronographs like the Heuer Autavia or the Tudor Monte Carlo?
The fact that the Speedmaster came to be used by NASA is somewhat serendipitous. Since the dawn of military aviation, pilots had used chronographs to time their flights. When NASA developed their space program, the first astronauts were, as one can imagine, pilots. The Speedmaster was already known to NASA for its personal use by the astronauts: Wally Schirra wore his own Speedmaster, a reference CK2998, aboard the Mercury-Atlas 8 in 1962.
In 1965, NASA sent formal bids to twelve different brands whose chronographs the astronauts preferred for use in their flights. Chronographs from Breitling (already by then well-established for use in aviation), Rolex, and even a pocketwatch by Hamilton were considered by NASA. Ultimately a Rolex, a Longines and an Omega made the final cut, but the Speedmaster won out and was found to be the most durable and suitable of the bunch for use in the Apollo missions. The Speedmaster was one of the few pieces of equipment not made specifically for NASA, but given the watch’s outstanding quality, a custom model was deemed unnecessary, and Buzz Aldrin went on to wear his on the surface of the moon.
The Speedy that we have here dates from 1969, the year of the moon landing, and bears a "pre-Moon" case back. However, unlike the Speedmasters worn by the astronauts of the Apollo missions, it contains the caliber .861 rather than the caliber .321. The .861, also designed by Albert Piguet, was Lemania's perfection of the earlier caliber: rather than a column wheel, the .861 contained a cam, and increased the rate from 18000 to 216000 beats per hour.
The result is an icon among icons, a chronograph with an impressive heritage that deserves to go with its wearer to frontiers unseen by mankind.