Omega’s Innovative Followup to the Moonwatch, Part One
By John DeVore
In my last article, I followed the participants in a race to build the world’s first automatic winding chronograph watch. By the end of 1969 three of these types of watches had made it to market, those using the Cal. 6139 [footnote 1] from Seiko, the Cal. 11 from the Chronomatic Group, and the Cal. 3019 PCH “El Primero” from Zenith. Omega and Rolex, two of the most prominent makers of tool-watches in Switzerland at the time, didn’t even participate in that race.
Rolex, a very conservative manufacturer, was not interested in such a race-to-market. As I mentioned in that previous article it took Rolex two more decades to update their Daytona chronograph with an automatic movement and they used the Zenith “El Primero” to do it.
Omega was working to capitalize on what would be a tremendous marketing opportunity when Buzz Aldrin stepped foot on the moon wearing the only chronograph watch to be certified by NASA for spaceflight, the Omega Speedmaster professional.
Omega Steps In
Rather than spending resources in a race to market the first automatic chronograph, Omega was preparing their classic manual-wind Speedmaster for an enormous increase in popularity. Towards the end of 1968 they revised the “Speedy” with a new dial and movement: The stepped dial with its applied logo was changed to a flat one with a printed logo, and the Cal. 321 movement was replaced by the less-expensive and easier to produce Cal. 861, allowing the company to increase production and keep costs down while those earlier watches were literally rocketing to history.
For most of the 20th century Omega was closely associated with renown movement manufacturer Lemania [footnote 2] which produced the mechanisms for most of their iconic chronographs. This includes the legendary Cal. CH27–better known as the Cal. 321 used in that Omega Speedy that went to the moon. Created by Lemania’s star designer Albert Piguet in 1942, the CH27 was a very compact caliber, which came in handy when five years later he developed it into the CH27-c12-A by adding an automatic-winding “bumper” rotor [footnote 3] around the periphery. Piguet was clearly aware of the momentous achievement as the rotor is engraved in French with “The First Self-Winding Chronograph” and dated 28th October 1947.
But Lemania’s primary customer for such a caliber, Omega, was not interested. It is commonly reported that company head Paul-Emile Brandt considered an automatic chronograph superfluous, that there would be little market for such a watch.
Fast forward nearly a quarter century to 1969 and all the fuss over the “revolutionary” self-winding chronograph surely registered with the marketing department at Omega. An automatic chronograph project was quickly begun and overseen by Albert Piguet. The safest and simplest thing would have been for Piguet to replicate what he’d done with CH27-c12-A on the newer Cal. 861. While an automatic Cal. 861 could have been an excellent movement–its traditional three-subdial layout would be quite similar to Zenith’s new Cal. 3019 PHC. Perhaps a creative mind like Piguet’s wanted to look forward rather than backward.
Cal. 1340 and Cal. 1040
Whatever the reason, Piguet innovated instead of rehashing an old design. The resulting Cal. 1340 (and its Omega variant the Cal. 1040) had its central winding rotor mounted on precision ball bearings to increase efficiency and reliability, but the real innovation was a simple yet radical rethink of how to best read a chronograph, and it was unlike anything that came before it.
Generally common to analog chronographs is a central seconds hand, activated by a pusher, for timing events up to one minute in duration (the time it takes for the hand to make one full sweep of the dial). To time longer events tiny subdials were added, one for tracking minutes, another for tracking hours, and even a third for a running seconds hand since the center spot is occupied by the chronograph seconds counter [footnote 4]. Piguet’s innovation was to move the minute-counting hand from a subdial to the center and flag it, most often with little wings, to make it easily distinguished from the second-counting hand. This innovation improves readability enormously: checking elapsed seconds and minutes could now be done at a glance with no need to decipher a tiny subdial.
The unique configuration of the Cal. 1340-derived movements make watches powered by these engines easy to spot. Aside from the twin chronograph hands mounted at center, there are two subdials: an hour totalizer at 6 o’clock and running seconds at 9. Most also had date displayed at 3. Omega had its own proprietary variant, the Cal. 1040, which added an additional 24 hour indication layer beneath the running seconds at 9. Early models from the Omega Seamaster line, and a very small handful of other manufacturers allowed access to the Cal.1340, including BWC and Carl F. Bucherer, came in traditional cases but had some striking color combinations on their modern, asymmetrical dials. In 1972, when Omega introduced the Cal. 1040 in a top-line Speedmaster with the Mark III model, cases had transformed into funkier, chunkier 70’s shapes with hidden lugs and crisp radial brushing. These were quite a departure from the very traditional, elegant, twisted lug cases of the Moonwatch Speedmasters [footnote 5]. Meanwhile Lemania released the Cal. 1341, a simplified and dejeweled (from 22 to 17) version of the 1340 available to a broader market that included Tissot, Walkmann, Hamilton, Sinn, and others.
In 1973, to celebrate its 125th anniversary Omega further refined the Cal. 1040 into the Cal. 1041, designed a massive, shock-resistant case-within-a-case, and released the Speedmaster 125, the first officially COSC Chonometer certified chronograph wristwatch [footnote 6]. While the 125 was a tour de force and the Cal. 1041 was the apogee of an innovative and beautiful Haute Horlogerie movement, the Quartz Crisis was hitting the Swiss watch industry hard as cheap, accurate watches from Japan and the US ate away huge amounts of market share from below. Omega and Lemania needed to rethink their strategy and again, as he had done with the Cal. 321, Albert Piguet began work on a cheaper replacement for the Cal 1340 based movements. By the end of 1974 Cal. 1340 based watches began disappearing from the market [footnote 7] replaced by this new Piguet marvel.
But that’s a story for another article.
footnote 1: Cal. is short for caliber, which is the tiny engine inside a watch or clock that powers the hands and keeps time. Also known as the movement.
footnote 2: In 1932 Lemania joined the Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogére SA (SSIH). SSIH was formed two years prior by Omega and Tissot in the grim economic aftermath of World War One. By the late 60’s SSIH had absorbed a number of other companies and was Switzerland’s top producer of finished watches.
footnote 3: The rotor is a weighted element that rotates on a bearing to convert the movements of a watch on a wrist into energy stored in the mainspring. This is what makes a watch automatic, as it will wind the mainspring automatically as you wear it. A bumper rotor is an early version of this where the weighted rotor can’t spin all the way around, instead hitting a spring stop to be sent back around the other way to hit another spring stop etc. These little impacts can be felt when wearing the watch.
footnote 4: The three competing automatic chronographs from 1969 were examples of one subdial (Seiko Cal. 6139), two subdial (Chronomatic Group Cal. 11), and three subdial (Zenith El Primero) layouts.
footnote 5: It has been suggested this was a result of case ideas cooked up in the joint Omega/NASA “Alaska Project” search for the ultimate rugged and readable chronograph.
footnote 6: A chronometer is a clock or watch that has passed a number of fairly rigorous accuracy tests and been certified by the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC)
footnote 7: The Lemania Cal.1340 movement died in the mid 70’s, with only the 1041-powered Speedmaster 125 holding on through 1978, but due to the regrouping and consolidation of the Swiss watch industry through the 80’s and 90’s, it has been resurrected as the Breguet Cal. 1350, found in the Type XXI.