Watch Of The Week: On Greatness In Watchmaking, And The Omega ‘1894’
A quiet rebuke to the hype watch and the horse it rode in on.
In Watch of the Week, we invite HODINKEE staffers and friends to explain why they love a certain watch. This week’s columnist is our very own Editor-In-Chief. Headline image: the Omega “1894” limited edition, 1994, with new old stock 30mm caliber 269.
Many years ago, in the long-gone late 1990s when I had decided to run my financial future into the ground by going back to graduate school, I used to go to the 26th Street Flea Market every Sunday, hoping to find a hidden gem. I found them periodically but even as hidden gems the price was often out of reach. I remember an enormous, complicated, Agassiz pocket watch with enough gold in the case to fill up half of Fort Knox – priced basically for the value of the gold but with an astonishingly beautiful movement. I also found a watch by Lepine, with his thin full-bridge movement that despite his importance in the history of watchmaking, probably would not cost much more today than it did then, a couple of decades ago.
One day, though, for reasons I can’t remember, I had a little more cash than usual and I found a small, hand-wound Omega in a gold case. Today, I’d be suspicious of the dial, which was a little too clean for its own good, but it had the word “chronomètre” on the dial, right above “Omega.” It was one of my early grail watches – an Omega chronometer, from the 1940s, with the caliber 30T2RG.
If you want a watchmaker’s opinion on the 30mm family of calibers, Roger Smith had this to say, in a 2004 interview in International Watch:
“From contemporary times, the Omega 30mm calibers are, in my opinion, one of the best designed movements ever made, and it has appeared in many different forms and types through the years. In horology, one always starts a new idea by taking the best from the past, and then you reinvent it. This Omega caliber has been a source of ideas and inspiration that has influenced my approach to the design of the Series 2 movement.”
And, in another interview with watchmaker Curtis Thompson:
“In my view, the finest of these movements were the Omega 30mm’s. They were superbly proportioned and for a production movement there were no short corners in the quality of construction. Because of these qualities worn components were rare and servicing was a pleasure, with the disassembly and particularly assembly being simple with the movements virtually falling together.”
I bought the watch for $500 (the seller, who was not a watch specialist, said to me defensively when she quoted the price, “I think it’s made of real gold.”) I took the watch home, cleaned and oiled it and despite it being a watch from the 1940s it ran flawlessly. Smith is right; it almost seemed to assemble itself. The chronometer versions of the 30T2RG had a special fine regulator and mine was an earlier caliber, with a split-rim compensation balance and blue-tempered balance spring.
I couldn’t really afford it and about a year-and-a-half after buying it, had to sell it – for a student, five hundred bucks is a lot of money, especially when you have a small but growing boy who wants to eat and be clothed on a regular basis. But it’s pretty much the only watch, to this day, that I regret selling, especially now that the notion of finding one in good condition for five hundred simoleons is absurd (an old-timey slang word for a buck, but hey, it was an old-timey watch).
Last year, I happened to be nosing around on Crown & Caliber and found a watch that I’d more or less forgotten existed. The watch in question was basically a modern 30T2RG – or, more specifically, the caliber 269 which is part of the same family of movements. I stopped breathing. This watch didn’t come from the forties. It was made as part of a limited edition in 1994, for the one hundredth anniversary of Omega, using new old-stock movements Omega had kept in storage. It was exactly what I would have wanted a couple of decades ago and it’s a grail watch for me today – too much to spring for with a couple of kids in college, alas, but I did manage to more or less bully a friend into buying it.
There is not much more to say. Normally I don’t have any trouble finding words to throw at watches I love but in this instance, it feels inappropriate – as if hyperbole would be not only unnecessary but actually silly, if not downright juvenile, in the face of such horological self-sufficiency. It’s one of the most pure expressions of watchmaking rising to the level of art through the simple pursuit of excellence. I doubt that this was a specific intention on the part of Omega when the 30mm family of watches were being produced commercially, but it feels to me as if the purity and elegance of the case and dial are a seamless continuation of the purity and elegance of the movement – an outer expression of an inner beauty.
The movement has not been made in half a century. The 30mm family of movements is long gone but so is the entire genre of precision-made, solidly built, hand-wound movements intended not as mechanisms for luxury watches, but as highly accurate, extremely robust, easy-to-service movements deliberately made to last a lifetime.
The late, great, and much-feared theater critic John Simon once wrote, of the play Cyrano de Bergerac, that it is not a great play, merely a perfect one. He was being rhetorical of course, because having opened with that observation he spends the rest of the essay explaining exactly why Cyrano de Bergerac is a great play (I haven’t seen the latest movie version, starring Peter Dinklage, but I want to and the only thing holding me back is that, as with some watches, I’m in love with the version I saw first). There are a lot of watches which you might, without anyone disagreeing, call “great” but the 1894, and the family of watches from which it comes, have no such pretensions, which is what, paradoxically, makes them – for me anyway – some of the greatest watches of all time.
Photos, Tiffany Wade