You don’t really need to have a huge interest in horology to know the names Omega Speedmaster and Rolex Daytona. In terms of recognition, the two brands and their respective flagship chronographs are at the absolute pinnacle of public awareness. The pair have been duking it out for decades now, both the watchmakers and the watches themselves, and each has built up a devoted camp of followers who will stay loyal no matter what. But as far as the battle of the chronographs is concerned, which is better? Is there, in fact, a winner out of the two?
Alike in so many ways, yet worlds apart when it comes time to pay for them, the fight may never be settled – but we’re not going to let trifling details like that stop us. Read on below for our take on the great Omega Speedmaster vs. Rolex Daytona debate.
Do you prefer the Omega Speedmaster or the Rolex Daytona?
Omega Speedmaster vs. Rolex Daytona Legacy
Universally beloved as both watches now are, it wasn’t always this way – for one of them at least. Omega struck first with the Speedmaster, released in 1957 alongside two other models which together made up their Professional Collection; the Seamaster 300 dive watch and the antimagnetic Railmaster.
It was the Omega Speedmaster that first moved the tachymeter scale onto the bezel rather than running it around the dial, freeing up significant space and lending the sort of legibility rarely seen on a chronograph up until that point. Between that, the excellent Caliber 321 movement developed together with Lemania, and the overall attractively utilitarian design, and the new kid on the block was an instant success.
However, this success story was not the same for the Daytona. It would be interesting to know how successful Rolex’s effort might have been if it had been launched first, but the fact is that when it finally hit the stands six years later in 1963, no one really cared. Rolex’s offering also had its tachymeter scale on its bezel, the sub-dial trio was the same, and it was similarly driven by a manually-wound movement. However, brand loyalty is a powerful force in most areas, and in horology especially, and there were not enough differences from the Omega Speedmaster to entice anyone away from buying the Speedy.
Things only got darker for Rolex in 1965 when the Omega Speedmaster won the greatest image boost that was possible for a tool watch, and was named as the official flight-qualified timepiece of NASA. By the end of the decade, the Speedy had experienced the surface of the moon on Aldrin’s wrist and that was that – nothing was going to out-legend the Speedmaster.
When the Rolex Daytona was first released it was not as popular as the Omega Speedmaster.
However, things change. The 1980s were good to Rolex, and the Daytona especially. The second iteration of the watch arrived in 1988, powered by an all-new automatic movement – a heavily reworked version of the El Primero by Zenith. Practically overnight, the Daytona’s fortunes were transformed, the added convenience and freshened up styling making Rolex’s racer the must-have model of the decade.
Then, at some point, a photograph surfaced of famous actor and race car driver Paul Newman wearing his first-generation Daytona with its unusual exotic dial and the horology world lost its collective mind. All of a sudden, even the fantastically unpopular first series Daytona watches were changing hands for immense sums; however, it was collectors who were buying them rather than drivers that were purchasing them to use at the race track.
And the Speedmaster? The quartz crisis hit Omega hard, and the brand struggled to keep their heads above water by releasing countless variations on their chronograph, with battery-powered models alongside both manual and automatic winding examples. Rather than appealing to all-comers, it diluted the essential spirit of the watch and saw them lose ground to Rolex.
The Omega Speedmaster is flight-qualified by NASA.
The Chronograph Wars Now
So where do we stand right now?
The third wave of the Daytona watches arrived in 2000, with its first in-house movement, the Cal. 4130. Of all Rolex’s sports watches, it has the widest variety of styles, forged in all three shades of gold, stainless steel, and even platinum. However, it is the steel pieces which have become some of the most sought after watches in existence with waitlists for current-production models reaching several years in length.
As for the Speedmaster, it too is available in the same flavors of gold, along with stainless steel and several all-ceramic options. (On the Daytona, a patented ceramic known as Cerachrom is used only on the occasional bezel). But although Omega has tightened the collection up in recent times, the Speedmaster name is still used on more than 70 different models, taking in all manner of styles, including quartz pieces with analog/digital hybrid displays that are a world away from the original model.
Even the Moonwatch, the series descended from the original Omega Speedmaster that really made the model’s name, can now be had with moonphase complications, double or triple registers, with or without a date function, Co-Axial or non-Co-Axial movements – all of which can get a bit confusing. And that is not even taking into account the numerous limited editions which seem to turn up almost every other day.
At Rolex, a Daytona is a Daytona. No matter what it’s made from, it is always the same underneath. It lends the range a cohesion that Omega seems to somehow lack with its Speedmaster.
The stainless steel Rolex Daytona has been sold out at dealers worldwide ever since its initial release.
Like for Like
The most legitimate comparison we can make between the two chronograph watches is likening steel for steel. That gives us the Rolex Daytona ref. 116500LN versus the Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch Chronograph 42mm (reference number: 3184.108.40.206.01.005).
Aesthetically, both are definitely from the ‘tool watch’ category, with the Omega Speedmaster actually the sportier of the two. Almost everything is brushed steel, while the Daytona’s polished lugs and center bracelet links make it just slightly more dressy. The Omega is also more retro looking. The dial and bezel (with black the only option) have barely changed in decades, and the bezel is made from traditional aluminum, meaning that it is likely to pick up the odd scratch and fade over the years. The Daytona comes with either a black or white dial and its bezel is constructed from the company’s own Cerachrom ceramic, a material that is designed to look brand new fifty years from now, which takes away the chance of it picking up some characterful knocks along the way.
While both are forged from stainless steel, Rolex’s comes from its own foundry and is christened Oystersteel, part of the insanely tough 904L family. The Speedmaster is constructed from 316L stainless steel, still plenty strong enough in the real world, but it doesn’t hold a polish like the Daytona.
Inside is where most of the biggest differences lie. Rolex’s Caliber 4130 is their own, in-house automatic chronograph movement, recognized as one of the finest of its type – a column wheel-controlled, vertical clutch mechanism that eliminates hand slop on starts and stops and does it all with just 201 components; the lowest of just about any modern chronograph caliber.
The Caliber 1861 that drives the Omega Speedmaster is the same one NASA has been using since 1996 for their official watches. It is basically identical to the Caliber 861 which is an evolution of the Caliber 321 that was inside Buzz Aldrin’s model on the first moonwalk, save for having rhodium-plated components rather than ones finished in copper. Impressive though that is, the 1861 is not chronometer-rated like the Cal. 4130, and it is still a manually-wound movement, while the movement in the Rolex Daytona is an automatic.
The modern Omega Speedmaster is still very similar to the model that went to the moon.
And the Prices!
Theoretically, the price for a Rolex Daytona ref. 116500LN is $12,400. For the Omega Speedmaster, it is $5,350. So we already have a massive difference in cost. (Incidentally, that is not the cheapest Speedmaster, but it is the cheapest on a steel bracelet). However, that is only half the story.
Due to an overwhelming demand for stainless steel Daytona watches and Rolex’s unflinchingly rigid policies of not ramping up production to meet the growing demand, the modern stainless steel Daytona has had a multi-year waitlist at dealers ever since it was first announced in 2016. That has left many people turning to the secondary market to purchase one, and prices have rocketed in recent years. Right now, you’d be lucky (suspiciously lucky actually) to find one for less than $20,000.
For the Omega Speedmaster, you not only stand a decent chance of getting one brand new at an authorized dealer, but you can also save yourself about 20% buying this year’s model pre-owned on the secondary market. Of course, the flip side of that is that the Rolex makes a better investment in the long run. You would be unlikely to lose money on it as you would with the Speedmaster. So, as far as the money’s concerned, it is a bit of a double-edged sword. But what about everything else?
Well, both are absolute legends, two of the most established and widely-beloved names in the industry. They are each perfectly capable, with the Rolex maybe pipping the Omega Speedmaster in the performance stakes thanks to its superior movement. Then again, is there enough in it to justify picking one over the other just on their respective technical abilities?
Probably not, so it all comes down (as so often with luxury watches) to emotion. Which speaks to you most? The one with the literally stratospheric heritage, or the one that is the last word in earthbound glamor? The choice will always be a personal one, but one way or another, the decision will certainly ensure that you end up with an icon of horology in your collection.
Which chronograph watch is your favorite?