You could try for a long time to come up with two names more revered in the watch industry. As far as luxury chronographs go, there’s the Rolex Daytona, the Omega Speedmaster – and then there’s everything else. But while both may have been designed initially to do the same job, and were released within just a few years of each other, the pair have evolved quite differently over the last six decades or so.
In the process, each has attracted its own army of fiercely loyal fans, who will go into battle to extol the virtues of their legendary watch of choice. (I’m trying so hard not to use the word ‘iconic’ here, just for a change). So, in the Great Chronograph War of Rolex Daytona vs. Omega Speedmaster, which one comes out ahead?
First, A Little History
Once upon a time, neither of these watches existed. I know it’s an obvious statement, but it is hard to imagine somehow. Omega struck first with the Omega Speedmaster, one of three new models launched simultaneously in 1957. Alongside the Seamaster 300 and the Railmaster, they made up the Professional Collection.
The Speedy became the first chronograph to feature its tachymeter scale on the bezel rather than around the outside of the dial (what Omega dubbed their Tacho-Productometer), which freed up valuable space and aided legibility. Inside that inaugural reference, the CK2915, beat the beloved Caliber 321, a manually wound, 18,000vph movement designed and built by Omega in conjunction with Lemania.
Hitting the ground running, the Speedmaster became an instant success, as did the Seamaster. Only the Railmaster, aimed at the buttoned-down and decidedly unglamorous world of the lab-coated scientist, failed to capture the imagination.
The Speedy had no such problem. Clearly made for the seductive thrills of the racetrack, it strengthened the brand’s status as the makers of fine chronographs as well as the leaders in exacting precision – a reputation they had gained since becoming official timekeepers of the Olympic Games in 1932. However, the best was yet to come for both maker and model in terms of public perception.
Starting in 1962 with the second generation ref. 2998, personally owned by astronaut Wally Schirra, there has been an Omega on every manned U.S. space flight in history. The Speedmaster was the only piece to survive NASA’s battery of brutally destructive tests, becoming the first certified and flight-qualified watch of the agency in 1965.
Four years later, it was the Speedy that boldly went one small step further when it became the first watch to be worn on the surface of the moon, strapped to the outside of Buzz Aldrin’s space suit. That reference, the 145.012 won the Speedmaster the nickname of Moonwatch, which is what it has been known as ever since.
Since then, the Speedy has splintered into an enormously diverse range of models, including manually wound, automatic, and quartz-powered examples. Impressive complications have been added, including perpetual calendars, and appropriately enough, moonphases. In all, there are around 250 Speedmasters to choose from, not counting the unending litany of special and limited editions.
By comparison, Rolex’s first serious attempt at a chronograph hit the ground with a thud of indifference.
At the time of its launch in 1963, Rolex and Omega were very much neck and neck in popularity, with Omega even overtaking their rivals in many countries. The Daytona was built specifically to compete with the Speedmaster and to try and claw back some of the ground that Rolex had lost. While it too was targeted at the glitzy world of motorsports, and Rolex was to become the main sponsor of the Daytona International Speedway that year, there was another contest that was captivating the entire world.
he Space Race between the U.S. and Russia was at its peak, and it is rumored that Rolex’s choice of the name Cosmograph rather than chronograph was their attempt at catching NASA’s eye and winning their place aboard the Apollo missions. Omega’s effort not only outdid the Daytona in regards to performance, they also massively outsold them as well. Manually-wound watches were an old-fashioned relic by the time Rolex brought out their model. Automatic movements (later perfected by Rolex themselves, ironically enough) were the least people expected, and the first inklings of quartz technology were starting to be felt at the time as well.
While the Valjoux 72 which drove the Daytona may have been one of the finest calibers ever made, there was no escaping the fact it had to be wound by hand. And if someone particularly wanted a chronograph they had to remember to wind everyday, there was already a well-proven and very much admired watch on the market. And if it was good enough for NASA…
As a result, a watch that you can barely buy brand-new at full retail today languished on dealer’s shelves for years, literally unable to be given away. It wouldn’t be until 20-years later that its fortunes were changed. Following the mauling of the quartz crisis, the world had fallen back in love with mechanical watchmaking by the late 80s.
In 1988, the second major generation of the Daytona arrived sporting an automatic movement for the first time: a heavily-modified version of the El Primero from Zenith. It marked the start of Rolex’s total dominance of the market and a complete turnaround in the Rolex Daytona vs. Omega Speedmaster chronograph war.
All of a sudden, it was the Daytona – now featuring an automatic movement – that started to catch on with the public, and even better for Rolex, production was relatively slow. Having to rely on someone else to deliver the movement limited the supply, and increased attention from the Italian collector/dealer network only amplified demand.
Rolex launched a third generation of Daytona watches in 2000, which featured the brand’s first in-house chronograph movement. Since then, demand and prices have steadily grown, and today that massive appeal is still there – arguably more than ever before, with multi-year waitlists for the classic stainless steel model existing at virtually every authorized retailer.
Head-To-Head: Rolex Daytona vs. Omega Speedmaster
Concerning the question of Rolex Daytona vs. Omega Speedmaster, comparing like for like is not that easy. In its entirety, the contemporary Daytona range consists of fewer than 50 models. That takes in pieces made from everything from stainless steel to platinum, both with and without Rolex’s ceramic Cerachrom bezels.
As we said above, there are hundreds of Omega watches the bear the “Speedmaster” name, and they are forged in a variety of metals and sometimes fitted with extra functionality or even sprinkled in gemstones.
To keep things on a level footing, we’ll compare steel with steel. That leaves us with the two ostensibly entry-level pieces, the Daytona ref. 116500LN and the Speedmaster Professional 3220.127.116.11.01.005, the 42 mm Moonwatch with the Hesalite crystal, and a solid back, powered by the Caliber 1861.
Looks: Rolex Daytona vs. Omega Speedmaster
In regards to the Rolex Daytona vs. Omega Speedmaster debate, appearance is very subjective, but one thing even the most ardent fans of either model can agree on is that we are talking about a pair of seriously good-looking watches.
Of the two, even though it is the larger piece at 42mm compared to the Daytona’s 40mm, it is the Speedy with the more vintage-inspired aesthetic. It has one choice in dial color: black with crisp white detailing for maximum contrast and readability. It is also the watch that will become more personalized to its owner over the years. That famous thin black bezel, barely changed in decades, is aluminum with a printed tachymetric scale, meaning it is going to be subject to fading and scratching, something that appeals to a lot of collectors.
By contrast, the Daytona has a busier look, more fancy and less tool-like. Still eminently legible, it comes in a choice of black or white dial versions. The sub-dial registers have distinct outlines to isolate them from the rest of the face, with an attractive snailing. The bezel is wider and made from Cerachrom, Rolex’s own ceramic composite. Virtually impossible to scratch and highly resistant to fading, the Cerachrom bezel on the Daytona is likely to look like it is straight out of the showroom for a long time to come.
Materials: Rolex Daytona vs. Omega Speedmaster
Concerning the Rolex Daytona vs. Omega Speedmaster debate, it is actually the two brands’ choices in materials that have gone a long way in separating their chronograph models.
For the Daytona (like all other stainless steel models) Rolex uses their own proprietary stainless steel alloy known as “Oystersteel” – part of the 904L family. Incredibly tough and able to hold a polish unlike just about anything else on the market, Rolex is one of the few watchmakers with the financial and technical wherewithal to take advantage of its qualities.
Omega doesn’t publicize the type of metal it uses on the Speedy, but it is most likely 316L (otherwise they would be shouting about it as loudly as Rolex does about theirs). Still perfectly appropriate for an out-and-out tool watch and also extremely robust, it is a less expensive metal and easier to machine.
As for the handset, Omega again uses steel while Rolex opts for 18k white gold. On top of adding just a touch of extra luxury, the gold hands that Rolex uses won’t ever rust or corrode. Rolex also crafts the surrounds for the hour markers in 18k gold for the same reason.
Movement and Performance: Rolex Daytona vs. Omega Speedmaster
Inside both models is where the biggest differences lie. The 1861 movement in the Speedmaster is a direct descendant of the original Caliber 321 Omega movement that powered the original Moonwatches of the 60s – a manually-wound, 21,600vph chronograph movement has a 48-hour reserve. It is recognized as one of the most robust chronograph movements ever made, and its ease of servicing means that it’s also a great friend of watchmakers everywhere.
However, it is not one of Omega’s revolutionary Co-Axial engines, nor is it chronometer-certified, being accurate to around -1/+11 seconds a day. By comparison, there hasn’t been a manually-wound Daytona since 1988. To begin with, the El Primero changed the game as the first automatic chronograph movement ever made (well, one of them. We don’t have time to get into that argument here) and then Rolex’s own superb effort, the Caliber 4130, arrived to usher in the new millennium.
The Caliber 4130 is a column wheel-controlled caliber as opposed to the 1861’s cam-actuated movement, and it employs a vertical clutch rather than a lateral one to eliminate hand slop on the chronograph’s starts and stops. Additionally, with just 201 components, it has the fewest parts of any modern mechanism of its type.
The Caliber 4130 is also a Superlative Chronometer, accurate to within -2/+2 seconds a day, certified by Rolex themselves. And it was the first of the brand’s creations to be fitted with the now standard-issue Blue Parachrom hairspring. In every aspect, the Cal. 4130 is a high-performance machine.
Price and Availability: Rolex Daytona vs. Omega Speedmaster
Ok, I feel like I’ve misled you when I said the respective movements are where the widest gap between the Daytona and Speedmaster reside. In actual fact, that distinction goes to the cost of both – and your chances of actually being able to buy either one of them.
On paper, the price for a brand new Omega is around $6,350. For the Rolex, it’s $12,400 or so. That is already a fearsome gulf, but wait! There’s more bad news!
If you want a Speedmaster, you have to go to the trouble of leaving the house and going to a dealer to buy one. If you fancy the Daytona, you have to leave the house, go to a dealer, get laughed at, be told about the multi-year waiting list, possibly be refused entry to said waiting list, go home, look up pre-owned versions, and then wonder if the kids really have to go to college after all.
Rolex’s policy of severely limiting the supply of just about all their most popular favorites (primarily the steel sports pieces) has led to them being sold on the secondary market for roughly least twice their retail prices. It is certainly a strange business model, but there is no denying it has created a blistering demand for a number of their watches, particularly the Daytona and GMT-Master II.
The one benefit to it all is that, if you do decide to bite the bullet and fork out so far above the odds for a Daytona, what you have bought yourself is one of the closest things to a rock-solid investment the horology world provides. Nothing short of a Patek holds value like a Rolex, and the financial performance of the Daytona is almost impossible to beat.
Final Thoughts: Rolex Daytona vs. Omega Speedmaster
As I noted at the beginning, the two world-famous chronographs have developed in different directions since their first release. While the history of the Rolex Daytona watch is filled with more variations than any of the other “Professional” watches in the Rolex catalog, it is always the same watch underneath. It, like the rest of the models in the brand’s portfolio, is focused on perfecting its one job.
The Speedmaster, on the other hand, has diversified wildly lending its name to all sorts of contraptions which have diluted its essence as a whole. While Omega has made efforts in recent years to tighten up their offerings, there is still something of a scattergun approach to all the Speedy versions. Moreover, Rolex doesn’t go in for the whole special edition thing, whereas there was a limited edition Speedmaster launched just yesterday (I don’t actually know when this article is being published, but the law of averages suggest that I have a good chance of being right about that).
What it all boils down to is here we have two universally renowned watches, one which is sensibly priced and attainable with a legacy that is truly out of this world, and one which tops it in the luxury and performance stakes and has a wrist presence which is second to none, but makes you pay and/or work for it.
The really good news though is that this is one of those incredibly rare moments when you cannot make the wrong decision. Whichever one you go for, you will be wearing a piece of horological history.