Vintage Omega Speedmaster Buyer's Guide

Vintage Omega Speedmaster Buyer’s Guide

by James Lamdin

As a vintage watch dealer, I am constantly bombarded with requests to help my clients locate some of the most interesting vintage timepieces in the world. From diving watches and chronographs to dress pieces and highly complicated haute horology, I spend most of my time scouring the international watch market for the very best in vintage and contemporary wristwatches; a job I enjoy wholeheartedly. My clientele range from enthusiasts just starting off to seasoned collectors with years of experience, and the monetary value of the pieces I seek is just as broad. Despite the wide range of experience levels, expertise, and individual aesthetic preferences, one of the most commonly requested pieces I am asked to find is the Omega Speedmaster Professional; an icon among icons if ever there was.

The Speedmaster, originally introduced in 1957, is a legendary timepiece if for no other reason than it was the first watch worn on the moon during the Apollo 11 Mission in 1969, a fact Omega hasn’t let timepiece enthusiasts ever forget. Furthermore, the Speedmaster Professional has a lasting appeal due to its straightforward design and reliable functionality as a mechanical chronograph, and is still in production today with a design which is (relatively) unchanged from the original models. Although the subsequent 50+ years has seen the release and evolution of a number of Speedmaster variants, the Professional models have the highest appeal, and are constantly in demand by collectors.

While you could just walk into your local Authorized Dealer and pick up the latest version (which at the time of writing is the reference 3570.50), vintage Speedmasters are a tremendously enticing alternative, and I am constantly on the lookout for the very best examples from the last half-century. Even with their nearly identical looks, there are numerous versions and references to take into consideration should you decide to embark on the journey of obtaining a vintage Speedy, and what follows is a brief description of three of the most desirable models that I commonly recommend for my clients.

This is by no means an exhaustive look at the history of the Omega Speedmaster, and there are better resources to get into the nitty gritty of each of these models and all those in between than what I can present here. Instead, this is a quick look at three versions of the original “Moon Watch,” with pointers on why they are desirable, and what to look for in each. Regardless of which version you might choose to go with, owning an Omega Speedmaster Professional is a joy and a privilege, and puts you into a fraternity of timepiece enthusiasts that is perhaps unparalleled by any other for its breadth, scope, and nearly universal appreciation.

Vintage Omega Speedmaster Buyer’s Guide – Reference 3590.50

Instead of starting with the oldest versions and working forward, I’ll start at the most modern example and work backwards. The reference 3590.50 Speedmaster Professional is the most contemporary version of the Moon Watch that I’ll typically recommend to my clients. The reason for this is actually pretty simple: it is the last version of the timepiece to be fitted with luminescent markers made from tritium on the dial and hands. All subsequent models (up to and including the current version) get their luminescence from applied Superluminova indices.

Many enthusiasts buy into the hype that Superluminova is better, and if you’re looking for luminescence that you might use in the field, or say, outer space, then they’d be right – Superluminova is far superior choice for the job, which is why most modern tool watches utilize it on their dials and hands. But if you’re considering a vintage wristwatch, than the aesthetics are important, and as far as I’m concerned nothing beats the warm patina of an aged tritium dial. Superluminova will likely keep its luminescent properties in perpetuity (whereas Tritium only has a half life of around 12 years) and is also highly resistant to yellowing, meaning that the lume will remain crisp and white for well beyond my years, which is a look that just doesn’t work for me aesthetically.

Omega Speedmaster Professional Reference 3590.50

Omega Speedmaster Professional Reference 3590.50

The 3590.50 was made between 1989 and 1996, meaning that even the newest versions are nearly twenty years old, barely putting them in the realm of “vintage” but making them a delightful contemporary timepiece with classic vintage looks and yellowed lume. This is the version I most regularly recommend to those just beginning a timepiece collection, that might be a little hesitant to strap a 40 year old watch to their wrist and wear the hell out of it every day.

The mechanicals of the 3590.50 are incredibly robust, featuring the same Calibre .861 manually winding chronograph movement used since 1968 (as a side note, if the Speedmaster you’re considering doesn’t have a manually-wound movement, you’re doing it wrong). Given their relative modernity, many examples are still available with their original bracelets, boxes and papers. While I never advocate going nuts over finding a timepiece with full kit over just finding a great example, it is always a nice bonus to find one with all the original goodies.

Values on the 3590.50 are also excellent, with good examples currently fetching only $2500-$3000 or so. This is a great savings over a brand-new piece and gives you a robust, modern example Speedmaster with the added bonus of a vintage looking dial. Unless Omega begins using lume with “faux patina” on their Speedmaster Professionals (as they have done on their new Master Co-Axial Seamaster released last month at Basel), this is as “new” a vintage Speedmaster as I would ever want to wear.

Vintage Omega Speedmaster Buyer’s Guide – Calibre .861 Models – 1968 On

The Calibre .861 Speedmasters are by far the most popular vintage Speedies I deal with, even if it isn’t the most “desirable” movement by collector standards (I’ll get there, don’t worry). This movement was launched in the Speedmaster Professional in 1968, and survived through the 3590.50 discussed above, making them the longest production-run series of Speedmasters in the lineup. As a result, there are plenty of examples on the market, and prices remain relatively low. The most basic (non special-edition) version Speedmasters to feature this movement are the most common Speedmasters on the vintage market, which might turn some enthusiasts off – but shouldn’t. These models were purpose-built tool watches, designed for keeping time in the harshest environments known to man, have great vintage looks, and survived as long as they did for good reason. The life cycle alone should say something about the lasting quality of this iconic movement.

Omega Speedmaster Professional Reference 145.022 (Calibre .861)

Omega Speedmaster Professional Reference 145.022 (Calibre .861)

Despite the decades of Calibre .861 production, I generally steer people to consider the early .861 models (reference 145.022) from the “Apollo Era”, lasting from 1968 to approximately 1976 (technically speaking, this encompasses a few different Space Program initiatives, but you get the idea) if for no other reason that these watches were being produced and used in space by professionals regularly at that time. While the actual watches worn in space are rarely put to auction and command stratospheric prices when they do, you can grab a piece that was made on the assembly line at the same time for a relative pittance.

The Reference 145.022 not only utilized the all-new Calibre .861, which replaced the Calibre .321 movement used previously, but also represented the first major aesthetic changes to the Speedmaster since the original model came out eleven years prior. Most notably, Omega switched from an “applied logo dial” to a “printed logo dial”. The applied logo dials featured a raised metal Omega logo, while these later printed dials were just that – the metal element was removed. This was likely a cost-saving decision and is the easiest way to differentiate the .861 models from their predecessors visually. The mechanical changes between the Calibre .321 and .861 are better suited for a technical forum and we won’t delve into them here, but the .861 was less costly to produce and easier to maintain than its predecessor, which is a big reason for the longevity of this model.

As noted above, 145.022s are relatively abundant on the market, but that doesn’t mean they are all good buys. These watches featured tritium luminescent material on the dials and hands, and many have started to flake off or disintegrate with age, giving the watches a pretty rough appearance. The dials often have excessive spotting or scratching due to wear, water damage or tool marks from clumsy watchmakers. Worse yet, hands are often swapped at servicing with modern replacement parts that do not match the dial patina at all, and can be a major visual detraction. Wear items such as crystals and bezel rings are often replaced as well, although shouldn’t be considered a deal breaker so long as they are genuine parts.

145.022s and subsequent Calibre .861 Speedmasters were offered with a number of bracelet options, many of which have been lost or thrown out over the years. This isn’t a big deal for those who enjoy wearing their watches on straps, and there are sources for replacement bracelets if you desirre one, so don’t get hung up on finding a watch with its bracelet present – just focus on finding one with a good case, dial, and matching hand set. Values on these pieces can be all over the place when considering the above mentioned conditional issues, but expect to pay roughly $2700-$4500 for a good-to-great example.

At the top end of that range you can get an excellent Apollo-Era Speedmaster for approximately the same price as a new model off the shelf. This is a no-brainer really, which is why I so often recommend this version over all the others for intermediate collectors or experienced collectors new to Speedmasters.

Sidenote: Reference 145.022 Calibre .861 “Pre-Moon”,“Transitional”, & “First Commemorative Caseback” Models

Within the range of Calibre .861 Speedmasters, there are a few versions that are a warrant a bit more study. These models are commonly referred to as “Pre-Moon”,”Transitional”, and “First Moon Landing Case Back” versions. Although the differences are subtle, they can make a big difference in value and collectability, and are in many ways the most desirable variants of the series.

“Pre-Moon” is a term that is generally reserved for Calibre .321 models manufactured before 1968 (more on those shortly), but can also be applied to Calibre .861s produced in 1968 and 1969 – depending on who you ask. The term “Pre-Moon” vs. “Post-Moon” can be a controversial one, and is the subject of much discussion and debate in the collector community. As everyone knows (or should know!), the Apollo 11 Moon Landing occurred in July 1969, however what you might not know is that the Speedmaster watches worn by Aldrin and Armstrong were actually Calibre .321 models from 1967.

Since Omega began producing Calibre .861 Speedmasters about 18 months prior to the Moon Landing, it is technically reasonable to consider these very first Calibre .861s to be pre-moon as well, although there are those who argue that the only “true” Pre-Moon Speedmasters must have been produced prior to 1967 to be worthy that title. Regardless, these models are easily identified by their case backs, which feature only the Omega “Seahorse” logo (known as a Hippocampus) instead of the later backs with the full “Flight Qualified by NASA” engraving.

Omega Speedmaster Professional Reference 145.022 - 1968 'Pre-Moon' Caseback

Omega Speedmaster Professional Reference 145.022 – 1968 ‘Pre-Moon’ Caseback

“Transitional” .861s are another extreme rarity, and are commonly confused with the earlier .321 versions. The reason for this confusion is that they featured the same applied-logo dials as their predecessors, but housed Calibre .861 movements internally. These watches were produced during the first quarter of 1968 (approximately) as Omega used up their leftover .321 dials before switching to the printed dials that were used from then on. Dealers often confuse these Transitional models with .321 versions (mostly because they don’t take the time to open them up), and although they are worth less than genuine .321 models, are in fact much more desirable than later .861 versions due to their limited production run and rarity.

Finally, let’s discuss the “First Edition” commemorative Moon Landing case backs produced immediately after the Moon Landing in 1969. Starting part way through 1969, Omega switched to a case back engraved with the words “First Watch Worn on The Moon” in the center, instead of the earlier Hippocampus engraving. These were phased out shortly thereafter in favor of the more intricate “Flight Qualified by NASA” case backs still used today.

Omega Speedmaster Professional Reference 145.022 - Post-1969 Caseback

Omega Speedmaster Professional Reference 145.022 – Post-1969 Caseback

Again, Speedmasters featuring these case backs are often incorrectly assumed by dealers to only be from 1969, when in fact there are examples from as late as 1971 which were also shipped from the factory with this case back. These first generation Moon-Landing case backs are also somewhat rare and incredibly cool. Buyers seeking this variant should be particularly careful, as these backs are still available in NOS condition (New Old Stock), meaning that unscrupulous sellers can buy one, slap it onto a newer watch, and charge a premium for unsuspecting buyers. As with any vintage watch purchase, do your due diligence in research and buy the seller first, not the watch.

Omega Speedmaster Cal .861 - First Year Commemorative Caseback

Omega Speedmaster Cal .861 – First Year Commemorative Caseback

All three of these rare .861 versions can command a bit of a premium
to “standard” 145.022 Speedmasters produced after 1970.

Vintage Omega Speedmaster Buyer’s Guide – Calibre .321

The first eleven years of the Speedmaster saw a number of subtle mechanical and aesthetic changes to the cases, dials, and hands. Delving into the details of this first decade of Speedmaster production is worthy of a detailed study in its own right, and requires much more detail than I can provide here. What I will tell you is this: The Calibre .321 Speedmaster – in any of its forms -is one of the most significant and desirable sport watches of all time, and certainly the most collectable in the Speedmaster range.

Omega Speedmaster Cal .321 - Wristshot

Omega Speedmaster Cal .321 – Wristshot

As described earlier, the first watch worn on the Moon was a Calibre .321 version, which gives the model unparalleled credibility. The movement itself is one of the most exceptional and prestigious chronograph units ever manufactured, and collectors speak about them in hushed tones. The applied logo dials are a sight to behold, with the raised Omega symbol adding a depth to the dial that subsequent models lack.

In my opinion, Calibre .321 models are the only vintage Speedmasters that have reached their true values monetarily (and are still on the rise). Mid-60s versions start around $5500, and the earliest examples can command many multiples of that. These are serious collectors watches, and are incredibly desirable parts of wristwatch history. They are “grail watches” for many a collector, and for good reason.

Credits © for the Omega Speedmaster Cal .321 Picture to William Bright!

Vintage Omega Speedmaster Buyer’s Guide – Summary

While I have barely scratched the surface of the world of vintage Speedmasters, the models outlined here are some of the most popular and desirable versions ever produced. Whether your tastes (or budget) runs to a contemporary model with vintage looks or the very earliest “rarest of the rare”, there is a Speedmaster to suit, and you should absolutely consider adding one to your collection.

I am often asked what the “required” timepieces are for a well-rounded collection, with most assuming that I will answer with Submariner, Daytona. In my opinion, there are great alternatives to both of those (admittedly awesome) timepieces, and I wouldn’t consider either to be a “must have”.

Regardless of your taste or style in wristwatches, the Omega Speedmaster might just be the only timepiece I would consider to be essential in any collection. They combine the purest elements of style, functionality, and historical importance. They will likely never go down in value, are always fashionable, and they embody mankind’s explorative spirit perhaps better than any other timepiece ever produced.

With the 50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing only a few years away, vintage Speedmaster Professionals are likely to enjoy a rejuvenated flurry of attention and increased values in the near future. Get yours before they go crazy.

Oh, and go wear the shit out of it. The astronauts did.

And if you still can’t get enough of Vintage Omega Speedmaster, please check on FratelloWatches the section “Speedy Tuesday” where they cover an Omega Speedmaster every Tuesday of the week.

    Author Bio

    Articles by James Lamdin


    James Lamdin is the Founder of AnalogShift, an online boutique for a curated selection of exceptional vintage wristwatches. He also does freelance writing for a number of publications including ABlogToWatch, ProfessionalWatches, UrbanDaddy, Essential Style For Men, Cool Hunting, JustLuxe, and International Watch Magazine. He is based in New York City, and has a strong affection for slow cars and old Scotch.