First Draft

Authors note:

(This was first published on Watchuseek after a bushel of requests along the lines of how to buy do I buy a Vintage Speedmaster? I wrote this, and it was the seed of this site. Sometimes I re-read it and think that it is a better summary than the site. It was suggested I publish it here, and I may incorporate it more into the site soon. Remember it is two years old and prices and some ideas, have changed. In the meantime, enjoy it!)

A number of novice speedmaster buyers have recently approached the forum for advice, and so I have collated my thoughts while sitting around for too many hours in airports in the last few weeks! Now I write this all from memory, for my own amusement and to pass the time. I welcome any comment, and don’t be too hard, as I said, I am on a plastic chair with no watches to hand, and some very bad coffee. Please remember that in Speedmaster world, there are always Outliers. So none of what I write is in stone, simply the impressions I have gathered over time that I rely on when buying.

First off, if we stick to the title then we are in trouble before we start. The definition of a pre-moon is somewhat loose and open to interpretation. When someone tells me they have a pre-moon for sale, I assume it will be a smooth backed 861 or 321 calibre, mid to late sixties (arguably very early 1970’s), case reference 145022, or 145012, or possibly 105012, less likely but still possible 105003/2 or even a 2998. I will not discuss the 2915 here as I have never owned one, nor are they really available.

Is a Pre-moon a watch produced before a man landed on the moon? As that was 1969 there is no change in the Speedmaster model to coincide with that date. The 861 145022s were already in production from late 1968. How about smooth case back? Well if we say that, then we include all Speedmasters of both calibres from as late as 1970 back through approximately six references to 2998. That is not including the mythical 145.003 as I have never seen one, and taking all the 2998-xx’s as one reference.

Perhaps a good cut off for a Pre-Moon definition the caliber change? Not really. While it is one of the clearest model changes in Speedmaster model history, it occurred before the moon landing. More anomalies are quickly apparent. A 321 Speedmaster was the only Omega caliber to for certain land on the moon, and it was the caliber first tested and used by NASA. So it seems a bit confusing to call a caliber 321 Speedmaster a Pre-Moon when it did actually go to the moon. This topic is frequently (and to me interestingly) re-awoken on fora often, though with scarce source confirmation. I wont go into it further, my point is that calling a watch a Pre-Moon is open to discussion, and therefore confusing for the purposes of valuing and purchase.So I will choose to cover ALL smooth back Speedmaster models using 321 or 861 calibre.

Now there are some fantastic resources on the net, and all Speedmaster roads must start with the late Chuck Maddox. He documented most of the production changes and details in Speedmaster manufacture and most of what he wrote is still agreed today, though some of his thoughts have been developed by others as I suspect he would have done himself if he had remained with us.

I would say that as Chuck was an academic, I am a trader. (There the comparison stops!). For me its all about the market, the value, the demand. I follow trends. And the market is not always right, it follows fashion, and it changes, and sometimes follows fallacies. Right now I detect a growing interest in the Speedmasters of the early seventies. The prices are firming for both the early stamped case backs and the MkII’s.

This leads me to another thought. The Omega market is thin. It is not like Rolex, and nothing like the Patek market where sealed boxes are traded for cash like gold. Omegas Speedmasters can be slow sellers, and to a more sophisticated buyer. At the very least a buyer of a smooth caseback 1969 model will have some small knowledge of the watches history. Some Rolex buyers can have an almost autistic interest in minutiae by comparison, and yet sometimes I feel that a Rolex buyer is buying the watch for someone else to see, whereas Omega buyers are quite content to be the only ones looking at their watches. Clearly we all have our foibles.

For me the easiest, from a market viewpoint, is to group early Speedmasters first by caliber, so it’s a 321 up to late 1968, and 861 after. This case back to calibre relationship is the only definite and certain relationship between any two characteristics of Speedmasters. Everything else is porous, flexible and uncertain.If we make a table, it looks very unbalanced:

321 861
2998 145.022

While there are five references of 321 and only one 861, there are far more 145.022’s available at a given time than all the 321’s put together. The 145.022 was made for a much longer period, and in far greater numbers. So clearly an 861 calibre is more numerous and therefore less rare and so the market values it less. For two watches, in similar condition and parts quality, the 321 will be approximately $1000 more than the 861. The older the 321, the greater the value difference.

Now case backs do get swapped, and there are NOS available, but like the caliber, if it is there, it is marked. While the mark is certain, it is not certain that a back is the one originally fitted to the case. At that we can only guess, based on the matching patina, or lack of it. Unless of course it is an obvious mismatch, like the 105002 back I found on an asymmetrical case with a 321 movement. The following table shows the case type.

Straight lugs. Asymmetrical

So it is clear that a straight lug (or no crown-guard as it is sometimes called) is the rarest type of case.The last certainty is the movement serial. (Although this number can have been swapped as it is on a removable bridge). This allows us to date, to about plus or minus two years, the date of production. The serial number of the movement cannot be used to determine the case reference, although we can say that a case reference OUGHT to have a serial in a particular (broad) range.

A factory like Omega is actually an assembler of parts supplied from many outside sources, and often the same part will have more than one manufacturer. Parts from different manufacturers exhibit small differences and these have been picked up on in the Speedmaster community. These include differing scripts on the dials and tachymetre and hand shape. There have also been errors in production resulting in little anomalies, which in the Rolex market would have buyers scrambling to pay large sums, but so far in Omega this has not happened. Examples include bezels showing 220 instead of 200 and case backs stamped with two references.

Omega’s “parts bin” assembly methods, as discussed many times in fora, essentially means that Omega used up parts it had to hand in the manufacture of its watches. There are numerous transitional pieces, for example an early dial with an applied logo on a later 145.022 case reference. Because a watch has unusual parts for its reference, does not mean it is wrong. It often is, but we cannot prove it because of Omegas rather loose methods, and few meaningful records. Although its records and archive services are better than many, many other manufacturers, they are useful only up to a point. For example while Omega will issue a certificate for an early 321 movement, it cannot say into what case it was placed originally.

Just as Omega assembled watches, so we can disassemble them. Indeed each time it is serviced, a Speedmaster is (or should be!) broken down to the last screw. So it is not hard to see how a dial or any other part gets changed. The policy of the Omega service department was to return a watch looking as new and up to date as possible, so it was routine to replace the dial, hands, crown, pushers, crystal and bracelet. Nowadays I believe it is a different attitude, but I am not about to risk it. In fact I know people who swap their hands and dial for inexpensive new ones before sending the watch into Omega for a full service, replacing the valuable parts on its return.

So almost anyone, with a few hours practice, can replace the parts in a watch. Certainly they can change the parts that are important to us, the dial, hands, bezel and bracelet.So in terms of originality, the question we need to ask is “WOULD it have come out from Omega looking like that?” , rather than “DID it come out looking like that?”. It is my opinion that there are very few watches in circulation that are 100% original, bearing precisely the same parts that it left the factory with.

There are hundreds of threads debating which dial/bezel/hands went in which reference. When I am not on an airport bench I might be able to detail the way I think, but this is a very fluid area for all the reasons I state. For now, if you are a novice following Chuck Maddox’s thoughts then you wont go too far wrong.

We can start with two value groups, 321s and 861s:

Calibre Lowest Highest Brown Dial
321 2300 6000* 20000
861 1500 3500 9000

*Note, 2998’s may be as much as 10,000, but they must have base 1000 bezel

This is for the head only. Bracelets are another story, $100-250 for a later 861, and almost anything ($1000+) for a good one to suit an early 321, or early 861.

The lowest figure is for a working watch that is worth buying. I would expect it to need at least one major part replaced, and a service. The high is for a correctly appointed top condition unpolished watch that does not need a service. The last figure is there only because I have seen brown dials sell for this, but this is a rarified world with very few buyers worldwide, but they are fiercely competitive for the right watch. Many sellers think they have the right dial, but they don’t. This again, is another subject.

The case should be clean, preferably unpolished, certainly not polished so that the sides are visibly reduced. The sides should have a brushed finish and rest a mirror finish. The acid etched hippocampus on the rear should be visible and the back not too scratched. Personally I dislike scratches from failed openings, and previous owners engraving. Pushers should be clean and straight. Bezel can be marked, often faded is attractive, but not too dented or chipped. A Dot over 90 bezel adds about $100-400 to the value compared to a watch with a different or missing bezel.The dial should be correct for reference, and free of damage from water or sun bleach. Plots should be original, and I like the browner fade, not green or yellow. The hands should be correct and commensurate with the dial plots. If I was at my desk, next to the safe, this section would be FULL of photographs!It is here we would talk about patina, but without photos I will be too verbose.

It seems to me, from watching completed sales in auctions, both online and physical, that most people spend $2000-3000 for an 861 and $3000-6000 for a 321.

By my own logic, the watches bought at this level are not perfect, and this is where the buyers own judgment and intuition must come into play. You must find a balance – allow new hands because the dial is perfect. Accept a spotted dial because it is rare and the case is unpolished, or the bezel is perfect dot over 90.

The outliers here are the very early straight lug 321’s which can go higher, especially the 105.002 and 2998’s. However the sales of these are few, with many offered at high prices and not completed.

A watch with box and papers is becoming a desirable thing. Ten years ago few people paid attention. However Omegas are now being bought by investors, and these buyers are suckers for paper. Although the ebay sales are not showing it, physical auction houses are selling B&P watches at rising premiums. Worth bearing in mind when looking for your next three weeks, when I get back, I can augment this thread with photos.

In the meantime, I welcome the thoughts of others, especially photos!