The Omega Speedmaster has remained a mainstay for watch enthusiasts for over half a century. It’s not a stretch at all to call this watch an icon, a term we don’t throw around loosely here. While purists may scoff at the concept of an all-black Speedmaster, it is precisely this kind of update that brings a historical icon into the realm of contemporary thinking. When presented with the opportunity to wear the new Speedmaster Dark Side of the Moon for a week, I couldn’t refuse. It’s a watch I had been eyeing for some time, and while it isn’t exactly perfect, it certainly got me thinking and was tough to take off my wrist when the week was up.
A (Brief) History of the Omega Speedmaster
As an icon of modern watchmaking, many of us know the background of the Speedmaster, but it’s worth keeping in mind a few things that set the foundation for the Speedy as we know it today.
The Speedmaster Professional is unarguably Omega’s most famous watch and the current collection now includes over 15 models. The design of the base Speedmaster has remained relatively unchanged since its introduction in 1957, which included the large black dial with contrasting white hands, the first ever external tachymeter bezel, and the three subdial layout that we all know. The “Professional” didn’t come until 1965, with the so-called “Pre-Moon” watch. This just means a Speedmaster Professional that came before the twisted lug, caliber 321 version that was taken on the Apollo 11 mission to the moon in 1969. People often forget that the Speedmaster already had a 12-year history when it arrived on the moon. During this period, the case grew from 39mm to the 42mm that is best known today.
Speaking of the caliber 321, the most coveted Speedmasters are those using this superlative chronograph movement. This movement was developed as a collaboration between Omega and Lemania in the early 1940s. The Lemania ebauche (before it was altered by Omega) was known as cal. 2310 and was used by all of the best manufactures in the early 20th century, including Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, and others. It’s an extremely robust chronograph with both a lateral clutch and a column-wheel. This alone makes early Speedmasters examples of extremely good watchmaking for the money.
Later, to make the watch more commercial, the cal. 321 was modified to create the cal. 861. In contrast to the 321, the 861 does not have a column wheel and uses some plastic components to cut down on cost. While the watches might look almost identical externally, there is an easy way to tell which movement is inside a Speedy Pro – look at the Omega logo at 12 o’clock. If it is applied, you’re holding a 321 and if it is printed you have an 861.
More recently, the Speedmaster received a new in-house co-axial movement: Caliber 9300/9301. This column-wheel chronograph movement contains a silicon balance spring and 60-hour power reserve. We’re back to serious watchmaking here, and you can read Blake’s Week On The Wrist with that watch here.
Omega Speedmaster Dark Side Of The Moon : Design & Construction
Nearly all main components, including the dial, buckle, crown, and chronograph pushers, are composed of ceramic. This is extremely rare – most ceramic watches have DLC or PVD steel crowns, pushers, etc., to give them the black color without the difficult manufacturing process. The dial in particular requires precise machining to achieve a uniformly thin structure with the same finish as the case overall.
The most common criticism of ceramic pertains to its brittleness. While ceramic sits at the high end of hardness on the Mohs scale, it has one downfall: brittleness. Most forms of ceramic are prone to shattering when dropped onto a hard surface. Though this is fair, quite honestly, it’s unlikely that the Dark Side of the Moon would be subjected to such stress on a frequent enough basis for this downfall to have a huge impact on my opinion of this timepiece. If the watch were marketed as a durable adventure watch, then sure, the use of ceramic would be of concern. But this simply isn’t the case. There are ongoing developments in ceramic manufacturing that will make the material more durable and resistant to fracture. One example called Dura Ceramic can withstand drops of up to 10m. It will be interesting to see whether this material makes its way into watchmaking in the near future.
Omega’s Caliber 9300/9301 movement was first introduced at Baselworld 2011. The COSC-certified chronometer movement builds on George Daniel’s Co-Axial escapement technology. It includes a column-wheel chronograph function controlled by two independently functioning pushers on the side of the case. The pushers are well designed with a solid motion upon pressing.
The entire case is crafted from one block of ceramic, which makes manufacturing particularly difficult. The ceramic goes through intense heating processes and machining with diamond tools before it’s polished and detailed.
A small seconds dial sits at 9 o’clock, directly opposite the combination 12-hour and 60-minute register at 3 o’clock. After, the 18k white gold indexes are inset by hand with SuperLuminova material. The effect is complemented by a laser-etched and metallisiced tachymeter scale around the bezel. On the case back, dial, and buckle, Omega has engraved the “ZrO2” ceramic nomenclature. It’s a bit overkill, but not something that takes away from the pleasure of wearing this watch.
Omega Speedmaster Dark Side Of The Moon : On The Wrist
At 44.25mm, you might think that the watch would large on the wrist, but the visual size is lessened by the all-black case, dial, strap, and matte-finished lugs. Additionally, I found that the all-black nature of the piece helped avoid any visual clunkiness. It’s worth noting that the Dark Side is wider than other Omega models using the same Caliber 9300 movement, such as the Speedmaster ’57 Chronograph. As such, the case diameter isn’t necessarily justified by the size of the movement. What I mean is this watch could’ve been smaller, though I don’t think it needed to be.
However, the sapphire crystal over the dial does sit quite high, creating slight visual distortion near the bezel akin to a thick pair of glasses. Because the bezel and dial are both polished and black, this distortion is slightly exacerbated. While case itself is only about 11mm thick, the sapphire crystals on the front and back add about 5mm to the overall thickness. This was too thick for my tastes and detracted from the otherwise stealthy aesthetics. This also means that the watch is difficult to fit under a cuff as it sits rather high on top of the wrist. Despite the thickness, I really liked how light the watch was, weighing in at 91 grams.
Talking about the Dark Side of the Moon with fellow watch lovers, I was chided for suggesting that this is a watch best worn with a sweatshirt – but I’m thinking of a loop-wheel sweatshirt from The Real McCoy’s, not Russell Athletic. If you have a void in your collection for a casual watch, but don’t want to sacrifice quality or prestige, the Dark Side of the Moon is a good bet.
I grew to love the black coated nylon fabric strap that comes with the Dark Side. This technical fabric can be usually found in military-spec items but is applied here without coming across as a gimmick. This type of fabric has the potential to be abrasive against bare skin, but Omega has lined the strap with a very fine leather that ensures comfort. The leather has been secured to the strap using red contrast stitching, referencing the red “Speedmaster” insignia on the dial.
The movement is beautifully detailed with the name of the movement and other labels in red too. Additionally, there are generous radial Geneva waves on all the bridges and the rotor, lending a dynamic and modern appearance to the movement. It’s obviously well finished, but not in a traditional way at all. Omega has clearly chosen to present this as a thoroughly modern watch in every way, down to the finishing styles. I will say, labels such as “column wheel” on the plates seem like another instance of overkill to me, but I understand why Omega might do such a thing for the larger market.
Above all else – and I may be nitpicking here – the thing I dislike most about the Dark Side is its lack of a quick-set date. While it didn’t take obscenely long to set the watch to the correct date, it’s a feature that I would expect on a recently released movement like the Caliber 9300. Instead there is the ability to jump the hour hand forward or backward, letting you change timezones more easily. Personally, I think a quick-set date is much more important.
Omega Speedmaster Dark Side Of The Moon : The Competition
There aren’t that many ceramic chronographs on the market and none at all that use ceramic to the same extent as the Omega Dark Side of the Moon. While it is a niche subset of the market, there are a few examples that stand out as alternatives. Additionally, it’s worth comparing this model to another Speedmaster chronograph to consider whether the price premium is worth it at all.
The first watch that came to mind is the Jaeger-LeCoultre Deep Sea Chronograph, an ISO-6425 certified modern dive watch introduced in 2012. Last year, the watch was then beefed up in size (from 42mm to 44mm) and received a new case material called Ceremet, a composite of ceramic and metallic materials. The advantage to this composite is that it retains the high temperature resistance and hardness of ceramic while the metal makes it more shatter-resistant (unlike the pure ceramic used in the Dark Side of the Moon). As the Deep Sea Chronograph is marketed as a performance watch, this choice of material is necessary.
The Deep Sea Chronograph uses the Jaeger-LeCoultre’s in-house self-winding Caliber 758 featuring a column wheel chronograph movement, however it isn’t COSC-certified like the Omega’s Caliber 9300. The styling of the watch is necessarily bolder than the Speedmaster for ease of use in low-visibility conditions underwater. As a result, the Omega appears more refined with an almost tonal tachymeter scale instead of a high-contrast diving bezel.
At $18,000 the Jaeger-LeCoultre Deep Sea Chronograph is a cool $6,000 more expensive than the Dark Side of the Moon, so for casual wear, the Dark Side of the Moon still stands out from an aesthetic and practical standpoint with its improved timekeeping performance.
At the lower end of the price spectrum, Swiss brand Rado offers a self-winding chronograph also utilizing mono bloc construction for the case. The Rado Hyperchrome XXL Automatic Chronograph uses an ETA 2894-2 for the movement featuring 47 hours of power reserve compared to Omega 9300’s 60 hours. The Rado’s ETA movement isn’t as beautifully finished as Caliber 9300, and it lacks COSC-certification and a column-wheel mechanism.
The Rado Hyperchrome is available for $4,200 – a little over one third the cost of the Omega ceramic chronograph. While it doesn’t have the handsome styling of the Speedmaster range, it still remains an attractive proposition for a black ceramic chronograph if you don’t want to hand over $12,000.
Staying in the more accessible price bracket, there is the Tudor Black Shield. Here you again get monobloc ceramic case construction, though this time everything has been blasted to a matte finish. There are tan and red options for the hands and markers, which paired with the matte finish and 42mm size, make this a significantly more subtle take on the “big black watch.” And at $4,925, it sits squarely in the price range as the Rado above.
It’s also worth comparing the Dark Side to a similar Speedmaster in non-ceramic form: the Speedmaster Moonwatch Co-Axial Chronograph in stainless steel. Both watches measure 44.25mm in case diameter and are powered by the same robust in-house Caliber 9300. The only significant difference is the case material. At $8,600, this watch is $3,400 less expensive than the Dark Side of the Moon.
Is ceramic worth an over $3,000 price increase? Perhaps – the extended fabrication processes are costly and require a great deal of research before implementation. The augmented price likely represents not only the cost of materials themselves, but also various other factors that go into the process of using new materials including machinery and staff training. Whether it’s the right choice for you is going to be entirely personal.
Innovation in materials and technology is key to maintaining market relevance for any watch brand, large or small. By updating the Speedmaster in 2012 with Caliber 9300, Omega provided a much-needed technical and aesthetic boost to the classic range, and the Dark Side of the Moon takes this a step further.
I first approached the watch with a slight dislike of all-black watches. They tend to err on the side of trendy accessory rather than serious timepiece, but the Dark Side changed my opinion for the better. The benefits of ceramic are on full display – from the deep black dial to the solid case. And while the Caliber 9300 movement could use a few small changes (and a diet), it’s still an excellent in-house movement from Omega.
The Dark Side of the Moon isn’t the right watch for everyone, though this can be said about many other wristwatches. However, even if ceramic isn’t your cup of tea, there’s no denying that this watch achieves the right balance between modern looks and technical prowess to make doubters reconsider their stance. This is a great watch.