The very first Captain America movie is notable for a number of reasons (including a very clever example of a variation on the Gordian Knot puzzle, involving a secret training camp, a flagpole, and a ride back to base with Agent Carter), but one of the most memorable moments is, of course, the awakening of the eponymous Captain after being given up for dead in 1945, in the present – where he goes on to become the keystone in the arch of the organization known as the Avengers. For me, the Captain’s disappearance and resurrection echoes the history of that singular mechanical chronograph movement known as the caliber 321.
Born during an epoch of glory, in the 1950s, it blazed a trail of glory not only across the continents, but also across the skies as the engine inside the never-to-be-forgotten Speedmaster Professional, better known (as every watch nerd learns at about the same time they’re potty trained) as the Moonwatch, by which name it is known to the faithful. Like Captain America, the caliber 321 fell from the heights into the seemingly unrecoverable depths of history – and like the Avenger, it has risen, unexpectedly, to attempt to become a new hero in a new, different, and very challenging world.
The Evolution Of The Moonwatch Movement
Since the entire raison d’être of the steel 321 Speedmaster is to house the reborn caliber 321, I think the history of the movement and how it’s evolved will probably be of great interest to anyone considering paying well above the cost of a standard Moonwatch for one equipped with the 321 movement.
The whole question of putting the caliber 321 back into production seemed conclusively closed, for many years. Omega stopped making it in 1969, and in the Speedmaster, it was replaced by the caliber 861, and then the 1861. There are a number of differences between the caliber 321 and its successors. The 321 is a lateral clutch, column-wheel controlled chronograph, running at 18,000 vph, with a Breguet overcoil balance spring. It’s based on the Lemania/Omega 2310, developed in the 1940s as the 27 CHRO C12.
The major difference between 27 CHRO C12 and the caliber 321 is the movement finishing. The 321 has a galvanically applied coating which has been variously referred to as gold, rose-gold, and copper, depending on which source you consult – it turns out that the coating (which was also used by Omega on many other movements) is almost pure copper. This was confirmed to me by Omega and, interestingly enough, the question of the composition of the plating is one that has been kicking around the watch internet for more than 20 years. In 2001, Timezone’s Rob Berkavicius decided to settle the matter scientifically and submitted components from several Omega movements to an independent metallurgist for testing. The results are still online – I was quite surprised to read the lab report as I had always assumed that it couldn’t be copper given the ease with which I’d assumed copper corrodes. However, it turns out that copper develops a surface layer of oxidation which acts as a protective shield, preventing further oxidation (the process is called passivation; the same phenomenon occurs with both titanium and aluminum). I probably should have thought a little harder about the fact that copper is a great material for plumbing too – not the sort of place to use a metal apt to readily corrode.
The 27 CHRO 12 and the 321 appear to be identical at first glance, if not in finish then at least in the basic components and their arrangement, but they are, in fact, not completely identical. One interesting visible difference can be seen at about the 4:00 position in both calibers, where the jumper spring holding the chronograph minute recorder is located. In the 27 CHRO 12, this is a relatively straightforward straight blade spring, while in the 321, there is a more complex, multipart jumper lever, with the spring mounted as a separate component. I’m not sure about this, but it looks as if the arrangement in the 321 would allow the watchmaker to adjust the force of engagement of the jumper with the wheel – it has to be strong enough to hold the minute recorder wheel firmly in place, but not so strong as to cause balance amplitude to drop significantly when the wheel is indexed. The cock holding the chronograph coupling wheel, at 11:00, is shaped differently in the two movements as well – in the 321, this component is made of German silver; I’m not sure what Lemania used for 27 CHRO 12, though it certainly looks like German silver. (The shape of the cock seen in the 27 CHRO 12 can also be seen in some variants of the 321, apparently – even within a single caliber, there are variations in production over the years.) The pivot for the clutch wheel seems to be a simple drilled hole in 27 CHRO 12, while the wheel runs in a bushing in the 321. Why German silver? Your guess is as good as mine. (Nickel alloys tend to have good dimensional stability over a fairly wide temperature range; that might have something to do with it).
The 861, on the other hand, uses a shuttle-and-cam switching system, a flat balance spring, and runs at a slightly higher frequency, at 21,600 vph. While various aspects of the 321 were retained for the 861, the differences are immediately obvious. The cam for function-switching is at 12:00, replacing the elegant, but more complex and expensive, column wheel, and the reset hammer, to its right, is shaped differently as well. The Breguet overcoil of the 321, and the adjustable mass balance, have given way to a flat balance spring and solid-rimmed balance, and the friction-fit regulator of the 321 has also been replaced, with a micrometer-screw adjustable regulator. Although the shape of the cock for the coupling wheel is different as well, it looks from the image provided as if Omega was still using German silver at this point. The most obvious visible change, aside from the switch over to a shuttle-and-cam system, is the bridge for the chronograph seconds and minute recorder wheels. The basic idea behind the 861 seems to have been to take the 321 and make it less expensive to produce, and less labor-intensive to set up.
The 1861 is basically a rhodium-plated version of the 861. Another difference between the two is that the 861 uses a metal brake for the chronograph seconds hand, while the 1861 uses a brake made of Delrin, a plastic. I have heard purists object occasionally, over the years, to the use of plastic in the movement, but purely from a technical perspective, it’s probably superior to the metal part it replaces. DuPont, which makes Delrin, has this to say about it: “Delrin acetal homopolymer (Polyoxymethylene POM) is the ideal material in parts designed to replace metal. It combines low-friction and high-wear resistance with the high strength and stiffness such applications require. It provides a wide operating temperature range (-40 °C to 120 °C) and good colorability. Delrin also mates well with metals and other polymers and offers excellent dimensional stability in high precision molding.” With the 1861, Omega also seems to have replaced the German silver cock for the chronograph coupling wheel with one made of either steel or rhodium-plated brass (I assume the latter). Oh, and that coupling wheel – its bushing days are over; in the 1861, it finally gets its own jewel, upping the count to 18 from the 17 jewels found in the 321 and 861.
Now, this is all by way of saying that the 861/1861 is nothing to be ashamed of, and it has as honorable a history of service in manned space flight as the 321. In fact, caliber 1861 Speedmasters have served on Apollo/Soyuz (I believe they have, although I am not entirely sure the issued watches for that mission were not 321 models from NASA inventory) as well as STS (Space Transportation System; the Space Shuttle) missions, and are in use today onboard the ISS.
The Lemania 2310/2320 Calibers
One final but important point is the degree to which the caliber 321 and the version of the 27 CHRO 12 used by brands like Breguet, Patek, and Vacheron are similar or identical. The comparison is an interesting one. There were two basic variations on 27 CHRO 12 – the Lemania 2310, with 17 jewels, and the 2320, with 21 jewels. The 2310 was used by Patek (for example) as the base for its chronograph caliber CH 27-70 and the 2320 by Breguet for its chronograph caliber 533.2/3 (and by Vacheron as the caliber 1141, to give just one other example). The question has been raised in some quarters, then, as to whether or not the 321 really needed to be remanufactured in the first place, as movements derived from 27 CHRO 12 are, after all, still in production.
Let’s look at one example. The Breguet 533.3 (derived from the 2320) shares many similarities, of course, with the 321. However, there are major differences as well. Immediately noticeable differences include the balance, regulator system, jumper for the chronograph minutes wheel, arrangement of the chronograph coupling lever, the shape of the driving wheel, jewel count, frequency, balance spring, balance spring stud, the balance itself, the chronograph driving wheel and seconds wheels, and so on. (For a very detailed look at this movement, check out the tear-down at The Naked Watchmaker). According to Omega, the 2310/2320 have about 50% parts in common with the 321 – some of those are likely to be such critical elements as the keyless works, going train, mainspring and barrel, and any number of screws and jewels. However, recreating the 321 was clearly not just a matter of taking a 2320 or 2310 and applying a different finish. Short of getting a caliber 321 and a Lemania 2310/20 on loan, breaking them down myself, and doing a part-to-part comparison (oh be still, my beating heart), I’m unlikely to be able to make a definitive analysis, but I think the basic point remains.
There are, in fact, major differences between every variation of the base calibers 2310/20, as well as between those calibers, the 321, the original 27 CHRO 12, and the calibers 861 and 1861. The differences are fascinating to analyze. To me, what is just as remarkable is that all those movements, in all their variations, are related to each other. It’s a really incredible saga of persistence and the evolution of all the variants from the original caliber, as well as the persistence of certain key features (you could do a pretty deep dive just on the development of different variations on the reset-to-zero system); it is a story which has played out over many decades, in some of the most beautiful, interesting, and meaningful wristwatches of all time.
The Modern Caliber 321
We’ve previously discussed the fidelity of the modern 321 to the original, and the answer now is essentially the same as when we first encountered it, in the metal, in the platinum 321 – it is, in every respect, the same movement, right down to the typeface for the engravings. Well, almost the same. At first, second, and even third glance, it would be easy to mistake the original for one of the new movements, although side-by-side there is a visible difference in the finish. While Omega used pure copper for the original, the new 321 has a finish of PVD (not electroplated) Sedna gold, which offers better resistance to corrosion, as well as giving the new 321 a slightly deeper red coloration. The German silver cock for the chronograph coupling wheel is present and correct, as are the 18,000 vph beat rate, freesprung balance with Breguet overcoil, column-wheel control system, lateral clutch, and so on. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any watch brand do anything like this before – the 321 was one of the last great mass-produced hand-wound chronograph movements of the pre-Quartz Crisis era, before the automatic chronograph – especially the 7750 and variants – made the category an endangered species.
The new movements are, according to Omega, each assembled and adjusted by a single watchmaker, and the company says that they expect to do about a thousand a year at the outset, which is a remarkably low number. The 321 is a movement which requires more hand-adjustment by the assembling watchmaker than the 861 and 1861, which contributes to the rarity and relatively high cost of the watches containing it. Adjustments include fine adjustment of the striking faces of the reset-to-zero hammers, fine regulation of the balance and spring, depth of the chronograph coupling wheel’s engagement with the chronograph seconds wheel, and of the chronograph minute-wheel jumper with the wheel itself, and so on. These manual adjustments were, if not exactly par for the course, a standard part of the skilled watchmaker’s repertoire in the 1950s and ’60s, but the industry exerted itself as much as possible to reduce the amount of hand-work necessary to assemble and adjust movements, both as a matter of cutting production costs and increasing reliability.
The caliber 321 represented in its design and execution an approach to movement manufacturing which is both virtually unknown today and enormously appealing to vintage enthusiasts. Still, I would have bet real money on it being gone for good. I remember asking (years ago, at a press breakfast) then-CEO Stephen Urquhart whether or not the 321 might ever be brought back, and he ruled it out categorically, citing both expense and general impracticality. I was therefore extremely surprised and very pleased when Omega announced it would begin manufacturing again, last year.
The Caliber 321 In Steel
As you can probably imagine, after admiring Speedmasters on and off since about 1968 up until the present, and after yearning hopelessly for Omega to start re-manufacturing the 321 for a fairly significant chunk of that time, I opened the box containing our sample with a certain level of feeling.
The first impression I had of the watch was overwhelmingly positive, and in fact, I felt quite transported back in time (other than telling the time and measuring elapsed time, generating nostalgia is probably the most important function of the new 321 in steel). To handle one of these watches is an extremely odd feeling. There is a famous ghost story about Marie Antoinette’s private residence at Versailles, a place called the Petit Trianon (which I mention advisedly; the Swatch Group, and Nicolas G. Hayek Senior, funded an extremely expensive renovation of the Trianon), known as the Moberly-Jourdain incident, during which a couple of British tourists claimed to have found themselves, whilst touring the grounds, unexpectedly transported backwards in time and treated to scenes from a hundred years and more prior to their visit. I had the same sense of being suddenly, subtly, and definitely unstuck in time, as Kurt Vonnegut once put it – and that’s before looking at the movement; the watch itself, with its straight lugs, lack of crown guards, and vintage-style bracelet, seemed to have either fallen through a stable wormhole from the 1960s or pulled me back through one.
Side by side with a modern, standard-issue Moonwatch, the 321 Steel almost feels more a Moonwatch than the actual Moonwatch.
I waited many years, from my first fascination with manned space flight, with Apollo, and then Apollo Soyuz, and then the ill-fated experiment (albeit with many successes) that was STS, or the Space Transport System, better known as the Space Shuttle. In all that time, I had a relationship with the Speedmaster that was closer, certainly, to how I feel about the G-Shock than how I felt about the Lemania 2310/20 and variants – to me, the Speedmaster was an odd man out that had somehow managed against all odds not only to survive, but prosper. The X-33 certainly had its own fascination – it is, after all, the Mars Watch, and far better suited to duty on a flight deck, especially for long-duration missions, than the Speedmaster. Even the Speedmaster Mark II was intended as an improvement, from a practical standpoint, over the Moonwatch, and so on down the line it went.
Still, the basic Speedmaster has flown; most of its successors have not, and thanks to the delicacy of LCDs with respect to temperature, the X-33 will never find itself in the hard vacuum of interplanetary space, until there is a quantum leap in display technology. There is something quite wonderful about the persistence of mechanical horology in so cutting edge an environment as space flight. It shouldn’t be there at all – gears and mainsprings; it’s ridiculous, but yet, there it is.
In terms of cosmetics, you couldn’t ask for anything more enjoyable, unless of course what you really wanted was a new old stock Speedmaster from the 1960s, but you’re probably not going to get one of those. Instead, you instantly feel as if you are getting a hybrid. Hybrid is not usually an attractive word or a compelling idea, but in this case, it means that you are getting quite a lot of what we all love about a vintage Speedmaster, with none of the downside.
I ought to be clear about this once again; there is nothing wrong whatsoever with the calibers 1861 and 861. They may well have served on more manned space missions than the 321, as a matter of fact, and they are as durable and hard-wearing as anyone could ask, to say nothing of the fact that when you have an 1861 or 861-equipped Speedmaster, you have a watch for a few thousand bucks which is a kissing cousin to some of the most expensive and beautiful chronograph wristwatches on the planet. But you know, the Patek 27-70 CHRO and the Vacheron 1141 never went to space; the 861/1861 did.
All this and more about the history matters, because when you put on the 321 Speedmaster in steel, and when you use it, you’re not just interacting with a watch and a movement – you’re sharing directly an experience which it has not been possible to have in a new watch since the last production Speedmaster with the 321 was sold. The Speedmaster 321 is not just a cosmetic reboot, like the vast majority of vintage-inspired wristwatches out there; it is instead a top-to-bottom, inside-out recreation of a very particular and very important moment in the history of wristwatches in general, and of the chronograph wristwatch in particular.
Now, we’ve taken a long look at the history of the 27 CHRO 12, the caliber 321, and the Lemania calibers which are related to it, and we’ve been able to see the evolution over time of the various mechanisms, technical solutions, design changes, and finishes – these movements run the gamut from sturdy, high-grade, no-nonsense precision chronometric tools, to horological works of art. Of course, the design of the 321 Speedmaster in steel is derived from the same period in Omega’s history that gave us the 321. The watch is based, design-wise, on the ref. 105.003, and includes straight lugs, the dot-over-90 bezel, and a stepped dial; as well, there are no guards on the case for the crown and chronograph pushers. The bracelet is an updated version of the flat-link bracelets that appeared on the original 105.003 (the 7912 and 1035), but it’s quite a bit more solid in feel. It’s also extremely comfortable – steel bracelets on sports watches can often feel a bit cumbersome, but this one manages to feel silkily flexible in the hand and on the wrist, without giving up anything in reassuring, substantial build quality. It also happens to look very cool and compliments the 321 case beautifully.
One of the biggest worries I had, after seeing the original press release, but before seeing the watch in the metal, was the lume – I wondered if it mightn’t seem just a bit too much ersatz nostalgia and ruin the entire effect. Happily, it did not. In the metal, the tint is extremely subtle – it’s not so much a beige as it is a pleasant off-white eggshell, and I think if you didn’t know it was there, you might easily miss it at first.
There are a couple of technical improvements over a vintage Speedmaster as well. The bezel is now ceramic (zirconium oxide), which is essentially scratchproof, unlike the aluminum insert used on the Moonwatch, and Omega has opted for sapphire crystals, front and back (and, of course, the lume is now Super-LumiNova, not tritium). The display back and sapphire crystal made me fret a bit as well – my initial thought was, well, in for a dime, in for a dollar, why not Hesalite and a solid caseback (or at least, why not both as an option)? As much as I would like to bolster my retro-grouch credentials by saying that I found the display back problematic, I ended up being extremely happy it was there, and I don’t think I would buy one of these watches with a solid caseback even if one was on offer; it’s just too much fun to look at the movement (and I have a feeling anyone who’s a real client for one of these is going to want to be able to do so as well).
I said when we introduced this watch back in January that I don’t think anyone is necessarily cross-shopping this chronograph with any others, and I still think that’s true, with perhaps one caveat – you might possibly find yourself trying to decide between this and the standard Moonwatch (ref. 3220.127.116.11.01.006, on a bracelet) which, after all, has the caliber 1861 – that’s a watch and movement which have both distinguished themselves in manned space flight, and which are currently in use in manned space flight today. However, at $ 14,100, it’s more than twice as expensive as a standard-issue Moonwatch and therefore less likely to be an alternative for someone in the market for the standard Speedmaster Professional 42mm. To me, the Speedmaster 321 is a quite unique value proposition, and potential owners will likely make a go/no-go decision based on the merits of the watch, rather than on any comparison with another watch.
It has been wisely said that the purchase of a fine mechanical watch is ultimately an emotional, rather than a rational decision – “the heart has its reasons, whereof reason knows nothing.” I think that’s quite true and especially in this case. The wait, given the low production numbers for the movement and watch, may be a long one, but what you have in the end is a watch which, if you are susceptible to this sort of thing, tugs at the heartstrings like few others. Perhaps it does not hurt to be a bit of a romantic sentimentalist – I freely admit to being one myself. I want a steel Speedmaster 321 39.7MM Steel pretty badly, but then again, I cried at the end of Captain America, too.
The Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch Caliber 321 Steel ref. 318.104.22.168.01.001: case, stainless steel with ceramic bezel, 39.7mm, with 19mm lug width; water resistance, 50 meters; zirconium oxide bezel. Movement, Omega caliber 321, hand-wound lateral-clutch column-wheel chronograph with overcoil balance, 55-hour power reserve. U.S. price, $ 14,100 regular production (non-limited) model.
See it at Omegawatches.com. For a thorough indoctrination into the details of vintage Speedmasters, I strongly recommend Ben Clymer’s classic Reference Points: Understanding The Omega Speedmaster, from 2015.