As with Ford and Chevy, Canon and Nikon, BMW and Mercedes, or Coke and Pepsi, in the world of luxury watches, the debate between Rolex vs Omega is a heated one. These two titan companies (both Swiss in origin) have been battling each other to win the hearts, minds (and pocketbooks) of high-end consumers for decades- and are showing no signs of slowing down. As in other competitions such as these, the source of the debate is not the fact that one is actually better than the other- it’s the fact that they are both generally very good, and the decisive factors in choosing one or the other is more or less a matter of personal choice, and/or in some cases professional need.
As aforementioned, both watch makers have a long history. Before the time of Quartz watches, Omega was the top-selling brand of Swiss watches, and was consistently selling more units per year than Rolex. At that time, although Rolex was selling fewer units, they were doing so at a higher price point.
Omega also made history but providing the first watches used in the NASA space program yet in the 1970s it lost its way in terms of marketing. The battle of Rolex vs Omega really tilted in the direction of Rolex, which did some brilliant marketing by providing its watches to world famous explorers and placing them in popular movies.
With the advent of Quartz-battery powered watches however, many Swiss watch producers (including Omega) unsuccessfully tried to compete with the Japanese in producing cheap quartz watches, while Rolex (which was owned by a private trust, and as such, didn’t have to cave in to market pressure) stayed the course, and continued to focus on producing high quality mechanical watches (although they did experiment a bit with quartz movements).
Under the worldwide economic crisis in the 1970s and a restructuring as part of the swatch group in 1983, Omega had become weakened, and Rolex increased market share until it became the undisputed ruler of the Swiss watch world.
It was only in the past two decades that Omega managed to really make a comeback under the leadership of the Swatch Group. Part of this was due to new marketing strategies that focussed on product placements. James Bond started wearing an Omega (traditionally it had been a Rolex Submariner but in in the 1980s he switched to wearing an Omega Seamaster) and the popularity of Omega vs Rolex watches started to shift. You can read a fascinating history of James Bond’s watches here.
Since then, although Omega continues to produce quartz-battery powered watches alongside its traditional mechanical movements, it seems to have also adopted many elements of Rolex’s business model (i.e. higher pricing, tighter controls of dealer pricing, increasing advertising, etc) and has thus increased it’s market share to become more of a direct competitor.
In terms of the watches themselves, being quartz-powered most would agree that Omegas are more accurate (although Omega also makes a huge range of fantastic mechanical watches). As such for those who need a super-accurate timepiece for professional reasons, the Omega would definitely be the better bet. At the same time however, for those who are more interested in the prestige of a luxury watch, and can handle a higher up-front cost, Rolex would be best way to go. What the Rolex watch may lose in its accuracy (which is still extremely good), it makes up in its brand value. As Rolex is the most well known, desired, and copied watch brand in the world, (and most likely will continue to be so in the foreseeable future) it is the safest bed for re-sell. Furthermore, (and most likely as a function of it’s higher price) Rolex is known to have both customer service that is second to none, and a wider dealer network.
Even though Omega watches are both more revolutionary (while Rolex watches are ‘evolutionary’) and accurate, the brand name, resale value and customer service of Rolex make it an equal contender to Omega- if not in sales, then at least in the hearts of consumers. The contest between Omega v Rolex for the title of king of the Swiss watch brands will keep going for some time yet.
Rolex has also determinedly associated itself with adventure and sports and major personalities such as Reinhold Messner, a famous mountaineer who became a prominent brand ambassador for Rolex by saying he never climbs without his Rolex Oysterquartz (see picture).
The Omega Speedmaster and Space
In his book, Marking Time, Michael Korda, tells the story of how Omega’s Speedmaster was selected by NASA for its astronauts. The selection was not, as you might imagine, an exhaustive process in which watchmakers were asked to supply specifications and to bid for a space watch (which would probably have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, the way procurement projects usually do).
Instead, having not given much thought to the subject, NASA’s engineers suddenly realised quite late in the space programme that they needed a watch. They searched Houston’s watch stores and came up with the Speedmaster, which is lighter and a bit easier to wear than the Rolex Daytona, and also about a third of the price.
They picked it because it was waterproof, seemed quite sturdy and not too expensive.
“To own an Omega is to associate yourself with the astronauts, for the Omega Speedmaster Professional was the first watch worn on the moon and bore on the back of its case an engraved certification of that fact from NASA.”
On the other hand, he writes:
“To own a Rolex is to identify yourself with race car drivers, people who climbed Everest and sports celebreties of all kinds.
Buzz Aldrin’s missing Omega
In his book, Magnificent Desolation, the astronaut Buzz Aldrin says that all the astronauts were required to hand back their watches after their missions. All of the watches are accounted for (and housed safely in the vaults of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC) except for the one that he wore on the moon.
He said he handed over his Omega Speedmaster to NASA’s Johnson Space Center to be shipped to the Smithsonian. The box with his other stuff got there but not the watch.
“People have told me that the Speedmaster I wore on the moon is the Holy Grail of watches for serious collectors, and I assume that the search for it will go on.”
Aldrin writes that 40 years after he stood ont eh moon he was invited by Omega to Basel where it presented him with a brand new Omega Speedmaster.
The history of Omega watches
Omega dates back to 1880 when it was part of the firm, Louis Brandt and Son. At the time this was one of the world’s leading watchmakers with production of over 100,000 watches a year (Vintage Wristwatches by Reyne Haines).
The name Omega was apparently suggested by as early as 1903, but the first watch to appear under this name was released in 1909 at the Gordon Bennett Cup, an international ballooning contest and fitting place to launch the watch. It was soon adopted widely as a aviators’ watch and in 1917 the Royal Flying Corps, which later become the Royal Air Force, adopted it