Rolex Vs Omega: A Brief History of Two Great Watch Brands

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.

The Rolex Submariner – a classic Swiss diving watch

History

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.

Rolex advertisement from 1969

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

Omega Speedmaster Advertisement from 1975

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

Rolex Oysterquartz watch worn by Reinhold Messner on the summit of Everest

A display advertisement for Rolex from 1983 showing the famous mountaineer Reinhold Messner wearing his Rolex on Everest

 

 

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4 Responses to “Rolex Vs Omega: A Brief History of Two Great Watch Brands”

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  1. franc says:

    When you come around to comparing the accuracy 0f the two watches you say most would agree that with its quartz movement the omega is the more accurate.
    Who compares quartz to mechanical movements?
    And by the way Rolex has produced quartz movements too.
    Bottom line with its coaxial movement Omega mechanical’s are more accurate than Rolex mechanical’s, but many believe the shock absorbtion of the Rolex is way superior. Considering pricepoint however Omega is the one.

  2. Vote for Omega says:

    I am not so sure this article is entirely accurate. Although Omega did make quartz watches, they are now focussing pretty much on the same premium market as Rolex and I do not know of too many quartz watches (if any!) in their current range. Incidentally Omega also apparently stopped gold plating, any gold you see on a modern Omega should be solid gold.

    Rolex is a bullet proof brand no doubt but I dare say that they represent less value for money than some of the comparable Omega models.

    Personally I purchased an Omega Speedmaster in steel and rose gold (which cost about the same as a stainless steel only Rolex Submariner). It is more comparable to a Rolex Daytona (which costs a lot more) than the Submariner though.

    Personally, I predict that while Rolex will continue to be the default choice in the forseeable future, I believe that current model Omegas will hold their values very well and be seen as a more discerning choice for someone who takes their time to research and not follow the crowd (a little like choosing an Apple imac over a well built PC). I also believe the fact that more Rolex’s are sold compared to Omega should mean that in theory at least, Omega’s should be relatively scarcer and once demand firms, could even hold their relative value better at some point in time!

  3. omega says:

    To me the Omega is a quiet statement where as the Rolex is the Vulgar choice. Give me an Omega, especially with the Daniels escapement any day over the brash Rolex. A quiet statement is always better than a loud vulgar one!

  4. mrf says:

    I agree with the last statement, completely. An Omega is a quiet statement about quality. A Rolex is a rather less quiet statement about, well, being able to afford a Rolex.

    That said, I own an Omega Hourvision. I am fairly amazed that over time, it stays synched within a minute of my iPhone, which itself is synched to the real time. It has been months since I’ve corrected my watch, and yet tracks within a minute to the real time.

    I also think this article was inaccurate about the way the Omegas were selected for the moon mission. It was a competition, basically in which watch could survive extremes of force and temperature the best. And in two separate competitions, Omega was chosen over all others, including Rolex.

    In the end, I personally feel the competition is over marketing and artificial price points, not over real quality. If you seriously care whether a fictional character prefers Rolex to Omega, then I suggest Rolex is the brand for you. If you care whether the general public prefers Rolex to Omega, then I also suggest Rolex. If you just care about the quality of the device itself, then I think its quite clear which brand you should go with.