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Omega, Moon Landings and Consumerism
Looking back at Sotheby's Speedmaster Auction
We went to the Moon in 1969
Maybe you’ve heard, but July 20 marked the 50th anniversary of mankind first stepping foot on the moon. From NASA’s Instagram:
Today, at 10:56 p.m. EDT 50 years ago, Apollo 11 took that one giant leap – making history for all of mankind. 🌔👨🚀 On the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, we salute the heroes, visionaries and explorers who made the seemingly impossible, possible.
Pretty cool. People have been “celebrating” by posting wrist shots of their Speedmasters all week. After all, is there a more American way to celebrate one of the great achievements of this country than flaunting our blatant consumerism and a Swiss company’s opportunistic profiting off such an achievement?
Well, perhaps one: An auction where those who own the same watch the astronauts wore on that fateful day can resell their timepieces at heavily inflated prices because of a bubble fueled by the consumerist habit of buying and flaunting said watches mentioned in the previous paragraph. That’s what Sotheby’s did on July 19, holding a special Speedmaster auction with 50 Speedmaster-themed lots, including some rare Speedys you don’t see every day.
I’m not actually knocking the association between Omega and the space program. Going to the moon is one of the greatest achievements in human history, and the fact that Omega was there to make tools these astronauts could actually use is astounding. It was the 60s: we dreamt big and did big things — people, companies, governments, it didn’t matter. Now, we repackage those dreams as “limited editions” and tell everyone to rush to the store to pick one up before they’re gone. Or we take the dreams of generations prior and put them in a platinum case. Or remake it into a live action version.
Anyway, jump to the Sales Corner to take a look at some of the best Omega Speedmasters that sold at Sotheby’s “To the Moon and Back | Celebrating 50 years since Apollo 11” auction form July 19.
More on 1969; or, the year that changed watchmaking forever.
The last truly significant development in the world of mechanical watches came in the same year that mankind reached the moon, pioneered supersonic passenger flight and invented the internet. It was also the year that nearly heralded watchmaking’s permanent downfall. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that people have been looking to go back ever since.
Meanwhile, Seiko won’t be producing a 50th anniversary chronograph.
As I’ve covered before, the pre-owned watch market is booming with dealers (Govberg/WatchBox), startups (Watchfinder, StockX), and general marketplaces (Grailed, even Amazon) trying to gain a foothold next to established players (Bob’s Watches, Crown & Caliber, etc.). While the vintage market is still underserved (though some are trying), there might be enough growth in the pre-owned market to support a large set of these players.
To take advantage of the growing interest in buying pre-owned (by the way, this is a secular trend, not watch industry specific. See e.g., Grailed, Poshmark, The RealReal), Govberg found some tech partners to launch ecommerce brand WatchBox as a platform for buying and selling pre-owned watches. Head Danny Govberg says his sales of second-hand watches have grown on average by 40 percent every year for the past five years (to compare, his sales of new watches have increased about 3-5 percent in the same time frame).
Speaking of new watches. Swiss watch exports dropped 10.7% in June 2019 compared to the year previous, totaling 1.7 billion Swiss francs (CHF) for the month. Units sold was down 17%. The first half of 2019 ends with an increase of 1.4% over the previous year, with total exports at over CHF 10 billion. It’s a slow down from the first quarter, when exports were up 2.9%.
In short, the story of June was a few less purchases of high-value precious metal (or two-tone) watches that allow the industry to report top line growth while in reality much of the market outside of the high end is struggling.
Big props to Hodinkee and Eric Wind for this one. They went super deep on the Rolex Submariner, going deep on references and reference variations up to about 1980 (i.e. the Reference 1680). The article is full of original photography (the sheer effort to get all these beautiful examples in the same room is laudable). There’s also a 15-minute video where Wind and Stephen Pulvirent show off some of the best examples.
Selling the Speedmaster at Sotheby’s
Sure, the steel Speedmasters are the ones that went to space, landed on the moon, etc. etc. But, the gold Reference 145.022 “Apollo XI 1969”, produced to commemorate the successful moon landing is certainly the most luxurious of Speedmasters. Omega produced just 1,014 pieces: Numbers 1 and 2 were presented to President Richard Nixon and his Vice President Spiro Agnew, who couldn’t accept because it’s illegal for Presidents to accept dope gifts like this. Thirty-four pieces were given to astronauts, including Ed White (no. 10), Neil Armstrong (no. 17),and Buzz Aldrin (no. 21). A few early references after that were given to Swiss politicians and Omega and Lemania managers, while the rest were sold to the public.
The watch uses the caliber 861, the Lemania-based successor to the caliber 321. Instead of a column wheel chronograph, it uses a cam / shuttle system for the chronograph operation, and this watch has the added benefit of a sapphire caseback. It’s truly a watch that’s meant to show off and celebrate everything about landing on the moon, and you can’t fault it for that.
The example here is case number 432, and the bezel is still a super rich maroon, with that dot-over-90 you love to see from early-generation Speedmasters.
Lot 13 sold: $68,750
Sotheby’s auction also sold case number 669 of the Reference 145.022 for $47,500. This lot was slightly more worn in the case and dial, though overall still a nice example of the celebratory reference. Put another way, I’d be happy to have either.
In pretty much all things, I have an irrational belief that the original is the best. Air Jordan or Air Max 1s, Rolex pre-Daytonas (I’m typing this on an original iMac), and for our purposes, Omega Speedmasters. Listen, we all know the story, so I’ll spend just this sentence on it: The CK 2915 was first released in 1957 alongside the Seamster 300 and Railmaster, a truly original big three. The CK 2915 was produced for just two years, during which time Omega produced three sub-references: the 2915-1, -2, and -3 (the -3 was a more transitional reference). In total, less than 4,000 of these original Speedmasters were produced. The CK 2915 was the first chronograph with a tachymeter on the bezel, which you can just barely make out on this example.
The Speedmaster Reference 2915-1 here is today’s most coveted iteration for many reasons. First and foremost, its manufacturing era lasted slightly more than a year between 1957 and 1958, making this scarce reference genuinely difficult to find in today’s market. Its straight lug case measures 38mm in diameter, encasing the classic black Singer dial. Top it off with the broad arrow that gives the watch its nickname and you’ve got an instantly recognizable classic.
Bukowskis sold a CK 2915-1 for about $275,000 back in October 2017, which was a record for the reference, until Phillips came along and sold one for CHF 408,500 last year. This one settled in a bit behind that, hammering at $250,000. While this is a nice reference, it’s not perfect (if we’re being picky, and we better be). Hands have been relumed (though they match nicely) and there’s some polishing, though the lugs are still thick and shapely. That said, the dial is in nice condition overall.
Lot 40 sold: $250,000
Compare this lot 40 to lot 10, which seems to have not sold after not hitting a reserve price (? — its estimate was $150,000 to $200,000, already a slight stretch). It’s not a bad example, but has been polished a bit more — I imagine those bevels are just a bit rounded and the lugs a bit thin for the taste of many. Add in a few more bumps and bruises on the case, and lume that isn’t quite the warm, even patina that collectors go crazy for, and you’ve got an example that collectors are reluctant to shell out big bucks for. It’s just another example of the widening gulf between the high, record-setting prices that good, honest examples of highly desirable vintage references achieve, and the lower prices that less-than-perfect examples receive.
Lot 40, which hammered for $250,000, compared to lot 10, which didn’t sell:
Ticks & Tocks
🎨 Otis lets you buy shares in artwork, watches, and other grails (culture as asset class). 🏗 The magical post-modern world of Disney and its architecture. ⛪️ Notre-Dame came far closer to collapsing than we realized. 🤩5 Instagram watch cliches that need to stop right now. 💾 The boutique Zenith Defy. Substack (who hosts this newsletter) raised a bunch of money.
Book recommendation: A Moon Watch Story.
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