The Caliber 321 might be the most famous movement in watch history.
If I may be so bold as to suggest an addendum to a classic R.E.M. jam: it wasn’t just a man we put on the moon, but a watch as well. Specifically, an Omega Speedmaster, worn on the wrist of figures like Buzz Aldrin, and with a fascinating history of its own. Before it was given permission to blast off, the Omega was put through a battery of harsh tests to prove it could survive the mission. NASA exposed the watch to extreme temperatures, collisions, and intense pressure. Thanks to Caliber 321, the movement that powers the watch, the Omega was able to keep ticking, and was used by NASA astronauts from 1957 until 1968, when the movement was retired. (In the simplest terms, the movement is the watch’s engine—the mechanism that powers the hands and any other of a watch’s functions.) To honor its history, Omega worked over the past two years to create an exact reproduction of the original Caliber 321. The brand even named the project “Alaska 11,” the code word given to the original NASA project in the ‘60s. Now, 50 years after it went out of production, Omega is bringing the movement back—not to send to space, necessarily, but to the delight of watch obsessives everywhere.
Although the movement of the watch isn’t something a casual wearer might appreciate on a day-to-day basis, it’s an important detail for originalists. And the Caliber 321 might be the most revered and important movement in the history of horology. Slotting that feat of engineering into an Omega Speedmaster—the watch worn during many of the Apollo missions—makes the watch as close to original as possible, which is of the utmost importance to collectors. The Caliber 321 is what Jack Swigert used during an aborted mission to the moon to time the 14-second increments during which the crew was able to power up the engine without it exploding. (Maybe you’ve heard of that one?) The Caliber 321 is inside the watch strapped to Aldrin’s space suit in a photograph taken by Neil Armstrong (!) on the moon (!!). (Aldrin’s Omega might be the most famous missing timepiece in the world—it was stolen when the astronaut mailed the watch to the Smithsonian in 1970.) You can understand why the movement holds a special place in the hearts of timepiece collectors.
At every level, the movement is an important piece, and one that's historically increased the value of Omega watches. Because of the Caliber 321, any watch that contains it is inextricably tied to the historic moment that humans first walked on the moon. That’s the sort of marketing that pays dividends not just for Caliber 321-equipped pieces but Omega as a whole. And in the auction world, Caliber 321s remain sought after. An Omega Speedmaster with the movement just sold for $32,500, more than double its high estimate, at Phillips in December. Since Omega stopped producing the movement in 1968, it’s grown increasingly rare and valuable. Now, of course, it's coming back.
Omega wasn’t generous with details on how exactly the historic movement will be reintroduced, just that it will appear in future releases. Still, in a market where value is often dependent on how close to original a piece is, future Omega watches that include the movement used to make space exploration possible is about as juicy a story there is for watch enthusiasts.
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