The Rolex Daytona Vs. The Omega Speedmaster
Is there anything better than a good rivalry?
Beatles versus the Stones. Ali versus Frazier. Coke versus Pepsi. Taylor Swift versus Katy Perry (I dunno, I was running out of ideas).
There’s no doubt healthy competition can be a dynamic motivator for all parties involved, pushing each one onwards and upwards to new heights; levels which would have perhaps remained unthought-of without the constant fear of being outdone.
In the world of horology there are a number of these conflicts, with certain watches from opposing brands vying against each other for supremacy. In many cases, a manufacture has brought out a model expressly to go into battle with a particular opponent and to try and claw back followers lost to bitter adversaries.
So we decided to do a series detailing some of the best known timepiece entanglements, and to give our personal opinion on which comes out on top.
And there is no better place to kick things off than with what is quite possibly the biggest clash the industry can offer—the Rolex Daytona versus the Omega Speedmaster.
A Little Backstory
The clash of the chronographs got off to a conspicuously one-sided start. It was Omega who actually landed the opening salvo, launching the inaugural Speedmaster in 1957, alongside the first ever Seamaster 300 and Railmaster; together making up the brand’s Professional Collection.
While the latter of the three—an antimagnetic watch designed for scientists and technicians—suffered the same lackluster sales performance as Rolex’s comparable model, the Milgauss, both the Speedy and the Seamaster were instant hits.
The Speedmaster especially proved massively popular, a watch born for the racetrack and boasting a number of innovations within its handsome 39mm steel case.
It became the first chronograph wristwatch to feature a 12-hour totalizer among its trio of sub dials, laid out in the now-accepted 3,6 and 9 o’clock positions. Furthermore, it was also the first to move its tachymeter scale onto the surrounding bezel rather than having it printed around the edge of the dial, something which freed up valuable real estate on the face and made the watch exceptionally readable.
The CK2915, otherwise known as the ‘Broad Arrow’ due to the shape of its hour hand, was powered by the Caliber 321, a legendary movement in timepiece history. Developed in conjunction with one-time Omega subsidiary, Lemania in 1942, it was delivered as an ébauche (i.e. unassembled components) called the Lemania Cal. 2310.
The 18,000vph, manually-wound caliber was further enhanced with an antimagnetic cap and added shock protection, two inclusions which would prove invaluable in the coming years.
Straightforward and somewhat dated though the Cal. 321 was even then, it is still recognized as one of the finest column wheel-controlled, lateral clutch chronograph movements ever made, and has powered models from the likes of Breguet, Vacheron Constantin and even Patek Philippe in the past.
So the internals were beyond reproach, and the outside was something of a sensation as well. The large, triple register arrangement and high contrast monochrome dial furniture gave the sort of legibility never seen before on watches of the type, and the steel surround with its engraved, black printed numerals (what Omega dubbed their Tacho-Productometer) provided a new look for mechanical stopwatches.
In all, it was going to take something very special to steal the limelight from the Speedmaster.
It is hard to imagine it, but for the opening quarter century of the Daytona’s life, it didn’t come anywhere close to being special enough.
Its disappointing sales figures seem extraordinary now, with the earliest references currently standing as some of the most sought after and valuable vintage watches in the world. They too were good-looking, highly capable chronographs, borrowing a leaf out of Omega’s playbook by moving the tachymeter to the bezel and prioritizing readability.
We’ll never know if the Daytona would have fared better had it been released before the Speedy, but the hard facts of the matter are, by the time Rolex’s rejoinder arrived in 1963 with the ref. 6239, anyone who wanted a handsome, robust, manually-winding mechanical chronograph were already very well catered for. The Speedmaster had the market pretty much sewn up and the Daytona, as a result, landed to a crashing wave of apathy.
It was another watch originally designed to be worn in the glamorous environs of motor racing, but the brand’s choice of name gives a clue as to where Rolex’s future ambitions were headed. While ‘Daytona’ is obviously taken from the famous Floridian Speedway, a circuit with which the company has had an association for nearly six decades, its supplemental title, ‘Cosmograph’ is telling.
The early 60s gave rise to the Space Race in earnest, as the U.S. and the USSR engaged in a vicious rivalry all their own. The fight to be the official supplier of timepieces to NASA was escalating, and the Daytona’s intergalactic surname was a clear attempt to turn heads at Houston.
Yet the bad news continued for Rolex. Omega had them beaten here too, with the Speedmaster going into space a year before the first Daytona even hit the shelves, when Wally Schirra wore his personal Speedy aboard the Sigma 7, during his Mercury-Atlas 8 mission.
In 1965, the Speedmaster became NASA’s first flight-qualified watch, having been the only one out of a dozen models from various brands (including the Daytona) to survive the most grueling selection tests ever endured in horology history.
Then, in 1969, it received the biggest image boost any watch has ever gotten before or since when Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the lunar surface wearing his ST105.012, and the Moonwatch was born.
So while Omega’s success was genuinely out of this world, the first chronograph Rolex had put into serial production languished in its shadow, and would stay there until the 1980s.
It was really the two rival watchmakers’ handling of the quartz crisis which has led to their current standing.
When the influx of cheap, battery-powered models from Japan and America started laying waste to Switzerland’s watch industry in the 1970s, Rolex completely changed tack as far as their marketing was concerned. They repositioned themselves as the definitive luxury lifestyle brand and didn’t try to compete with quartz watches on terms of price or accuracy. Their range of models stuck resolutely to their guns, but upped the exclusivity factor, transforming them into status symbols.
Omega on the other hand, took a far more scattergun approach, and particularly with their most desirable model. Suddenly the name Speedmaster was slapped on a bizarre array of pieces of all types, with little cohesion or consistency. It all started to look a bit like a panic and diluted the essence of one of the great names in watchmaking.
But worse was to come for Omega when, in 1988, Rolex released the second iteration of the Daytona. While the aesthetics had been updated, and it had grown to 40mm from the first generation’s 37mm, the big news was on the inside.
Here, finally, was a luxury chronograph with the convenience of an automatic caliber. The El Primero, arguably the winner of the three-way race to build a self-winding chronograph movement, was delivered to Rolex by makers Zenith, where it was stripped down, heavily modified and slotted into the Daytona’s new case.
Overnight, this one addition transformed the underperforming Daytona into the ultimate must-have watch, a position it has held ever since.
The fact that production was slow due to the time-heavy process of reworking the caliber so profoundly also worked in Rolex’s favor. Unable to keep up with demand, waiting lists began to grow and soon impatient customers were scouring earlier, manual references. The older models increased in popularity and none more so than the so-called exotic dial watches. These Art Deco-inspired oddities were, if anything, even more disliked than the standard dial pieces in the 60s and 70s. One photograph of Hollywood royalty, Paul Newman sporting his changed all that and today, the more commonly named Newman Daytonas represent some of the most expensive watches money can buy.
And the Speedmaster? Omega managed to hang on, barely, throughout the worst of the crisis. Their endless experimentation lost them fans but, in 1983, the company was brought under the Swatch umbrella, a Swiss conglomerate which had been formed, ironically enough, to battle the influx of battery-powered watches with a quartz model of their own.
With their backing, Omega started the long, slow fight back, clocking up even more innovations (most notably their adoption of the co-axial escapement) as well as scoring a significant coup when they became James Bond’s watch of choice in 1995 with a revamped Seamaster.
These days, there is no question: Omega is back.
So, where does that all leave us now, in the battle of the chronographs?
The Daytona versus the Speedmaster
The first problem to overcome when comparing these two industry titans is finding a like-for-like equivalency.
While Omega have calmed down a bit in recent years, there are still more than 80 pieces in their current catalog called the Speedmaster. These take in manually-wound, automatic, quartz and even analog/digital watches.
As for Rolex, a Daytona is a Daytona. The model may have the most comprehensive selection of any in their sports collection, but they all do the same job in the same way, and the only difference is the case material and dial color. There are around 50 examples in total.
Pound for pound, the closest comparable watches are the steel ones; the Rolex ref. 116500LN and the Omega 3126.96.36.199.01.006, the latest Moonwatch Professional.
Much like with any rivalry worth talking about, the Daytona vs. Speedmaster debate stirs some serious emotions for each team. Spend any time on a horology forum and you will be left in no doubt where everybody’s loyalties lie.
However, even the most militant advocate for either has to agree that both watches are beautiful to look at.
Strangely, given Rolex’s reputation for sticking relentlessly with a design, it is actually the Omega which has changed the least over the years. The contemporary model is pretty much an exact replica of the ST105.012 from 1963, the watch that saw the moon with Aldrin. The 42mm steel, asymmetrical case, the trademark twisted lyre lugs, the stick hands, the crisp white detailing against the jet black dial and the thin aluminum bezel are all as they should be. There is even the option of a domed Hesalite crystal for the real vintage feel.
All told, it remains one of the most perfectly balanced and iconic visuals in the industry.
As for the Daytona, it could arguably be described as the busier-looking of the two, although a lot of that may be down to the amount of text Rolex insist on including below the 12 o’clock index. It has strayed further from its aesthetic roots than the Speedy, the earliest examples more tool-like and straightforward.
Nevertheless, it is an extremely good-looking watch, available in either black or white dial versions, each with the sub counters given contrasting outlines and an attractive snailing.
It all comes down to personal choice of course, but as for looks, I going to declare a draw.
The various materials used in the Daytona and Speedmaster is where we first start to see a gap open up.
Omega’s offering is crafted from the industry-standard 316L stainless steel, brushed on all surfaces including bracelet links. The bezel is still traditional aluminum, with the tachometer scale printed in white.
They are basically the same constituents the Speedy has always had, and means it will, over time, pick up the sort of dings, bumps and scrapes beloved by vintage fans—signs of an interesting life that gives each watch an individual character.
With Rolex, the brand has poured countless millions into developing proprietary materials to distinguish themselves from the competition. This has led to them being just about the only manufacture to use 904L steel, a more corrosion and acid resistant metal than the 316L, and one that has a unique luster when polished. Dubbed Oystersteel, the superalloy is the reason Rolex’s modern steel watches look so distinctive when compared with others.
The bezel, too, has benefitted from exhaustive innovation. The brand’s patented ceramic, Cerachrom is a virtually unbreakable, scratch and fade-proof composite, one that will stay looking like it has come straight off the production line for decades to come.
The Daytona’s handset and the outlines around the indexes are made from white gold (where they are still steel on the Speedmaster), again, all in the name of fighting off tarnishing.
So, from a purely technical standpoint, the Rolex is head and shoulders above the Omega. A Cosmograph bought today will likely look box fresh pretty much forever.
While that is obviously impressive, it depends on how much personality you want your watch to pick up. Some love a faded bezel or patina on the dial, something only the Speedmaster is likely to experience.
The choice is yours.
Movement and Performance
There is another significant difference between the two models when we look at their respective movements.
Inside the Omega is the Caliber 1863, virtually identical to the Caliber 1861 used in the official NASA watches since 1993, except for a higher level of finishing. Its rhodium-plated components (as opposed to the 1861’s copper-coated parts) can be seen through the sapphire case back.
It is a direct descendant of the Caliber 861 from the 60s, the movement brought into replace the original Caliber 321 due to its lower cost.
It is a cam-controlled mechanism, rather than column wheel-controlled, beats at 21,600vph (meaning the chronograph can time down to 1/6th second) and has a 48-hour power reserve. It is also, crucially, manually-wound.
While that was the Achilles Heel of the original Daytona, the Moonwatch has always been a hand wound model, something that its fans love. It is a real nostalgic touch which Omega has never, thankfully, changed.
However the Caliber 1863 is not one of the brand’s Co-Axial movements, nor is it a chronometer, being accurate to around -1/+11 seconds a day. It is, instead, a big robust workhorse of an engine and one much admired by Speedy enthusiasts.
By contrast, working the Daytona these days is the truly astonishing Cal. 4130.
This is Rolex’s own caliber, and the model’s second automatic movement, taking over from the El Primero in 2000.
Rather than being based on that previous example, the Cal. 4130 is a completely redesigned instrument, five-years in the making and recognized as one of the finest of its type ever built.
Consisting of just 201 parts, the lowest of just about any mechanical chronograph, it is column wheel-controlled and has a vertical clutch, which eliminates any sign of judder on the hands when operating the stopwatch.
In addition, it ticks at 28,800vph, allowing for 1/8th second accuracy on the chronograph, and has a 72-hour reserve. It also passes Rolex’s own standards for timekeeping precision, the Superlative Chronometer certification, and stays within -2/+2 seconds a day.
All told, as far as the internals are concerned, we have to give this one to the Daytona.
Price and Availability
Of course all that modernization Rolex has undertaken, with their high performance steel and class-leading caliber, makes itself known at checkout.
There isn’t so much a price gap as there is a gulf between these two.
The retail for a Speedmaster 3188.8.131.52.01.006 is currently around $6,050.
For the Daytona, the new msrp it is roughly $13,150.
Except it isn’t.
If you want to get a Speedy on your wrist, you can just go and buy one. In fact, you can order one off the Omega website and you don’t even have to go outside.
If you want a brand new Daytona ref. 116500LN, you’re going to have to be patient. And probably for a long time.
Waiting lists have been a fact of life for the Cosmograph since the end of the 80s when Rolex simply couldn’t build them fast enough to keep up with demand. The clamoring for their products was obviously something they enjoyed and now, while they certainly could make as many Daytonas as they needed to satisfy everyone who wanted one, they artificially restrict their supply to keep customers hungry.
Those unwilling to linger on the list for years soon turn to the preowned market, where prices for new, unworn models start at about $24,000.
That is obviously a huge amount of money for a steel sports watch, even one as remarkable as the Daytona. But there is an upside.
As far as future investment potential is concerned, the Rolex is likely to hold its value far more than the Omega. If you are lucky enough to get one through an AD at retail price, you could potentially see an appreciation as well.
So the Speedmaster wins by a mile on availability, and the subject of price is open to variables.
As I said at the beginning, we all love a good rivalry. And for a competition to be worthwhile, both opponents have to be fairly evenly matched, otherwise there’s no sense of achievement with the victory.
With luxury chronographs, the Speedmaster and the Daytona are more alike than their price tags would suggest.
Yes, the Rolex has the more contemporary movement and materials, and a greater accuracy. But it can’t beat the Omega’s legacy, and neither can any other watch to be honest.
In the end, it will come down to which you prefer, and it is one of those rare times where it is impossible to make a bad decision.