THE RAREST AND MOST ATTRACTIVE?
We are often asked “Which is the rarest or the most attractive OMEGA Speedmaster?”.
This is a tricky question, especially since the second criterion has an element of subjectivity. Our daily work and our experience lead us to believe that probably 4 or 5 models could actually claim this title of “rarest and most attractive Speedmaster”.
This article is dedicated to the story of one of them: the Speedmaster Radial.
But first of all, let’s define properly this specific radial configuration.
Chronograph dials have 2 or 3 sub-dials, also called counters. By nature, their size is small and for this reason, manufacturers have to strike a balance between simplicity and information. The simplest sub-dials have indexes without numerals. Some have indexes and main numerals, while the more informative have indexes and as many numerals as possible.
Standard Speedmaster sub-dials have both indexes and main numbers:
- 20 / 40 / 60 for the small seconds counter,
- 10 / 20 / 30 for the minutes counter,
- 3 / 6 / 9 / 12 for the hours counter.
Radial Speedmaster sub-dials have smaller indexes (or dots) and more numerals:
- 10 / 20 / 30 / 40 / 50 /60 for the small seconds counter,
- 5 / 10 / 15 / 20 / 25 / 30 for the minutes counter,
- 1 to 12 for the hours counter.
How was this possible to add so many numerals while still maintaining good readability? Firstly by swapping the position of the numbers and indexes to increase the circumference, and secondly by saving space with the numbers in a radial orientation, i.e. with the top or bottom always facing the curve of the circle.
As we’ll see later on in this review, radial dials have been introduced for the first time on Speedmasters of the Alaska Projects (and more specifically during the second phase), developed between OMEGA and NASA.
Theoretically, these radial dials should not be found on publicly available Speedmasters, but only on NASA watches. But some dials may have not been sent to NASA… for the pleasure of the collectors. Or at least, for a very few lucky ones.
THE ALASKA PROJECTS
Even before the Apollo 11 mission, and under the cover of the code-name Alaska Project, OMEGA was working on a secret project to create the perfect space watch.
The code-name Alaska had nothing to do with the cold temperatures of the homonymous American state, but was chosen to ensure that this secret project would remain as elusive as possible in case of any industrial espionage.
During the course of the project, a select group of OMEGA engineers and designers met several times with Mr. Ragan of NASA in Houston, and several inputs and ideas were exchanged. It was decided that the two most important things were 1) to protect the chronograph’s movement at all costs and 2) to ensure the utmost legibility at all times.
OMEGA’s research to fulfill the project’s second goal, that of enhanced legibility, led to a very interesting detail that separates the Alaska Projects from all other Speedmasters, starting with this very first iteration: the design of the chronograph’s hands. Resembling miniaturized versions of NASA’s Gemini capsules (sometimes wrongly identified as Apollo capsules), the hands of the chronograph’s most important functions/displays were shaped in such a way as to ensure the most perfect visibility and readability under the most adverse conditions imaginable, and in particular intense vibrations.
ALASKA PROJECT II (1972)
A second phase began around 1972, which used most of the ideas from the previous iteration.
One of the further improvements was to enhance readability of the dial by redesigning the chronograph subdials and changing their markings into a radial layout. This would ensure a more exact way of reading (reading numerals is less prone to errors than indexes) the chronograph’s elapsed timing results. In addition, luminous dots (used as indexes) were added, to comply with NASA’s suggestion already after the qualification tests in 1965.
This is worth mentioning that OMEGA had already implemented commercially this dial configuration since 1966 for several Seamaster versions, as well as for the gold Speedmaster Mark II.
This Alaska II was finally not used by NASA, but by soviet cosmonauts during the Soyuz 25 and 26 missions in 1977.
ALASKA PROJECT III (1978)
When the Space Shuttle program was launched, OMEGA had already started working to come up with several different models for this exciting new project.
One of these models was the standard Speedmaster Professional. Standard? Well, not really…
After successful tests in the spring of 1978, NASA ordered 56 Speedmaster Professional from OMEGA. This chronograph was developed under the name Alaska Project III, based on the experience gained with the previous Alaska projects.
The dial has its classic black color, but the counters retain the same layout as the Alaska Project II, i.e. a radial layout, but without tritium dots.
Contrary to conventional Speedmaster dials, there is no SWISS MADE at the bottom of the dial. This was to comply with the Buy American Act, which required US government agencies (including NASA) to favor products in which at least half of the components are manufactured or assembled in the USA.
Apart from the dial, a significant feature, barely visible from the front, is the case made by the American Star Watch Case Co. This case maker, unusual for a Speedmaster, was commissioned to be in compliance with the Buy American Act.
The caseback has the central medallion with the Seahorse, but is lacking the usual arched inscriptions. Instead are engraved:
- a star (the hallmark of the company) and STAINLESS STEEL
- NASA part number (P/N) SED12100312-301
- NASA Serial Number (S/N) 1001 to 1056.
The caseback features the NASA Part Number (P/N) and Serial Number (S/N).
The case (and caseback) was made by the American Star Watch Case Co.
Some Alaska III Speedmasters have not been sent to NASA and remained in Bienne, at the OMEGA factory (see details below).
Those watches were exactly the same as the NASA ones, but without the S/N engravings on their caseback.
Unissued Alaska III caseback with no S/N engraved.
ALASKA SPEEDMASTERS IN SPACE
RADIAL DIALS: PRODUCTION NUMBERS
To our knowledge, 3 of them are at the OMEGA Museum. We don’t have any information about the current location of those used by the Soviet Cosmonautes.
NASA Alaska III:
OMEGA sent 56 copies to NASA in October 1978, for Space Shuttle use. Those models were assembled by OMEGA in Bienne, with the American case from Star Watch Case, and P/N and S/N engravings.
They cannot be sold or traded on the market: they are US Government property.
Unissued Alaska III:
A few more models have been assembled by OMEGA in Bienne with exactly the same characteristics as the previous 56, but were not sent to NASA. For this reason they have no S/N engraved on their caseback. We estimate there might exist between 4 and 10 of these watches.
Actually, it appears that OMEGA ordered a total of 100 radial dials, which means that a few examples were not fitted to specific American cases. It is likely that since the 1980s, some of these remaining dials may have left the OMEGA factory and been fitted to standard Speedmasters by their new owners. In theory, there might exist between 30 and 40 of them, but nobody knows how many dials really left the OMEGA offices…
So far we have observed less than 10 of them, with private collectors, or very rarely available for sale.
As a conclusion, the Radial Speedmaster is undoubtedly one of the rarest and the most attractive models within the Speedmaster production, and probably also among the legendary chronographs of the watchmaking history.
SPEEDY TUESDAY – A TRIBUTE TO ALASKA PROJECT III
In 2017, OMEGA in collaboration with Robert-Jan Broer, the founder of the Speedy Tuesday concept, unveiled a model inspired by the Alaska III model (as the “A Tribute to Alaska Project III” engraved on its caseback).
From the original Alaska III, they retained the brushed finish of the case and of course the radial layout of the sub-dials, which were finished in contrasting silver with black inscriptions.
This was a limited edition of 2.012 examples.
Fratello Watches and Robert-Jan have published very interesting articles about Radial Speedmasters, that you will find here: