This year has was the strangest, most confusing, most startling memory. To his credit, the watch industry – not known for its agility – seemed to be reacting, and the timepieces released in the past 12 months shared an enduring practicality, a godsend in a year when time seemed to be slowing itself down.
At the top of the stack are two symbols below the symbols that capture what I love most about mechanical watches: the Omega Speedmaster caliber 321 and the Rolex Submariner. Both embody the craft above the cost, celebrating a bygone era as they nod towards watchmaking. And the new models somehow improve on two archetypal designs.
First, in January, Omega announced a product that many of us had literally dreamed of for decades: a stainless steel Speedmaster that packs the legendary 321 movement. The handcrafted caliber, which was once considered one of the best from Switzerland, was withdrawn from commercial production by Omega in 1969 in favor of industrially manufactured movements. But its legend was only beginning. Due to its exceptional reliability, the 321 would continue to be used on all six Apollo lunar missions.
Aside from its metal coating, the new 321 is an exact replica of the original (Omega 3D scanned the Speedy that astronaut Gene Cernan wore on the moon in 1972 to remake the parts). Every part was made by hand. It’s almost three times the price of a standard model, but for the price, you get a piece of history in a case and bracelet that represent the best of modern watchmaking.
Then, in September, Rolex shocked us all by announcing that its benchmark product, the undated Cerachrom bezel Submariner, would get a larger 41-millimeter case and an all-new movement. Untouched since 2012, the Submariner is widely considered to be the perfect diving watch, making even the slightest change feel seismic. And yet the new sub is indeed the best that ever was. The case has been increased by a millimeter, a seemingly odd choice at a time when tastes are shifting towards slimmer silhouettes. However, with thinner studs and a slightly wider bracelet, it achieves an elegance that has not been surpassed by any previous version. Then there is the updated caliber. Since Rolex is still one of the few watchmakers who only use solid case backs, you cannot see the new movement it has developed over the years. So the point is precision, plain and simple.
At Hodinkee we often discuss the perfect two watch collection. Well here it is. The models most synonymous with reliability and usefulness – from the moon to the ocean floor – have somehow got even better. It’s a small consolation in a year of so much confusion and uncertainty, but I know what watches I’ll be looking at when we count to 2021.
A version of this story originally appeared in the December / January 2021 issue, entitled “Two Symbols Reach Even Greater Heights”.