It was a key moment in the history of mankind, when, thousands, or maybe even tens of thousand years ago, one of our ancestors stepped out of the cave where his tribe spent the night, and raised his eyes to the starry sky above. Or maybe he stepped from the forest onto a clearing in that moonless, clear winter's night. Against that velvety, black backdrop he saw thousands of little glowing dots. They seemed close enough to touch them, and yet, they were so remote - infinitely, eternally.
He saw, and he even recognized some of them, because he remembered having seen them the nights before. Maybe it took him, of all people, to see what others couldn't see - after all, as anyone in his tribe would confirm, he was a truly queer person: he wasn't useful for hunting because he'd been born with a crippled hand, and even when it came to collecting fruit and berries and roots others were quicker and more adroit than he was. But he had keen eyes and his memory was as good as anyone's, so he became a sentry, one of those young men who had an eye on the landscape around, to warn the tribe if something looked wrong. That was his place in this society we refer to as 'primitive' today, failing to recognize how humane it actually was.
That, then, was the night when he looked up again, but this time he began to draw lines in his mind between some of the tiny specks of light. They formed to objects from his daily life - maybe, he called one of the images 'basket', ...
... and another one 'tree' or 'mammoth':
Over the following nights he attempted to find back 'his' images. In the course of weeks and months he understood how the images moved through the sky. They didn't change their places against each other - it seemed as if they all moved into the same direction, together with the sky. After a while, the basket vanished from the sky, making room, at the other end of the line of shapes parading across the nightly skies, for the 'biface', and when the 'tree' didn't rise anymore it had been replaced with the image of a 'bow'. And then, after quite a while, the 'basket' reappeared, then the 'tree', the 'mammoth' and all the other images he had made up in order to remember the star formations.
Something else our nameless observer of the nightly skies had realized, too: when the 'basket' appeared, it was time to collect the last summer berries, because soon after there were none to be had for quite a while. Once the 'mammoth' rose, one should start to collect winter fuel and, upon reappearence of the 'biface', it would be time to send out the huntsmen. His tribe understood the significance of his observations and they relieved him from the tedious tasks of a sentry - his observations allowed them to plan their activities and gave them an edge over their neighbours: they had enough fuel in winter and were the first to find meat in spring. And the tribe's elders made sure he took on a student to whom he could transfer his knowledge, so the existence of the tribe was secured after his passing.
That's how it was for many centuries: people followed deer and mammoth, they followed the fruit and beets. At some time, however, man had wandered enough - the first people looked for and found a spot where they could settle down. Fertile soil could be irrigated from a nearby river, our ancestors now cultivated fruit, seeds and grain. Still - how the stars moved through the year remained expert knowledge - and those knowledgeable learned to write it down.
This was the moment when shamanism turned into science. Science secures knowledge by observation and taking notes of the results. Knowledge can be handed down, from generation to generation, and each generation can build upon the legacy their forebears leave to them. These notes can take various forms, from clay shards to wax tablets to papyrus sheets and parchment scrolls to libraries and data centers. Eternal knowledge - like in eternal movement of the stars - was even cast into buildings by which ancient cultures marked spots on the horizon where the sun or certain stars would rise, announcing events recurring over the year. In Egypt, priests marked the point where Sirius rose for the first time - so they knew that the Nile floods were coming; at Stonehenge the ancient scientists marked the points where the sun rose on the summer- and winter solstices and the spring and autumn equinoxes as did the Anasazi in their circular temples in order to figure the best time for sowing and harvest.
We call these places "observatories", and today like then they serve one main purpose: they determine what time it is. Astronomers know, of course, that the detection of new celestial objects is but a side effect of this important work, but most ordinary people deem astronomy the epitomy of a meaningless profession - even more so because, not long ago, astronomy and astrology used to be two faces of the same science. (And even though today each enlightened person knows for sure that astrology is just plain charlatanry, there is enough room in each and every newspaper to present the current day's horoscope.)
So it's good to recall that there would be no civilization without observatories, no science and no exploration.
And there would be no watchmakers and, even less so, the observatory competitions where this profession's best people contest each other, striving for ever better, ever more exact watches.
Because at the end of the day a watch is nothing else but the eternal, constant movements performed by celestial objects projected into a tiny mechanism - which will, of course, never reach celestial precision. To get as close as possible, however, is the goal pursued by chronometer makers. True mastery, finally, is setting this precision into a little case on the wrist.
Enter one of the most exquisite time pieces ever: Omega's 'Constellation'.***
The 'Constellation' story actually begins in 1948. Three years after the end of the Second World War in Europe, people in the devastated countries recover from the trauma left behind by the nameless atrocities they witnessed. Some are even affluent enough to afford themselves some luxury. Right into this beginning post-war boom Omega celebrate their hundredth birthday. Its motto - "One-Hundred Years of Precision" - could hardly be epitomized better than by the wristwatch Omega release for the occasion: the limited-edition 'Centenary' chronometer.
Omega Centenary Advertising (1948)
Source: Omega - Reise durch die Zeit
4,000 'big calibre' Centenaries (30.10 RA PC JUB (331)) are built in 1948 (ref. OT 2500), 2,000 'small calibre' pieces (ref. OT 2499) follow suit in 1949 due to the great demand, sporting the smaller calibre 28.10 RA JUB (341). Both series sell off almost instantly, despite their price, showing Omega that there was a market for very high precision watches. Hence, finally in 1952 Omega releases a series of highly elegant, very high precision watches made only of selected materials - the 'Constellation'.
Omega Constellation Advertising (1955)
Quelle: Omega - Reise durch die Zeit
'Constellation' is the term describing an arrangement of stars into an image, and this is where the story returns to its origins - the eternally constant movement of the stars through the sky. The 'Constellation' moniker was picked from a suggestion by Bruno Passoni, who was one of Omega's Italian General Agent Carlo De Marchi's salesmen. The embossed observatory cupola on its back reminds the customers of Omega's great tradition with observatory competitions - including the one held at Kew-Teddington, where Omega finished in 1933 and 1936 with record performances still standing in 1952.
The first 'Constellations' ran the 28.10-family bumper movements inside, now named cal. 351, 352 and 354, driven to perfection in these watches. As of 1955, Omega introduced the 5xx calibre rotor automatic, and with it the tradition to build certain calibres as chronometres from the outset. To this day, the calibres 561 and 564 (plus their latecoming brethren, the 751) enjoy a flawless reputation as the best, most precise and most solid mechanical chronometre movements ever. A complete decade - from 1958 to 1968 - the 56x equipped Omega's high-end chronometres. In parallel, the watch design remains largely unaltered, too - slim, elegant, mostly golden or gold-capped, with gold or silver dials (only a few were actually black). Dauphin hands remain a 'Constellation' hallmark well into the 1960s.
Omega Constellation ref. CD 167.005 (1966)
Source: Trebor's Vintage Watches
By the end of the 1960s, however, the watch-buying public's taste changes. Young, affluent men want to indicate with their choice of wristwatch, too, that they've made it. Gold, however, is not for the young people expecting their watches to follow them even into sports. Following this trend, the Seamaster had grown more robust. Now it was the turn of the top-of-the-line 'Constellation', which was meant to demonstrate sporty elegance, too.
By 1964, Pierre Moinat, head of Omega's 'Creative Department' from 1955 to 1981, designed and patented a watch case with an integrated bracelet (Swiss patent 405.170). By this patent gold and steel watches were being built, of which those with a TV dial are best remembered:
Omega Constellation ref. 168.047 (1969)
These cases were designed with a 5-mm-movement in mind - the 56x calibres were simply too thick.
Kurt Vogt was tasked with the development of a successor to the successful cal. 56x movements. Beyond the reduction in thickness and lengthened maintenance intervals the requirements specified simplified regulation and hacking. Vogt settled for a higher frequency (28,800 rather than 19,800 bpm), a lighter and slower rotor to relieve the strain on the rotor bearing, and for the newly invented "auto lubrication" where specialized oils and greases should better endure at certain points in the movement, like the balance bearings or the pallets. The novelties seemed to promise a truly sensational movement ...
... but the cal. 1000, introduced in 1968, couldn't live up to these expectations: its winding power was deemed insufficient, in particular for people with a 'sedate lifestyle' (as Desmond Guilfoyle puts it), the lubricants were not as enduring as they were supposed to be and the 'jumping' date was too fragile for everyday use. The solid reputation Omega had built with their fine movements in the 1950s and 1960s vanished like rime in the sunshine. Watch magazines all over the place wrote about Omega having attempted 'a bridge too far', and foul remarks on Omega having given up on quality and having adopted a reckless cost-saving attitude instead, ran among retailers and customers alike.
Omega acted immediately - maintenance plans were updated, auto-lub was discarded together with the 'jumping' date and the light-weight rotor, and the 101x and 102x movement families are deemed conceptionally sound by most experts (and it was a calibre 1021 self-winding movement destined for a Constellation that held the distinction of achieving absolute perfection when it received its certificate marked “Especially good results”, showing a variation of 0.00 after 15 days of testing in five positions and at varying temperatures.) But Omega's reputation had taken a severe blow and it remained sullied throughout the 1970s and most of the 1980s, allowing Rolex (in a marvellous Marketing performance) to overtake Omega in terms of customer perception - even though their 3035 movement suffered from very similar problems. To this day, a vintage Rolex is vastly more expensive than a similar-age Omega, even though to most customers in the 1950s and 1960s the Omega was rather more desirable.***
45 years ago a young man entered the showroom of 'Wenthe's', the upscale Jeweller/Watchmaker on the corner of Fressgasse/Breite Straße in Mannheim, Germany. That is, he wasn't really 'young' anymore - in fact, he was about to celebrate his fortieth birthday. At that age, many men for the first time take stock of their lives. In the case of our man the balance was pleasant: he held a PhD in chemistry and he worked with BASF, the huge chemical factory on the western bank of the river Rhine. Just today he had been offered a new position as Assistant Director for industrial plastics R&D. With his wife and his son he lived in a terraced house on the edge of the city of Frankenthal, halfway between Ludwigshafen and the Palatine Wine Route. He could afford three weeks summer vacation in the Mediterranean and two weeks skiing in Switzerland, a Mercedes - and a decent watch.
The proprietor, the old Wenthe, led him to the rear of the shop and asked him whether he had something special in mind. "It has to be Swiss", the man replied, in the broad Palatinate idiom typical for the people from the west bank. He rolled up his sleeve and showed the proprietor his current watch - an elderly, golden Bifora he'd been given by his parents when he graduated from high school. It was running, but looked somehow old-fashioned. His boss wore a chronograph - "something with a 'B'" was all he knew about it, so it was better not a chronograph. "Precise and beautiful", that's what he required. Wenthe looked him up - no, he didn't look like he was making money with girls or similarly dubious activities. Hadn't he used that heavy dialect the old man would have thought better of him immediately - his grey suit, silken tie and horn-rimmed spectacles gave him away, actually, as a successful academic - a banker, maybe - which was supported by the Mercedes parking in front of the shop.
"Have you ever worn an Omega?", Wenthe asked him while motioning him to a chair. Here he showed him a few items. Too big, too small, too golden, too ...
"What's that one?" It looked as if a steel watch with a narrow, white gold bezel had roused the man's interest.
"You've got a splendid taste", the shop owner replied quickly. Because this was one of the most expensive items in his collection - a 'Constellation'. He took it from its drawer and lay it on the black velvet cushion in front of the engineer. He had swung it about a few times to make it run.
"That's one of Omega's top models - a 'Constellation'. A certified chronometer."
"Is it running well?"
"It is running precise. This is even confirmed by the Swiss government."
"May I ...?".
"Sure!" The shop owner opened the bracelet and slid the watch over his customer's wrist. Then he closed the buckle. The watch sat on the wrist like it belonged nowhere else.
"Looks good!" The young man smiled.
"It does, indeed. Is it comfortable?" He motioned the young man to swing his arm about.
The band between the watch and his customer was forged. Wenthe was sure he would not return this watch to its spot in the second row. A few minutes later the man signed a cheque for 842 Deutschmarks and 50 Pfennigs, "including 11% VAT".
In return, he received a red-leather-clad box, lined with cream velvet, the Certificat de Marche issued by the COSC - the 'Contrôle Officiel Suisse de Chronomètre' - confirming 'précision exceptionel'. The box contained the old Bifora - he left the Omega on his wrist.***
Such may have begun the story of my Constellation. Over the years to come the watch must have led a quiet life. Very few slight vestiges of use, the movement seems untouched, not even the grinding marks often seen on the rotor. Was it too expensive, after all, for our PhD to wear it every day? Did he buy something more robust, a Seamaster, maybe? Or, being a true geek, did he even buy a Quartz watch?
Whatever the reason - at the end of the day an Omega Constellation from the beginning of Omega's 'Dark Age' has survived, almost untouched, in almost as-new condition:
So, is that harsh verdict justified - "there and then started Omega's move downhill"?
Of course, the 1xxx movement was created against the backdrop of rising costs. If there was an opportunity to save effort spent on regulating the chronometer movements, why not seize it? The new, synthetic lubricants promised much better performance, both in terms of lubricating properties and endurance. That the movement finish was less perfect might annoy watch makers, if anyone. One could assume that the new movements were no less thoroughly tested than their predecessors before they entered the market. And the overall finish of the watches continued to be convincing - it remained "High-End" with only the best materials used and processed to satisfy Omega's customers' exquisite taste. And still, Omega learned the hard way that it's life after sale which presents the ultimate challenge - watch makers, customers and retailers alike soon cursed about rising maintenance effort because maintenance plans, all of a sudden, prescribed the exchange of main springs, rotor bearings and (sealed) reverser wheels.
Still, some 370,000 100x movements were made and used, for instance, in the 1970 Seamaster PloProf, where they displayed remarkable performance. 'Omega - Journey through time' mentions '20 pcs cal. 1001 (27.90 RA SC PC CAL CORR INST STS BULL)' but means 20,000, I presume - making the 1001 movement still one of the rarest calibres in the youger Omega history. Desmond Guilfoyle recommends to stay away from 100x-equipped watches, even though he admits to have seen well-maintained 1001s which "were still running efficiently". (Quoted from Desmond's feature on the 1xxx family.)
Such a well-groomed sample works in my 'Connie':
It was revised by a professional about one year ago. Since then the watch hasn't been worn a lot. Like its first owner I got caught by its unassuming elegance. The dark-silver 'Shantung' dial ...
... is a magnificent backdrop for the white-golden, jet-inlayed indexes and the black minute- and hour-hands. The white-golden second hand kind of glides above the dial.
The 'upside down' scripting on the dial strikes the eye, too: right beneath the white-gold 'Omega' symbol, 'Constellation' is written in Omega's script font and, below that, 'Automatic' in thin sans-serif print. Beneath the dial center you find, in the same font but in different types, 'OMEGA', 'CHRONOMETER', 'OFFICIALLY CERTIFIED'. This arrangement stayed for only a few years - Omega returned to the 'classic' arrangement (where 'Omega' was beneath the symbol on top and 'Constellation' in the lower half of the dial by 1972.
The lapped stainless steel case shows smooth, if well-defined edges, continuing into the integrated steel bracelet.
The bracelet's taper makes the watch look self-confident, but by no means pretentious. This impression is helped by the case's slim shape:
Finally, the flat, simple white-gold bezel separates the signed crystal from the case:
My personal conclusion: despite all its bad press this Constellation, too, deserves to be perceived as a member of the higher watch gentry, worthy to take its place among those other stars in the watch olymp.
Thank you for your interest!