Feature: Here’s How The Rolex vs Omega Battle Began
The feud between watchmaking powerhouses Rolex and Omega has been raging for over a century, for so long it’s almost hard to remember how it all begin. Let’s remind ourselves.
When Omega—then known by the name of its founder, Louis Brandt—developed the record-breaking, award-winning Omega calibre in 1894, everything changed. The first half-century of trading for Louis Brandt’s watch company had certainly been positive, but the launch of the Omega calibre sent the business into the stratosphere, so much so that the name was adopted by the business as a whole.
The company was officially renamed to Omega by the Brandt family in 1903 in celebration of this achievement, all the while unaware of the arrival in London of one German called Hans Wilsdorf. Wilsdorf was a well-educated young man who had lost his parents at an early age, and so had developed a self-reliance that earned him a role at an international exporter of Swiss watches.
Here he served as a language correspondent for the English market, where his insight into both the distribution of stock and the mechanics of watchmaking presented something of an untapped opportunity. Just as the world was admiring the achievements of the Omega calibre, Wilsdorf packed his bags and headed to London.
With a little bit of cash and the help of his brother-in-law Alfred Davis, Wilsdorf decided to take on the might of Omega from a small shop in Hatton Gardens, London. His insight working in Switzerland had demonstrated two things: Swiss movements offered higher accuracy and quality than English ones; and Swiss watches were too expensive. Import duties into England made watches prohibitively expensive, and Wilsdorf knew he could do better.
What he did was import high quality lever movements from a manufacturer called Aegler, a Swiss company he had learned about during his time in Switzerland. He had them fitted into cases made to his specification by British firms like Dennison, achieving his goal of being both high quality and affordable.
But if Wilsdorf was to compete with the Brandt family and Omega, he’d need to do more. He’d need to do something big. Really big. He’d need to change the entire watchmaking industry forever.
As Omega grew, merging with Tissot and becoming part of the SSIH—which was to eventually become the Swatch Group—so did its stature. A quarter of the way into the 20th century and Omega was one of the most prolific and influential watchmakers in the world, earning the title of official timekeeper for the 1932 Olympic games.
Meanwhile, Wilsdorf had been busy with Rolex, hoovering up a few accolades of his own. Before the First World War, the vast majority of watch sales were of pocket watches, and so sensing an imminent rise in wristwatch popularity, Wilsdorf started sending his Aegler-powered wristwatches for chronometric certification.
This would have been seen as ridiculous at the time; a wristwatch was a woman’s ornament. Real timekeeping was done with pocket watches. This made the process of achieving the first Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision and the first class ‘A’ precision certificate from Kew Observatory for a wristwatch all the easier.
But Wilsdorf didn’t stop there. A few certificates weren’t to be enough to compete with the might of Omega. Omega was the kind of company with money to burn by this point, able to commission the famous 321 chronograph from co-company Lemania—this is a level of spend even brands like Patek Philippe couldn’t justify.
With no real budget to speak of, Wilsdorf set to work taking chips out of Omega’s market share not by spending a lot of money, but by spending it smartly. Wilsdorf’s aptitude for market trends had fared him well with the wristwatch, which by the 1920s was rising in popularity; now he had to make the wristwatch his own.
So, using existing, simple technology already proven in pocket watches some 75 years previously, Wilsdorf developed a water-resistant wristwatch case. Five years later, again using existing technology, he had Aegler produce an automatic movement with a simple, perpetually spinning rotor. Then came the date wheel, again based on existing tech but far simpler and cheaper.
But it was in 1953 that the biggest blow was struck. Wilsdorf didn’t have the budget to develop multiple new lines of watches like Omega did, and so he developed a series based around a singular modular concept. With only a few small tweaks, Wilsdorf was able to release the Turn-O-Graph, the Submariner, the GMT-Master and the Milgauss in quick succession.
This was the point Omega realised it was in trouble. It had become so big and cumbersome, that the executives in charge could only sit and watch as Rolex pitched its new line of watches to professionals of all fields. Omega would have to retaliate, but its size meant its riposte would take time. It would have to be devastating.
The return blow came by way of the Professional collection: the basic Railmaster, the Seamaster diver, and the ace in the hole, the Speedmaster. The quality and design of these three made Rolex’s watches look crude and simple by comparison, Omega’s big budgets ever-present. Securing the NASA contract cemented Omega’s position against the usurper Rolex—at least for a while.
As it happens, Omega had underestimated the importance of Rolex’s head start in the diving industry. By the 1960s, big money was being spent on deep sea exploration, where fancy detailing didn’t really matter, and Rolex already had a solid foothold in that market.
Omega saw the opportunity to strike again with an open request from the diving industry to engineer a watch that could withstand a 600m depth, and set to work building the ultimate diver. It would have a monobloc case, lockable bezel, retractable crown, luminous markers throughout, a bright orange minute hand and a tested depth rating of over 1,300m. It was the Plongeur Professionnel, the PloProf, and it was magnificent. It was also vastly expensive and two years too late.
Ever the opportunist, ever inspired by the late Hans Wilsdorf’s self-reliance, Rolex had simply made its Submariner a bit thicker, added a simple valve to release gas during decompression, and that, as they say, was that.
After Rolex’s Sea-Dweller conquered Omega’s PloProf, the opportunity never really arose for the two brands to go head-to-head like that again. Quartz technology was on the rise and mechanical watchmaking was being phased out, and despite big budgets, and not for want of trying, Omega struggled to find relevancy in this new era—and that leads us to the present-day balance of power between these two great institutions. Whichever brand you prefer, it’s the history between them driving the growth and change and diversity we’ve witnessed over the past century. We wouldn’t have one without the other.
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