In this article, we compare the modern iterations of two iconic watches that tie into the world of motorsports: the Rolex Daytona Cosmograph and the Omega Speedmaster Professional. By virtue of their excellent reputations and strong mainstream brand awareness, Rolex and Omega are natural sparring partners. Although both Rolex and Omega offer dress watches, their reputations are tied to their sport watches. In The Ticking Truth's battle of dive watches, the Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean narrowly outpointed the Rolex Submariner. That outcome will have no bearing on this competitive match-up, which concerns a different breed of sports watch. As before, we will evaluate both watches on a number of carefully-considered objective and subjective criteria. Read on for the verdict!
Originally introduced in 1957, Omega’s Speedmaster was one of the earliest chronographs (if not the first) to move the tachymeter scale from the periphery of the dial to the bezel itself, in order to improve the scale's legibility. While the Speedmaster cut its teeth in the world of motorsport, its popularity soared a decade later when the rebranded the Speedmaster Professional was adopted by NASA as standard issue equipment. Today’s “Moonwatch” is very similar to the watch that was strapped to the wrist of Buzz Aldrin when he set foot on the moon’s surface, although Omega has made significant changes to the watch’s inner workings and its standard-issue bracelet. Thanks in large part to the publicity it received from the Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs, the Speedmaster Professional enjoys an incredibly large and neurotic fan base.
The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona did not arrive on the scene until in 1963 (other sources have cited 1961, but we’ll go with Rolex here), although it was marketed as the Rolex Cosmograph for the first couple of years. Buyers had a choice between a black bezel, similar to the Speedmaster’s and a metal bezel where the numbers were engraved directly into the dial and painted black. The metal bezel may have only improved legibility incrementally, but it gave the Cosmograph a signature look. When the 1970s came around, the Daytona was re-imagined as a water resistant chronograph, complete with a screw-down crown and pushers. Surprisingly (to us), the Daytona was not a sales queen in the early years, and it was not until the 1980s, when the watch was outfitted with an automatic movement, that interest in all Rolex Daytona models skyrocketed. In the early 21st century, demand for the Daytona reached an impressive peak. If you were interested in purchasing a Stainless Steel Rolex Daytona, you’d either have to put your name on a waiting list or pay a reseller a few thousand dollars above the actual retail price. The gap between supply and demand is not as drastic in 2013, but only rarely will you happen upon a new Stainless Steel Daytona in a display case. Vintage Daytonas are an entirely different beast, but no less coveted; while widely available through online dealers, online sales forums and auction houses, vintage Rolex Daytonas continue to appreciate in value.
The modern Rolex Daytona, the 1165XX, has been upgraded considerably over the past thirty years, while the Speedmaster Professional has undergone only minute alterations since the movement was changed in 1968. Instead, Omega has kept the specifications of the core model intact and expanded the Speedmaster range to include a number of distinct chronograph models. While both approaches to product development are perfectly rational, there can only be one winner in this comparison review.
Tale of the Tape
The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona is an automatic chronograph, featuring a 40 mm diameter case and a water resistance rating of 100mm. At 12.3 mm thick, the Daytona is modestly dimensioned for a modern automatic sports chronograph. The modern Daytona is available in stainless steel, two-tone, white gold, yellow gold, pink gold and, as of April 2013, platinum. The pink gold and platinum versions have exchanged the classic engraved metal bezel for a modern ceramic bezel. The Arabic numerals make it easy to differentiate the white gold models from the steel models, which continue to garner plenty of attention from watch enthusiasts. The stainless steel models retail for 12,000 USD, while the gold models start at 25,150 USD. The Platinum 50th Anniversary Daytona will retail for 75,000 USD, which will make it a coveted collector’s item. Then there's the Rainbow Daytona, which we profiled in our Ballers Watches Guide.
The Speedmaster Professional is available in steel and yellow gold, with a number of dial colours. The “Professional” designation indicates the use of a manual-wind movement from the 186x family and one may be surprised to learn that Omega manufactures a Speedmaster Professional Moonphase. Here we restrict focus to the classic three-register model. At 42 mm in diameter and 14.3 mm thick, the Speedmaster Professional was a hefty timepiece in its day; by modern standards, it’s fashionably modest. The water resistance rating, 50 m, is fine for everyday wear, if a bit low for a sports watch. The black-dialed Speedmaster Professional is available with or without a sapphire crystal caseback. The solid caseback version eschews sapphire altogether; in a nod to tradition it is equipped with a Hesalite (plastic) crystal. When equipped with a metal bracelet, the solid caseback version (3570) retails for 4,500 USD and the sapphire sandwich version (3573) retails for 5,500 USD. No doubt, the Omega Speedmaster Professional is a costly timepiece, even at half the price of the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona.
Round 1: First Impressions
When compared to its predecessors, the modern Rolex Daytona is a luxurious timepiece. The reflective sheen of the glazed dial, coupled with the crisply-defined applied markers give the Rolex an elegant presence. The general Daytona design remains unchanged from the original 1963 model, but the current generation, unveiled in 2000, is arguably a cosmetic upgrade over its immediate predecessor. Little details, like the length of the lugs, the curvature of the case and the thickness of the applied markers were adjusted to suit modern tastes. These tiny little changes may kindle passionate arguments amongst Rolex purists, but the casual observer won’t care too much – it’s an iconic sports watch and it looks the part of a luxury object. That’s what counts.
In contrast, the Omega Speedmaster does not have the Rolex’s luxurious touches. Like the Daytona, the Speedmaster Professional began its life as a tool watch. Unlike the Daytona, the Speedmaster Professional has not been subjected to a significant cosmetic upgrade. That's not surprising because it would be difficult to improve upon a design that’s nearly perfect. Omega has released many variations of the Speedmaster over the years, but the monochromatic Speedmaster Professional remains the quintessential version.
It is a tough task to immediately look at these two great designs and declare a winner. The Rolex looks more luxurious, but Omega’s design has truly stood the test of time.
(Rolex 9 – 10 Omega)
Round 2: The Case
The functional nature of the Speedmaster Professional’s design is quite evident in the case. The lugs are notable in that they slope on both the inside and outside to ensure the eye is focused on the dial. The finish of the surfaces alternates between a brushed and polished, another nod to visibility. The domed crystal, whether it’s Hesalite or sapphire, gives the watch a retro side profile. The case may lack the flowing curves and mirror-like finishing that has come to charaterize the luxury watch case, but the overall case design is attractive. The classic aluminum insert on the bezel is very legible. Arguably, equipping the Speedmaster Professional with a ceramic bezel would amount to sacrilidge, but a ceramic bezel is in the cards for the modern Co-Axial Speedmaster (see our writeup here).
Compared to the Speedmaster, the Daytona’s case is positively sleek, with a high quality polish bringing attention to the curvature of the case. Little functional touches, like the gentle round edging of the lugs, demonstrate the care that Rolex placed into the case design. While most Rolex designs are, by nature, conservative, the quality of the machine finishing is still exceptional. The legibility of the tachymeter, which is engraved in the steel, is likewise excellent. The new rose gold and platinum models come equipped with ceramic bezels, which lend the watch a very modern look and an improved tactile feel.
Both cases are well-executed. The Daytona’s case is finer, while the Omega’s case is functional to an impressive degree. This round will end in a tie.
(Rolex 10 - 10 Omega) [19 - 20 thru 2]
Round 3: The Dial
Every year when Baselworld rolls around, we marvel at the newest mechanical complications unveiled by the big brands and brilliant little independent watchmakers. However we’re often disappointed to point out that legibility often takes a back seat to the “wow” factor. Thankfully, legibility is not a concern with either of these dials.
The theme of luxury versus functionality is once-again evident when we compare the dials. The Speedmaster’s black and white dial is exceptionally-legible. The rectangular applied indices are pretty ordinary, but they provide adequate luminosity in low-light conditions. The recessed subdials have a fine circlage finish, but otherwise the dial is undressed. An applied Omega logo, a feature of the original Speedmaster, was replaced with a screened logo in 1969. We are in favour of the applied logo’s return, albeit a luminous version in place of the original polished metal logo.
The Rolex dial’s dial is, by comparison, a bit more lively. The applied hour indices are fat, and pointed, which gives them some character. The hour and minute hands are faceted for improved legibility and the hour tip on the step seconds hand should help guide the eye when reading off the chronograph's elapsed seconds. The banded subdials are legible, albeit not quite as visually successful as Omega’s. The well-crafted applied crown logo at 12 o’clock is the cherry on top of the luxurious sundae. The brand engraving on the inner bezel, designed as an anti-counterfeiting tool, is slightly awkward. Modern counterfeiters have been able to replicate this text on their high end replicas, so this example of excessive branding is no longer a mark of genuinity.
Both dials feature subdivisions meant to measure elasped time to the nearest 1/5th (or 1/10th) of a second, which turns out to be a silly design oversight on both dials. True, both watches were originally equipped with 2.5Hz movements, which could measure elapsed time to the 1/5th of the second. However, that is no longer the case. Today the Speedmaster Professional's movement beats at 3Hz, which is good for measuring 1/6ths of a second while the Daytona’s movement beats at 4Hz, good for measuring elapsed time to the nearest 1/8th of a second.
Two excellent, but imperfect dials…and that means that yet another round will end in a tie.
(Rolex 10 - 10 Omega) [29 - 30 thru 3]
Round 4: The Bracelets
When the focus of our evaluation turns to the bracelet, the discrepancy between the target price points of these two watches becomes more evident. The Speedmaster Professional’s bracelet is a nicely-crafted bracelet, featuring brushed links. The outside edges of the center links feature narrow polished pieces, giving the bracelet some visual oomph. The single folding clasp is easy to operate, opening with a press of the side-mounted safety buttons. The brushed clasp is well-finished, but it certainly will not get the pulse racing. The links of the steel bracelet are held together with pins, a move that is now regarded as a mark of value engineering. Omega outfits the Co-Axial Speedmaster with an improved version of this bracelet, featuring screws and freely-moving crosspieces. We simply have to frown upon bracelet value engineering at the 5,000 USD price point, but most owners will not care either way.
In the recent past, Rolex was admonished for their robust yet simple bracelets and clasps. That is no longer an issue, as the current Daytona is paired with Rolex’s modern Oyster bracelet. The current Oyster bracelet is well-made, with a number of technical features that belie its simple aesthetics. The center links, which are polished, are attached to the brushed outer links with screw pins, which offer improved security. The Oyster clasp, which is easy to operate, is likewise very secure. In order to open the bracelet, the wearer must first unlock the safety latch and then press down on the spring-loaded clasp. Hidden under the clasp is a fold-out 5mm extension link, perfect for the hot and sweaty days when the wrist tends to swell.
The Oyster bracelet and clasp are not a best-in-class design; in our opinion, that distinction belongs to the sublime Glashütte Original microadjust bracelet. Still, the Oyster bracelet must be credited for being well-engineered and well-constructed. The Speedmaster Professional’s bracelet is, by comparison, just average for a luxury watch.
This round ends with a solid victory for the Daytona.
(Rolex 10 - 9 Omega) [39 - 39 thru 4]
Round 5: Operability
The Omega Speedmaster Professional is a breeze to operate. The crown does not screw down, so setting the time involves pulling the crown out one position. The presence of the crown guard makes winding the watch a slight inconvenience, but the task is still fairly straightforward. The lack of a hack feature makes setting the time to the nearest second a hassle. The seconds hand can be stopped when the watch is at low wind by applying gentle backwards pressure to the crown, but this process, sometimes called pseudo-hacking, can cause premature wear to the escapement if performed repeatedly.The round chronograph pushers are easy to operate, with the correct level of resistance. However, the pusher feel of the cam-switching system is inferior to the best column wheel movements.
The operability story of the Rolex Daytona is the polar opposite. Pusher feel and resistance are both excellent, but the pushers must be unscrewed before they can be operated. The screw-down pushers are designed to improve water resistance, but there is no good reason for a watch that is rated to 100 meters of water resistance to have screw-down pushers. The screw-down pushers were originally incorporated into the Daytona in the mid-1960s, when achieving 100 meters of water resistance was a more challenging task. The screw-down pushers and crown also advertised the Daytona’s exceptional water resistance at the time, which was a win-win scenario for Rolex.That is no longer the case. Today, there are many mechanical chronographs on the market that achieve 100 meters or 300 meters of water resistance without resorting to cumbersome screw-down pushers. The early Daytonas had beautiful pushers, and now the time has come for the Daytona to return to its roots. Lest it seem like we’re picking on the poor Daytona unfairly, we’ll note that the Daytona isn’t the only offending watch. The sublime Royal Oak Chronograph uses screw-down pushers to achieve a water resistance rating of (only) 50 meters.
By virtue of the excellent pusher feel and the conveniences provided by its modern movement, the Daytona entered this round with the potential to earn an easy victory over the Speedmaster Professional. Instead, we have another round that ended in a tie.
(Rolex 10 - 10 Omega) [49 -49 thru 5]
Round 6: Wearability
Within the realm of sports watches, often associated with “tuna can” monstrosities, both the Daytona and Speedmaster are relatively light on their feet. With bracelet, the stainless steel Daytona clocks in at 140 grams, while the Speedmaster Professional is just a touch heavier at 150 grams. For reference, both of these watches are more than 50 grams lighter than the massive Speedmaster Planet Ocean. Wristwatch enthusiasts would point out that weight is only a small factor in the comfort equation; bracelet fit and case curvature are stronger determinants of actual comfort and fit. The good news is that both watches are very comfortable, but the Daytona narrowly edges the Speedmaster with a superior fit. The Daytona’s elongated and highly-curved lugs ensure that the bracelet wraps perfectly around large and small wrists alike.
The Daytona is a touch more versatile too, with a profile that is about 2 millimeters thinner than the Speedmaster’s. While both watches look great with a pair of jeans, the Daytona is just slightly more comfortable when pair with a suit.
All wear factors considered, the Daytona edges the round in a clinical fashion.
(Rolex 10 – 9 Omega) [59 – 58 thru 6]
Round 7: The Movement
The Speedmaster is powered by the manual wind cal. 186x movement, a reliable and time-tested mechanical movement. Beating at 3Hz (21,600 vph), the cal. 186x, essentially an economical and robust version of the original Speedmaster’s cal. 321, is an integrated chronograph movement with horizontal coupling and cam lever switching. The level of the movement finishing bestowed on the cal. 186x varies across the Speedmaster Product line. The solid caseback Speedmaster is equipped with the cal. 1861, while the sapphire caseback Speedmaster is equipped with the cal. 1863. In brief, the exposed plates of the cal. 1863 are given a Côtes de Genève (Geneva stripes) finishing, while the cal. 1861 is finished only functionally. In terms of technical differences, the cal. 1861 has a self-lubricating Duralon (nylon) brake lever, while the cal. 1863 has a more attractive metal brake lever that must be oiled when the watch is serviced. The lack of a seconds hack betrays the age of the movement, but the 48 hour power reserve is more than adequate for regular wear and there is no date adjustment to worry about when the watch does finally wind down.
Much ink has been spilled lauding Rolex’s first in-house chronograph movement, the cal. 4130, so we’ll try to keep this brief. The cal. 4130 is an automatic integrated chronograph movement with column wheel switching and vertical coupling, both desirable features. The use of a clutch to engage and disengage the chronograph ensures that the stop seconds hand starts without stutter. Vertical coupling also eliminates the wear concerns that generally accompany the full-time use of the chronograph. Daytona owners who wish to use the stop seconds hand as a running seconds hand can do so without concern. With 72 hours of power reserve, the Daytona will not power down unworn over a weekend, an issue that is of concern to some prospective owners. The cal. 4130 also features a number of Rolex movement mainstays: the anti-magnetic Perachrom hairspring, the free-sprung balance wheel (complete with Breguet overcoil and Microstella adjustment screws), the stable balance bridge, etc... In addition to being a mass-produced technical powerhouse, the cal. 4130 has also been designed for eases of service; in practice, owners should continue to expect high maintenance costs with reduced turnaround times. The functional movement finishing is a step above the Speedmaster Professional's, but only the watchmaker would describe the cal. 4130 as a beautiful movement.
The Daytona’s cal. 4130 is regarded as one of the best modern mechanical watch movements, while the Speedmaster’s cal. 186x is a historically-reliable movement. However, even the infamous Speedmaster Professional must bow to the march of time. The cal. 4130 has was designed with decades of technical advancements behind it, resulting in a movement that is aesthetically, functionally and technically superior to the cal. 186x.
The first truly-decisive round of the contest goes to the Daytona.
(Rolex 10 - 8 Omega) [69 - 66 thru 7]
Round 8: Ownership Costs
Starting at 12,000 USD, the Rolex Daytona retails for more than twice the starting cost of the Omega Speedmaster Professional (4,500 USD). Steel Daytonas are not discounted by retailers, but there may be some negotiating room when purchasing the costlier precious metal models. Discounts on Omega Speedmaster Professional models are readily available.
On the second-hand market, mint condition Daytonas currently exchange wrists for around 9,000 – 10,500 USD, an indication that the Daytona’s resale value remains exceptional, if quite as good as it was ten years ago. Gently-used Omega Speedmasters can be obtained for between 2,500 – 3,000 USD for the Ref 3570 and 2800 – 3500 USD for the Ref 3573, which indicates that the Speedmaster has above-average resale value.
Omega USA lists the servicing cost of a Speedmaster Chronograph to be 730 USD and, to the best of our knowledge, a Rolex charges roughly 750 USD to service the modern Daytona. Servicing costs through an independent watchmaker may be around 20% cheaper (~ 600 USD).
Starting with a brand new watch, if one amortizes the depreciation over a five year period and services the watch at the recommended interval, the initial five-year ownership cost of the Ref 116520 Daytona is 2750 USD or 550 USD per year. Running the exact same calculation, the five year ownership cost of the Ref 3570 Speedmaster is 2,480 USD or 496 USD per year, while the Ref 3573 Speedmaster ups ante to 3,080 USD or 616 USD per year. On the other hand, if we amortize the watches over a 30 year period and factor in six services (once every five years), the Daytona will set you back 550 USD per year, while the Speedmaster Professional will set you back roughly 300 USD per year. The more you know…
Once again, initial ownership costs are only one consideration. While the Daytona requires a much larger initial cash outlay, practical ownership costs are much closer than they seem, especially for collectors who tend to buy and sell secondhand watches frequently. Outside of the watch collector world, most owners tend to hold on to their watches for decades, so we shall award this round to the Speedmaster Professional.
(Rolex 9 - 10 Omega)
Final Tally: Rolex 78, Omega 76
In the arena of motorsports watches, Omega and Rolex are well-matched. Both brands produce iconic timepieces that have kindled strong feelings in collectors’ hearts for decades. In a match-up between the perfect tool watch and the perfect symbol of good taste, the Daytona wins the day. While the Omega Speedmaster Professional boasts an arguably superior design – the perfect proportions and outstanding legibility would be difficult to improve upon – the Rolex Daytona is the superior overall package overall, price be damned. Of course, Omega recently released a Speedmaster that is designed to cater to more modern tastes – the Speedmaster Co-Axial. Outfitted with up-to-date technical specifications, it is the Speedmaster Co-Axial may prove to be the Daytona’s ultimate foil. While such a showdown is inevitable, our comparison test will have to wait for another day.