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Omega embraces Atelier Manufacture with reintroduction of New Calibre 321

The New Omega Calibre 321 harkens back to an era of atelier style manufacture and when horology’s biggest names shared the same base Lemania calibre from which the movement descended

The original Omega Calibre 321 from 1957

Omega has reintroduced the Calibre 321. To most watch connoisseurs, its a nice hat-tip in the same vein as heritage re-issues like the recent Omega Trilogy with one crucial difference – the re-introduction of the movement famously used by the Omega Speedmaster from 1957 and consequently in the original Omega Speedmaster Professional aka Moonwatch from 1965 to 1968; to a smaller minority of studious collectors, the revival of this treasured vintage calibre harkens back to the 1940s when Lemania worked with the brand on the calibre CH27; the ebauche movement which eventually led to the creation of the 321. At the most serious niche of truly nerd-level proportions of watch collecting, the re-launch of the Omega calibre 321 is also a reminder of that glorious moment in horological history when Omega shared its metal heart with two other venerable names in watchmaking – Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe. Today, more than 50 years after the last Calibre 321 was produced, Omega is not only reviving such a beloved, sought-after movement, it is also embracing an even older-school style of atelier manufacturing, where one watchmaker assembles the movement, installs it into the watch-head and completes the timepiece with its bracelet.

Lead by Albert Piguet and Jaques Reymond, Lemania and Omega adapted the base Lemania CH 27 for exclusive use by the Bienne manufacture resulting in the birth of the Lemania 2310.  This movement was called Calibre 321 by Omega. It is this philosophically convergent yet architecturally divergent sharing of the base Lemania CH 27 across brands like Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Omega which adds to the provenance of the 321 and aesthetically, the monobloc column wheel, screwed balance wheel and signature “wishbone” shaped bridge makes this calibre so iconic and recognisable to many watch collectors.

Compare and contrast the Patek Philippe CH 27-70 and the original Omega Calibre 321 and see if you can spot the differences

Widely regarded as one of the finest movement designs in watch history, Lemania 2310 variants have also existed in the Patek Philippe 2872, Patek Philippe CH 27-70, while the closely related 2320 with swan neck regulator and other technical refinements can be found in the Vacheron Constantin calibre 1141 (itself upgraded and modified for the recent Historique Corne de Vache chronograph) and the Patek Philippe 27-70q. Hence, this unique shared history makes the return of the calibre 321 a poetic echo of time.

Arguably, the most important aspect of this shared heritage recalls a simpler time when a connoisseur could admire the 22mm (12-ligne), three-subdial chronograph calibres and make direct comparisons of the aesthetic signatures and refinements from some of the industry’s most storied brands. In essence, the Lemania CH 27 used by Omega, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin are simultaneously similar and yet, dissimilar; giving the most educated collectors a glimpse into just how different a watch brand expresses its watchmaking know-how and artistry – many of the components were altered by each brands to resemble none of the original parts found in the base calibre and yet, enough remains like the the zero-return hammers and chronograph brake, and the biggest tell, that iconic wishbone bridge allows one to revel in the ancestral parentage without taking away the fundamental substance of what makes each brand brilliant in their chosen fields of mastery. For maisons like Patek and Vacheron, they eventually became recognised for their elevated refinement; for Omega, their Calibre 321 of such robust construction that it alone had the fortitude to carry the responsibility of NASA certification, heralding an important era of space travel for humanity and the birth of the accompanying Moonwatch.

The Vacheron Constantin calibre 1141 uses a modified Lemania 2310 with swan neck regulator rebadged as the Lemania 2320.

Durable and adaptable, the original Lemania 2310 movement used a traditional column wheel to control its chronograph functions but the vital element (because NASA certification for Calibre 861 which followed implies that cam-lever or column wheel makes no difference in terms of precision or reliability) which made the Calibre 321 so enduring was that the levers and springs were cut and shaped from thick steel sheet, rather than bent from wire like other predecessor chronograph movements. That said, Omega has not stated whether the new Calibre 321 will follow the same competent industrial finishing standards or adopt decorative finnisage that modern connoisseurs have become used to in fine watchmaking. The original also bore a relatively low beat screwed balance oscillating at 18,000 vph, no word if the brand intends to change that. (World of Watches will provide updates as we get them).

Using a 2nd generation Calibre 321 as a reference, Omega compiled extensive historical research and gathered the original plans to reconstruct the movement. To ensure absolute perfection in replicating such a crucial calibre in the Bienne manufacture’s history, Omega used “tomography” technology (digital scanning method) to see inside the true Speedmaster ST 105.003 worn by Apollo 17 Commander Eugene “Gene” Cernan during that 1972 mission. He was the last man to walk on the moon and his Speedmaster is now housed at the OMEGA Museum in Bienne.

The re-birth Omega Calibre 321 was the work of two years and a dedicated team of watch specialists, researchers, developers and historians sworn to secrecy and working under the auspices of a project codename in line with the original Speedmaster designs for NASA in the 1960s and 70s – Alaska 11. A large number of collectors and industry insiders have postulated that the “Alaska 11” project would eventually power a new Omega Speedmaster watch celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Of historical note, the movement which powered the original Moonwatch was also used in the Omega DeVille and Seamaster collections. No details as to whether this new column wheel chronograph would find its way back to those editions.

WTM Africa 2020