Rolex versus Omega – A history and quest for precision

Rolex versus Omega? When it comes to watchmaking, a majority of people will immediately think of Rolex and/or Omega. How did those two iconic brands became fascinating at that point and how do they compete for the quest of ultimate mechanical precision? Let’s find out dear watch friends!

Rolex versus Omega : historical background

ROLEX

Hans Wilsdorf

Hans Wilsdorf created Rolex in 1905.

This German entrepreneur was born in Klumback (Germany) in 1880. At the age 12, he lost his parents and came to Switzerland to pursue his studies. He then started his career in 1900 in La-Chaux-de-Fond where he worked for the small watchmaker Cuno Korten. Three years later he went to London as an employee and finally set-up his own company in 1905. By this time it was called Wilsdorf & Davis.

Back then, Hans Wilsdorf took the bet to develop and sell wristwatches. It was not the standard by this time and this opened up a whole new market to him. As he wasn’t a watchmaker himself, he chose Jean Aegler to supply his movements and casemaker Denison to house those calibres. First Wilsdorf’s deals consisted in selling wristwatches to jewelers which were writing their names on the dials.

Vintage Rolex logo

In 1908, Hans Wilsdorf renamed his company Rolex and started distributing his watches under this trademark. The same year, he opened his first workshop in La Chaux-de-fond. This new brand name was easy to pronounce in any language and short enough to be integrated on any dials. Hans Wilsdorf concentrated all his effort in building precise and reliable wristwatches. His watches were finally awarded for their precision in 1914 and he received a Class A precision certificate, normally granted exclusively to marine chronometer. If only we could have tested the accuracy of those early Rolexes on Toolwatch!

Class A certificate Rolex

5 years later, he left London and moved to Geneva. He escaped a 33% war tax over luxury goods importations and better established the company into the Swiss watchmaking landscape. He will then be faithful to Geneva until his death in 1960.

Rolex factory Switzerland

With a stable environment in Switzerland, Hans Wilsdorf developed the company on both its production capabilities and marketing strategies. For Hans Wilsdorf, great watches came from great quality but also great life achievements, such as participating in the first swim across the English Channel. Therefore he got a wristwatch stay more than 10 hours on the wrist of Mercedes Gleitz during this swimming record and it was still working properly afterwards! Hans Wilsdorf understood the importance of communication and sponsorship way before everyone else.

Rolex Headquarters Geneva

Without any child, his last big move was to give away all his Rolex shares to its own foundation, making Rolex a foundation (yes, no stock value, no turnover declared…!). Jean Frederique Dufour is the current CEO in operation.

PS: If you are really crazy about the brand with the crown logo (and who isn’t?), we highly recommend the amazing book from Franz-Christoph Heel called The Rolex Story.

OMEGA

Louis Brandt Omega Founder

Louis Brandt in La Chaux-de-Fonds created the Comptoir d´établissage Louis Brandt back in 1848. He was specialized in assembling pocket watches, which were recognized for their precision. Bearing its name, they were already distributed throughout Europe by this time, the UK being its greatest market.

In 1877, his sons Louis-Paul and César joined him and the company was renamed Louis Brandt & Fils. Two years later, after Louis Brandt’s death, his sons took over the business and brought the company in an industrialization era. They abandoned the workshop system to develop an in-house manufacturing business. This mutation enabled the brand to gain in precision and reliability.

It is finally in 1903, after the death of Louis-Paul and César, that the company name switched to SA, Louis Brand & Frère, Omega Watch Co.

omega watches logo

Omega, which in Greek symbolizes accomplishment and perfection, was actually the name of their most famous calibre by that time (also recorded as caliber 19 and released in 1894).

Paul-Emile, who took over the company in 1903, had a great vision of the business and pursued a vertical integration strategy. In 1930, he managed to merge with Tissot and two years later with Lemania. The conglomerate was named Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère (SSIH) and was the ancestor of the well-known Swatch Group.

Omega Speedmaster Buzz Aldrin

Omega has long been involved in creating the best possible calibres, in the most possible efficient way. By this time, Omega communication strategies were less efficient than Rolex and less focused on sponsoring explorations. However, back in 1965, Omega got the best possible promotion without spending any dollar: the NASA chose its Speedmaster to go to the moon! Since then, Omega’s communication took a new perspective. Later on, Omega also developed sponsorship programs as its principal contender for the throne!

NB : Omega released their first wristwatch in 1900, 5 years before Hans Wilsdorf created Rolex. But the brand didn’t seize the opportunity of this new market by that time and stuck with pocket watches for a while. This was a missed opportunity in the competition opposing Rolex versus Omega.

Rolex versus Omega : Quest for precision, innovation and business development

Omega and Rolex have both been competing on chronometry for ages. Rolex wanted to prove the reliability of its wristwatches as a whole, where Omega focused on the reliability of its calibres. Both received multiple awards but Rolex got the first one for precision for a wristwatch in 1910. Omega received it first precision prize only in 1919 in Neuenburg (canton of Neuchatel, Switzerland).

Since then, Omega continued to innovate in precision while Rolex developed both tool watches and its marketing strategy around it.

Rolex Mercedes Gleitze Oyster waterproof

Rolex launched the first waterproof wristwatch in 1926 (the Oyster model). Rolex also teamed up with scientists, sportsmen and explorers. Rolex went at the bottom of the sea and onto the Everest. They even invented GMT watches by responding to a call for offer made by Panam airlines! The GMT Master was then born with the famous ref 6542.

Pan Am Rolex GMT

More recently, Rolex got into racing with the Daytona (1965) named after the famous car race in Daytona Beach, Florida. While this is often forgoten, before calling their famous chronograph the Cosmograph Daytona, Rolex used “Le Mans”, another famous racing track in France! Since then, Rolex sponsored hundreds of racing competition, being today the official sponsor of the Formula 1. As if it was not enough, Rolex also started sponsoring golf and sailing competitions for which they introduced the Yacht Master II (2007). This watch helped sailors timing starts of sailing regatta with a 10-minute countdown.

While Rolex focus on sponsorship programs, Omega continued to participate in international precision competition and eventually received dozens of prizes.

Omega olympics watch 1932

Later on, Omega also started sponsoring sports, starting with the summer Olympics in 1932. They then demonstrated their skills in chronometry. It has since a long heritage as the official timekeeper of dozens winter and summer Olympics.

As seen earlier, Omega also got the best-unforeseen marketing event: the Apollo missions! Those events put Omega in the spotlight and took over the title of tool watches to Rolex. Omega could demonstrate its reliability and precision to the world and reinforce its strategy to develop the most precise calibres and watches.

Omega speedmaster moonwatch

Those events eventually pushed forward Omega communication and sponsorship campaigns. Omega currently sponsor Golf, sailing and Olympic sports (as well as numerous athletes, swimmers…).

However, we can safely say that Rolex has the greatest sponsorship program nowadays. So, on which field can Omega still compete with Rolex?!

Rolex versus Omega : Watchmaking certifications

Both companies are currently being really aggressive on certifications standards. Thanks to their innovations, they are pushing the limits of watchmaking standards, giving the Swiss made a symbol of perfection and authority in the industry (especially when comparing to China made watches).

Precision and reliability come from both the caliber and the whole watch. A great caliber housed in a poor manufactured case would not resist the environment. Rolex clearly understood this point and was the first to introduce a water resistance watch (the Oyster models in 1926) and a magnetism resistance up to 1’000 gauss (the Milgauss in 1954). Both watch were seen as tool watches: the first one for divers and the second one for workers and engineers working in electromagnetic areas as well as explorers.

Rolex Milgauss Magazine Ad

The same year, Rolex also released the GMT model as a tool watch for pilot flying across time zones. The Daytona came later and eventually the Yacht-Master II and the Sky-Dweller in 2012. Rolex took the bet to develop tool watches but also to continuously ameliorate its calibres’ precision and reliability. Recently, Rolex released the Syloxi hairspring (2014), and integrated it to their watches on a massive scale.

Precision and quality is totally part of Rolex’ DNA. By the way, did you know that Rolex recently offers a full 5 years of guarantee while the industry’s standards has an average of around 2 years?!

In this competition for the best watch, Omega has some serious arguments too!

Omega-Co-Axial-Escapement

After the NASA chose them as the best tool watches for the space explorations, they pursued their quest for precision and introduced an entirely new escapement in 1999: the co-axial (helping reducing oil viscosity issues inside calibres). This new caliber was a huge step towards reliability, accuracy and calibres’ lifetime. Before Rolex and the Syloxi hairspring, Omega regularly introduced technical innovations, implementing them into all their models to continuously offer better watches in all its ranges.

To go even further, both company recently announced new steps forwards in term of watchmaking certifications:

In 2014, Omega made a big move as they introduced a brand new watch certification. Unlike doing a certification only for themselves, they developed a new standard with the National Metrology Institute called METAS.

Omega Metas

Obviously, they are the first and only ones to get it by now, but any watchmaker would be eligible for it. To give you an idea, a watch must resist to 15’000 gauss (yes it’s 15x plus than the Rolex Milgauss!), and is assessed in several intense conditions. Please refer to our article about certifications for a full review of the METAS. To date, the Globemaster and some Speedmasters bear this certification.

In response, Rolex announced in 2016 a new standard for their watches, the Superlative Chronometer as they decided to enhance the COSC criteria to all their timepieces by limiting the accuracy variation to only -2/+2 seconds per day! Versus the actual -4/+6 sec per day for the current COSC criteria, and versus the 0/+5 sec per day criteria for the METAS and knowing the production numbers of Rolex, this is truly a revolutionary announcement in the watchmaking world.

All those announcements are great and as precision freaks ourselves we are thrilled by those announcements, but how can we control them? What about tests is real conditions?! Those precision and tolerance standards are assessed in laboratory under the “real conditions” tag, adjusting the watch in several positions… Recreating a “real life experience” is great, but what if we assessed the watches in “really real” conditions?!

This is what we do at Toolwatch.io! We help every watch lover measure its watch’s accuracy in real life conditions! The accuracy isn’t measured in a laboratory but on the wrist of its wearer, where it will be standing for the next years !

Toolwatch : Measuring the accuracy of mechanical watch in real conditions!

Toolwatch.io watch accuracy

Here at Toolwatch, we created a product to help watch aficionados around the world taking care of their mechanical beauties. We released Toolwatch.io last year and with more than 4’500 members and over 13’000 measures we were able to gather some interesting data. So, what are the biggest takeaways we have for Rolex versus Omega?!

According to our results, Rolex is indeed fulfilling the basic COSC criteria! Average measure for the brand is +5.57 sec per day (absolute value). Omega is right behind with an average of +7.10 sec per day. Please note that all those measures are absolute values and reflect our unique database. All measures were made in real conditions but we can’t assess the quality of maintenance done on each watch by their owner.

Omega represents ~15% of total measures taken on Toolwatch.io (approx. 1’800) and Rolex ~12.5% of all measures (approx. 1’500). For the record, the most popular watch brand on Toolwatch is… Seiko!

Gathering all measurement over the past year, we made an infrography summing up Rolex versus Omega. Share Toolwatch to discover it by clicking on the button below :

 

One last thing: did you know that James Bond first watches were actually Rolexes?!

Omega became James Bond partner in 1996 wih Golden Eye but James first wristwatch was a Submariner back in 1962 (Dr. No with Sean Connery). The “war” Rolex versus Omega still continues!

James Bond Goldeneye Dr No Submariner Rolex

See you soon for a next article to share our love for mechanical watches !