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Omega Calibre 321 and “The Good Old Days”

by J.Edwards

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I had the pleasure of getting a look under the hood of Omega’s vintage chronograph calibre 321 for the first time this week and was duly impressed. Predecessor to the now classic calibre 861, which earned its place in the history books as the movement which ran in the famed “First Watch Worn on the Moon”, I hadn’t heard much of it before. More than likely due to its age and the simple fact of it being lost in the shadow of its younger brother. Unlike the 861 however, the 321 is the finest specimen of movement I have seen from this manufacture. Which came as quite a surprise to me.

The 321 is a column wheel operated chronograph and boasts a Breguet overcoil, with guards fitted to the regulating pins to keep the hairspring from jumping out from between them should the watch be subjected to a strong shock. The 861 on, on the other hand, is more economically made, using a more easily mass produced cam to operate the chronograph, and doing away with the overcoil and guards. Even more unfortunate, is how much further removed the 321 is in quailty of crafstmanship from Omega’s calibre 1861, which replaced the 861. Most noticeable is the substitution of rhodium plating in place of the rose gold plating that is employed on the 861 and 321. That, though, is of little consequence. In fact, I could say it is one point in favour of the 1861, as rhodium is more durable than gold. The value of either depends on one’s perspective. Both have their merits. The point, though, is moot when held against the quality of steel used in the 321 and 861. More correctly, it is the quality of finish of the steel, particularly at the pivots, where the older calibres outpace the new. The pivots in the 321 are so carefully burnished that they still hold such a silky, deep lustre, that they hardly look a day old once cleaned. I cannot say as much for Omega’s more recent chronographs.

To draw the comparison out further, I have been thoroughly disappointed in recent years by the poor quality of components used in Omega’s relatively new 3303, and the co-axial variant 3313. While these particular models revert back to the use of a column wheel for the chronograph, the mechanism is so daintily constructed that it is not uncommon for me to open one to find any one of the components around the column wheel broken, including the column wheel itself and/or the post it revolves on. I have also encountered several wheels with broken, bent, or otherwise damaged pivots.

Not to be too harsh, though, the 3313 does have some good merits. Most notable being that it features a more stable, free sprung balance and a variation of George Daniels’ co-axial escapement. Neither of which the 321 can boast. That said, I don’t even want to begin to discuss the poor quality and poor finish of the material used in Omega’s co-axial escapement; other than to say that silicon may be the one saving grace for the mass production of this fabulous invention.

While I could not possibly bring myself to recommend a watch containing the 3313 to a client, I would not hesitate to recommend that they jump at any opportunity to acquire a 321 for their collection. It was a breath of fresh air to have this calibre cross my bench.

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