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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.

20 Comments

  1. Dave
    Posted October 17, 2008 at 12:28 am | Permalink

    Rose gold wasn’t used on the 321 or 861 movements, or any other movements, just copper.

    Stop perpetuating this myth.

    http://members.iinet.net.au/~fotoplot/rgold/rgold.html

    Yellow gold was used about 1992 to 1996 on the 861.

  2. Posted October 17, 2008 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    Wow! Thanks Dave. I hadn’t a clue. I have had several watchmakers from the Swatch Group tell me it is rose gold in the past. I will be sure to point them to the article that you linked to from now on.

  3. J.Peter
    Posted October 18, 2008 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    Dave & Jon, I don’t have any way of knowing what they used to plate these movements but copper doesn’t make much sense. Typically the reason for plating a movement is to provide corrosion resistance. Gold would accomplish this, Nickel is pretty good, Rhodium does also, copper would not. In fact the properties of copper are so similar to brass it would make very little sense to plate something with copper, except as a base to accept something else on top of it.

  4. Posted October 19, 2008 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    I agree that copper doesn’t make any sense, J.Peter. I should have been more thorough in writing my response to Dave’s comment. I was writing from my iPod.

    The linked to article mentioned beryllium-copper in passing, but did proceed to state that the plating was pure copper. I dismissed this latter statement as simply being a broad-sweeping classification of the plating. The beryllium content in beryllium-copper is typically between 0.5% and 3%. It can be extremely difficult to get an absolutely pure elemental form of just about any metal and I have heard metallurgists refer to metals with as low as 95-96% purity as being “pure”. I have gone to order a small quantity of elemental metal with 99% purity in the past and the cost was magnitudes higher than I anticipated it would be based on the price of its alloys. Jumping up to a purity of 99.9% was even more cost prohibitive.

    That thought aside, it is more likely that beryllium content was dismissed in the plating because of its presumed existence in the alloy that had been plated, which the mineral report “believed to be beryllium-bronze”.

    The very fact that the report could only assume the base alloy to be beryllium-bronze and not state it as such with any assurance leads me to believe that it was misleading in loosely referring to the plating as copper.

    Lastly, the objective of the report was to determine if there was any gold present. It achieved that end. No where in the report does it state that the plating was pure copper. That extrapolation was made by Rob Berkavicius in writing the article.

    Beryllium-copper makes good sense as a plating. Glucyder, the alloy used for many self-compensating balance wheels, is a form of beryllium copper. Beryllium lends greater strength to copper, makes it more resistant to abrasion, and also greatly increases its resistance to corrosion. This also clears up the reasoning behind Omega’s switch to rhodium plating, as beryllium is now a known carcinogen and can also cause acute beryllium disease (ABD).

  5. Nick
    Posted October 19, 2008 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    Hey guys,

    Watch enthusiast / amateur collector here…

    I own a few vintage Omegas including a lovely 1967 Omega Constellation Monocoque-cased ref 168.015 housing a mint Calibre 564 which I honestly believe might be one of the greatest mass produced watch movements and probably (the 500/700 Chronometer series) the greatest non-chronograph movement produced by Omega to date.

    Noted Constellation expert Desmond Guilfoyle has published a wonderful series of articles on the Constellation movements here: (http://users.tpg.com.au/mondodec/movement3.pdf). I’d encourage reading all four parts but vis a vis the subject at hand: if you skip to page 10 you’ll read the following:

    “Omega parts were made of a hard and tough beryllium alloy. It was-as Rob
    Berkavicius and Paul Delury discovered after having the material analysed in a metals laboratory in Adelaide, South Australia – a copper-based alloy with around 2.25% beryllium, a combinatioresponds extremely well to hard tempering. This tempering method produced an exceptionally durable material with excellent wearing qualities. Paul and Rob’s investigations also revealed that the rose finish of the movement was [**] pure copper electroplated on to the surface of the parts [**].

    Again, while copper may be prohibitively expensive now it has been proven that Omega used it extensively in the past.

    Great blog, by the way…love getting the email updates and reading!

    Nick

  6. scott
    Posted October 23, 2008 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    so what is the ‘premier’ movement offered by Omega when considering the Speedmaster line?

  7. Posted October 23, 2008 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    Hi Scott,

    ‘Premier’ is about as easy to answer as which is the most beautiful. Beauty being in the eye of the beholder. Any die hard Speedy fan will tell you it’s the calibre 861/1861. Some collectors are crazy for the rare few years that employed the vertical clutch calibre 1045. I’m no connoisseur of Omega Speedmasters, but my personal preferences, from what I do know of their movements, would stray from the 1150/1160 series calibres (based on the Valjoux 7750) or the 3220 module based chrono. If you don’t mind manually winding your watch and you’re looking for something modern and updated, it’s the 1861 without question. However, if you want an automatic variation that just works, and aren’t very fussy about what makes your watch tick, a 7750 based calibre is your safest bet.

  8. J. Ma
    Posted October 31, 2008 at 5:00 am | Permalink

    Your comment about Omega 3303/3313 is quite harsh. You almost described them as garbage. How many 3303/3313 do you have to repair? Is it really that bad? I’m a long time watch forum reader. The worst defects I’ve heard was some level bent, broken? Now that’s a new level. Could you comment this further?

  9. Posted October 31, 2008 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    Hi J. Ma,

    The 3313/3303 are not garbage movements. Relatively speaking, the quality and finish of the components pales in comparison to the 321. As I stated, they do have some good merits and Omega has done a respectable job of trying to iron out the problems that they have had with these recent chronographs.

    I would consider the 321 to be a solid investment for any collector, both in terms of financial value and longevity of operation. I would say the same for any of Rolex’s Daytonas. I cannot bring myself to say as much for the Broad Arrow or Seamaster Chronogaphs, but that is only my own personal opinion. To each his own.

  10. Daniel Sieber
    Posted November 22, 2008 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    And what do you say about the 7750 based Omega 1164 used in some automatic Seamaster and Speedmaster chronographs??
    The opinion of Chuck Maddox, well known Speedmaster expert, was, that he rather would buy a 1164 for the price of a 33xx chronograph movement, than a 33xx for the price of a 1164!

  11. Posted November 25, 2008 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Hi Daniel,

    At this stage in the 33xx’s evolution, I’d have to side with Maddox.

  12. kosta
    Posted December 14, 2009 at 3:48 am | Permalink

    I I’m watch freak myself and do own a lot of high end watches from wich speedmasters are the cheapest ( blancpain , daytona (latest ) , few IWC’s , Jaeger and etc . From all those watches speedmaster 3303 ( schumaher ) performs most accurate , about 1 sec. per day , sometimes even less ( if faced down overnight ) and feels most comfy . I don’t know where you are getting this infos from but I have to say that you are not telling the truth . I go surfing , kayaking , hiking with my speedy , never problems .

  13. kosta
    Posted December 14, 2009 at 4:01 am | Permalink

    Why did NASA choose Omega over Rolex ?
    And by the way , Daniel Craig is the second worst Bond , so who cares if he wears Rolex , anyway he does so because he is small and rolex is only 40mm .

  14. J.Peter
    Posted December 14, 2009 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    Kosta, J. Edwards said nothing negative about the accuracy of the 3303, he did say that its overall quality of construction, as related to durability, was disappointing. Accuracy, you may find is not everything. I’m sure that your other watches with proper care and adjustment can be regulated to keep as accurate of time as your Speedmaster.

    As to why NASA chose the Speedmaster there is a great article in Watch Time this month about exactly that, apparently there was two factors, the Astronauts already favored it and the Rolexes failed the quality test because the hands warped when exposed to heat.

  15. Posted December 14, 2009 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    Hi Kosta,

    Thanks for your feedback. I’m ecstatic to hear that you are happy with your Speedy.

    I will stand by my comments regarding the durability of some of the components used in the 3303 and 3313 and will second J.Peter’s remarks regarding precision. I should also state that Omega has gone to some length to remedy the flaws I referred to around the column wheel and I know for certain that they have upgraded at least four of the components involved in that area of the mechanism. I hope that yours is among the many mechanisms that have been upgraded.

    There are still other areas of the mechanism, though, that I am not entirely satisfied with and would have to say that the durability of the 3303/3313s pale in comparison to the Rolex cal. 4130 in your Daytona (which is also phenomenally precise and easy to service).

    That said, I am very pleased with the cases of nearly all of Omaga’s Speedmasters and can certainly attest to their ability to take a pounding, whether flying to the moon or spelunking off the coast of Mexico.

    I hope that you continue to get many more years of pleasure and good use from your Speedy.

  16. Chris H
    Posted January 14, 2010 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    I purchased a speedmaster broad arrow co axial in May 2009, the watch stopped in Dec 09, and is now back with the manufacturer, gutted. trading standards now involved as clearly the watch has flaws, keep well clear.

  17. DLF
    Posted June 19, 2010 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    So, no to the 3220 movement? I ask again, because the “Reduced” Speedy is one of the few quality watches which my spindly wrist can comfortably accommodate….

  18. Posted July 6, 2010 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Speaking personally, I wouldn’t vest my money in a watch equipped with the 3220 as the 3220 is a modular chronograph built on top of ETA’s 2892 calibre. Ultimately, if the watch suits you and makes you happy that’s what counts. If you can, though, I would recommend always opting for an integrated chronograph mechanism as opposed to a modular chrono.

  19. Jan Holtzhausen
    Posted September 13, 2010 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Two points of order:
    1) Calibre 861 watches were not the first on the moon, calibre 321′s were. 861′s made it to the moon after testing, but were too new / untested for Armstrong’s moon landing.
    2) No-one mentioned the 1045 movement (based on the Lemania 5100) beautiful like a lathe (or Porsche engine) solid as a rock, automatic and can still run the crono accurately after a 7g shock…

  20. Posted June 12, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    did you know about seiko bull head is the first watch on the moon before omega speed master?

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] interesting thread of comments sprouted over the weekend on this post, which made reference to the types of plating used on Omega [...]

  2. [...] or not the rose-coloured plating on vintage Omega watches contained any gold, as a follow up to a discussion that sprouted off of this post on the Omega 321. Following are the results from the samples we [...]

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