The re­turn of Omega’s Rail­mas­ter

Chris Hall hails the re­vival of Omega’s in­ge­nious Rail­mas­ter

Business Traveller - - LIFESTYLE CONTENTS -

ith hind­sight, it’s not hard to see how the post-war years gave birth to a gen­er­a­tion of watches that have come to be ven­er­ated as icons.

This may seem a triv­ial take on a pe­riod of such geopo­lit­i­cal and so­cial change, but the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the Atomic Age ran far and wide. Be­sides, the world of wrist­watches was noth­ing like the es­o­teric pas­sion it is to­day. The rea­son so many en­dur­ing, prac­ti­cal watch de­signs emerged be­tween 1950 and 1960 is that they were es­sen­tial tools. It was a pe­riod of rapid change that saw an ex­plo­sion in pop­u­lar science and a chan­nelling of en­ergy – so re­cently di­rected at con­flict – into feats of ad­ven­ture and der­ring-do.

While Rolex has per­haps reaped the rich­est re­wards from this era – Hil­lary and Ten­z­ing’s 1953 as­cent of Ever­est was swiftly as­so­ci­ated with the Ex­plorer, while the launch of the Sub­mariner in the same year tapped into the vogue for scuba div­ing – oth­ers were also alert to the pos­si­bil­i­ties. IWC and Jaeger-LeCoul­tre, as well as names that have not aged as suc­cess­fully, such as Eber­hard, also re­leased sturdy watches that spoke to this new pe­riod of tech­ni­cal ex­plo­ration, with anti-mag­netic cas­ings and names that still evoke a bold, for­ward-look­ing vi­sion: Geo­physic, In­ge­nieur, Sci­enti­graf.

Omega – then, as now, a ma­jor com­peti­tor to Rolex et al – was rel­a­tively slow to the punch. But it made up for it in droves when, in 1957, it launched the Sea­mas­ter, Speed­mas­ter and Rail­mas­ter.

That you prob­a­bly know the first two of those names says it all – th­ese watches came to de­fine Omega, and still do. But it’s the third one we’re in­ter­ested in to­day: the Rail­mas­ter. Rel­a­tive to the other two, it was not a suc­cess. Pro­duced not to con­quer the ocean depths or keep time of hair-rais­ing For­mula 1 laps, the Rail­mas­ter’s bat­tle was against the forces of mag­netism. Less glam­orous, but vi­tal: a mag­netic field can ruin a me­chan­i­cal watch in sec­onds by caus­ing the hair­spring (the beat­ing heart of any watch move­ment) to stick to it­self, de­stroy­ing any hope of proper time­keep­ing.

It boasted a dou­ble-lay­ered soft iron case that formed a Fara­day cage (ca­pa­ble of di­rect­ing mag­netic fields around, rather than through, the move­ment), com­bined with a thicker dial (1mm in­stead of 0.4mm). It could with­stand fields of up to 1,000 Gauss – com­pa­ra­ble with any­thing else on the mar­ket. At the time, it was aimed at the engi­neers and sci­en­tists at the van­guard of progress, but failed to strike a chord with the wider pub­lic. In 1963, it was dis­con­tin­ued.

The emer­gence of quartz watches in the 1970s did noth­ing to ad­vance the cause of a me­chan­i­cal watch like the Rail­mas­ter. Omega half-heart­edly brought the name back in 2003, but it wasn’t suf­fi­ciently dif­fer­ent from other pieces in the range.

Now, how­ever, 60 years af­ter its de­but, we have a proper Rail­mas­ter again. In March, Omega un­veiled a tril­ogy of lim­ited edi­tions hon­our­ing the class of ’57, in­clud­ing a hand­some Rail­mas­ter. True to the orig­i­nal, at 38mm, it shares the “broad ar­row” hand­set beloved of col­lec­tors, and comes with a faux-aged tint to its Su­per­lu­mi­nova hour mark­ers. A non-lim­ited Rail­mas­ter is set to join it this au­tumn, with a util­i­tar­ian brushed­steel dial and more mod­ern ty­pog­ra­phy on the 12, 3, 6 and 9 nu­mer­als.

Where both ex­cel is in the area that the Rail­mas­ter was al­ways meant to – mag­netic re­sis­tance. Since 2014, Omega has been rolling out a higher stan­dard of mag­netic re­sis­tance across its range. De­vel­oped with the Swiss Metrol­ogy In­sti­tute and go­ing by the name of Mas­ter Chronome­ters, they will with­stand a 15,000 Gauss field. That’s more than you’ll ever need – but so is a 300m dive watch.

What it does mean is peace of mind; the op­ti­mism of the Atomic Age may seem a world away, but cus­tomers are now more likely than ever to run into small, pow­er­ful mag­nets thanks to their use in mo­bile de­vices and other gad­gets. The Rail­mas­ter may have been born too soon for the watch buy­ers of the 1950s, but could be just what our mod­ern world needs.

Chris Hall is edi­tor of

Omega 60th an­niver­sary Rail­mas­ter; £5,040

Above: The 1957 Tril­ogy lim­ited edi­tions – Sea­mas­ter 300m, £5,600; Rail­mas­ter, £5,040; Speed­mas­ter, £5,360

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