The return of Omega’s Railmaster
Chris Hall hails the revival of Omega’s ingenious Railmaster
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 SalonQP.com
Omega 60th anniversary Railmaster; £5,040 omegawatches.com
Above: The 1957 Trilogy limited editions – Seamaster 300m, £5,600; Railmaster, £5,040; Speedmaster, £5,360