Omega makes watches with gold and diamonds and occasionally even those with tourbillons that run into the six figures. But a steel chronograph with a faded dial from 1957? That'll cost you around $3,400,000. At least, that's what was paid for one recently at an auction by Phillips in Geneva, making it the most expensive Omega watch ever sold — though, of course, it was no ordinary steel chronograph.
What makes this particular watch so special? It's hard to rationalize or explain vintage watch collector psychology, and even the pundits and auctioneers seemed a little surprised by the result — this particular example, however, features a combination of traits that perhaps offers some insight into what collectors tend to value.
Firstly there's the watch's historical significance. It's the reference 2915-1 — which was the first Speedmaster ever — introduced in 1957 alongside the Seamaster 300 and Railmaster as part of what collectors and Omega now call a "trilogy." With its distinctive "broad arrow" hand set, it was the first generation of the watch that would later be selected by NASA for its space missions, including the 1969 moon landing. (In case you didn't already know, the Speedmaster is probably — in our estimation — in the top five most iconic watches of all time.)
First-generation Speedmasters are naturally sought-after, but then there's the question of condition and other traits. That's where this example particularly stands out: You've surely noticed its brown dial — this is a form of "patina" and something collectors tend to go absolutely crazy for. Called a "tropical" dial, it's what occurs when a watch with a black dial has been exposed to the sun over many years until it's faded to such a hue.
This usually means it's been worn a lot, which is what makes this particular example notable: Firstly, the dial's "fade" is remarkably uniform (even including that of the lume on its hands and indices), which isn't always the case with "tropical" dials. Secondly, despite the wear that would have achieved this patina, the rest of the watch is in remarkably good shape — the case, for example, appears relatively unmolested by too much polishing, yet isn't too beat up.
In other words, what you get is a historic watch, full of character, in about as close to original condition as you could hope for with minimal wear and tear. Does all that make this watch worth over $3 million? Clearly, it does to some people within a watch-collecting context, but in the end you'll have to judge for yourself.
The watch itself? It's 38mm wide and powered by the famous 321 manually wound movement, and if you like the looks of it you can seek out a modern version from the brand in its limited-edition Speedmaster '57 ($7,250). Tropical dial watches have been hot for some time now, but a sale such as this will surely reinforce such enthusiasm. Will brown dials be the next dial color to take over modern watches and vintage reissues? It's hard to deny that this one looks pretty damn great.