Sunday Morning Showdown: Omega Speedmaster X-33 Rate it or hate it? Whose side are you on? by Rob Nudds April 05, 2020 MIN READSunday Morning Showdown: Omega Speedmaster X-33
In this Sunday morning column, two of our writers go head-to-head in an epic showdown for the ages. Strong opinions and hysterical hyperbole are welcome (so feel free to join in with the fun in the comments section below). And don’t forget to let us know which watches you’d like to see torn to shreds/effusively exalted next week. We’ll try and feature as many of our readers’ choices as we can. This week, we’ve got something special for you. It’s finally happening — RJ and Rob go head-to-head on a divisive Speedy. The Omega Speedmaster X-33.
Last week’s Rolex Air-King battle between RJ and Jorg was a real humdinger. Normally, I have a pretty good idea of which way a vote is going to swing. But the thing is, when it came to the Air-King, I wasn’t positive in either direction and nor did I feel confident in saying it would be close as I have done in the past. This time around I had no clue. And so the result — 56% in the “rate” column — couldn’t have been anything but a surprise. This week we take on a model I’m pretty darn sure will split the community. That has something to do with the fact that we’re tackling an Omega for the very first time on SMS. The gloves are off. Let’s go…
The Omega Speedmaster X-33 was introduced in 1998 and presented as the “Mars” watch by Omega. You could buy it with a red or black strap, or with the titanium bracelet. The bracelet was similar to the steel Speedmaster bracelet of that time but in titanium. Funny. I still have the original press kit. It came with professionally printed photos of the watch. A bizarre thing to imagine, these days.
The Speedmaster X-33 was developed with the help of pilots and astronauts. It was actually my astronaut hero General Tom P. Stafford that had some influence on this watch. It has functions that can be done by any G-Shock these days (and probably in those days as well), but there’s more to it than just the functionality of the movement.
It needed to pass a lot of tests in order to be useful for astronauts. One of the things it can’t do is be used for Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA) (like a spacewalk). The digital movement can’t deal with the heat (and cold), the display would just stop working. That’s why the mechanical wound Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch is still the only watch qualified for EVA. The X-33, though, is used onboard the space crafts (first Space Shuttles, and now the ISS, of course).
Astronauts regularly make full use of the mission timer, the count down timer, the alarms, and the different timezone functions. The alarm on this thing is so loud, I made a couple of stewardesses look terrified when mine went off in a plane to Moscow once. The first two generations of the Speedmaster X-33 are quite similar, the 2nd generation had some aesthetic changes (brushed bezel and pushers, different crown) and the movement received a small update (not in functionality).
The 3rd generation — today’s version — is called the X-33 Skywalker. It has a different display, and new functionality (Phased Elapsed Time) for use by astronauts. We explained the differences between the generations and explain the use of the Mission Elapsed Time and Phased Elapsed Time in this article on Fratello.
Basically all Space Shuttle/ISS astronauts I’ve met last year were absolutely in love with the X-33.
It is easy to nerd away on this watch, and when we hosted our Speedy Tuesday Event in Biel last December, I actually had a long talk with astronaut Jean-François Clervoy (ESA) who was one of the developers of the new functions in the X-33 Skywalker. Basically all Space Shuttle/ISS astronauts I’ve met last year were absolutely in love with the X-33. They used it in space, and they cherish these watches like crazy.
I am the happy owner of the X-33 that once belonged to Dutch astronaut Wubbo Ockels (Space Shuttle mission STS-61-A astronaut in 1985), who received it during the introduction event of the Speedmaster X-33 in 1998 at the ESA/ESTEC offices here in The Netherlands. Not only do I own the X-33 that belonged to one of my childhood heroes, but I also wear and use it (not in space, admittedly).
Well, well, well. It had to happen eventually, didn’t it? I was unsure when we started this column a few months ago when we’d dare take on an Omega — and a Speedmaster, no less! I was even less sure of which team member would be the plucky idiot willing to vocalize hatred for one of our ticking kin. Turns out I’m well-acquainted with this particular idiot, as I dress him every morning.
RJ: Kudos to you Rob, for willing to pick up the glove for going against the mighty Speedmaster X-33. Bert, Gerard, Michael, Jorg, and I own one (or more) of these X-33 models. How does it feel to be alone?
Rob: I like it. I prefer my own company. Why wouldn’t I? I am the most interesting person I know and I clearly have the best taste in watches…
But why did I feel ready and able to take a position of negativity on an Omega Speedmaster when I know full well it is beloved by so many of my good (less interesting ) friends? Simply because, for me, the Omega Speedmaster X-33 is about as much a Speedmaster as my teacup. In my opinion, this model — quite appropriately given its association with Mars — is worlds apart from what we know and love in the Speedmaster universe.
As always, I like to preface my tirade with a few kind words. I feel uncontextualized hatred comes off too often as shallow and unconsidered. So here goes: I’ve seen a lot of these in the flesh. Most of the X-33s I’ve encountered came across my bench for service while I was working for Omega. They are tricksy little bastards to get right. They have a complicated case assembly with loads of bits and screws, and an imperative activation sequence you must follow to avoid banjaxing the movement. But besides their foibles, I must say they look really great on some wrists. Not mine, but certainly on some. Jorg, my fellow Fratello team member, owns one and, in all honesty, it looks great on him.
RJ: Jorg has been a close friend of mine for nearly 20 years, but it took me only 5 minutes to convince him to buy that X-33. Why can’t I convince you? Did you know that most of the first generation X-33 models have updated movements? They were installed during service or repair. I imagine they are no longer little bastards.
Rob: You know what? That’s even worse. Look, the originals may have been tough to handle on the bench, but at least they didn’t feel the need to apologize for it. Your update tale reminds me of a conversation we had when the 2500A and 2500B were effectively discontinued and we faced the prospect of having to mandatorily update most As and some Bs with Cs. I was dead against it. It destroys the provenance of the watch! I couldn’t believe we were in such a situation a few years after the movement’s release. If I had a first-gen X-33 I would never, ever let Omega change the movement. Even if it were more fried than a fried egg.
But besides all that nonsense, I just don’t like to wear it. On my weird wrist (thin and flat) the Omega Speedmaster X-33 looks like a space ship that crash-landed into a hardware store. Some people might like that. I don’t.
Eat more schnitzels.
RJ: Eat more schnitzels.
RN: Even though I live in Deutschland I really don’t get the schnitzel thing. But maybe that’s the problem. Maybe I will take your advice and bulk out appropriately. Although I must say, there’s not a huge amount you can do about your wrist size. I once serviced Daniel Craig’s watch and “accidentally” tried it on when I was refinishing the bracelet and it fitted me like a glove. Now, I know you’ve never seen me next to James Bond, but I can assure you, he is several schnitzels bigger than me…
But that’s just the beginning. What I like even less is the fact this thing is regarded as a Speedmaster. I’m not against experimentation within a model family, but I really do believe that models bearing the same family name should at least feature the traits that defined that family as distinct from the rest of the catalog. I had the same gripe with Breitling’s updated “Navitimer”, which I wish, wish, wish the brand had dubbed the “Neotimer” or something like that. For me, despite it being an attractive watch in itself, it instantly became a “Nevertimer”.
Nothing could sway me from that feeling. And I doubt that anything, I’m sorry to say, will sway me on this one too. But please, RJ, my sweet, if you could justify the X-33’s presence in the Speedmaster family I’d be most grateful.
RJ: The X-33 has its own role in the Speedmaster family. You probably know that everything that Omega did for NASA, was under a secret code called “Alaska”. The Alaska IV was this digital LCD watch that they proposed to NASA but was never used, you can find some prototypes from the 1980s though. If you’re lucky…
Stafford (Apollo 10 and Apollo-Soyuz) and a number of pilots helped develop the X-33. Despite that, it never got an “Alaska” project code. Somehow Omega stopped that. But the fact is, that it was developed and created for astronauts and pilots and you can find many images on NASA’s image gallery that show astronauts and cosmonauts on board of the Space Shuttle and ISS that wear and use one. There’s even this video on YouTube where an astronaut repairs his X-33 (click here).
So you see Rob, the Speedmaster X-33 is not so much about the watch itself, it is about astronauts, space and those kinds of things. I am the first to acknowledge the watch isn’t very pretty. At some point, I had 3 at the same time (watches, I mean) and that was a bit too much, so I sold one to Mike and the other one to a fellow Dutch Speedmaster collector. Of course, I kept the one that belonged to Wubbo Ockels. That one will never leave the collection, for sure. I wore it often on a velcro strap or the original titanium bracelet, but last year someone from Omega found me this original red kevlar strap that some of them came on. It looks awesome, I think.
One of the best things, perhaps, about the X-33 is that they are pretty much unloved. So you can pick-up a pre-owned model relatively cheap, even with boxes and papers. The current version is still an expensive watch, but it is quite awesome. If you want to have something quirky, try to find one of the first batches that had a faulty engraving in the case back. They say “Certified by ESA” instead of “Qualified by ESA”. Neither ESA or NASA certifies watches for use in space, they only qualify them. But a mistake slipped through the net. About 100 watches went onto the market. If you want to have something special, try to find a Speedmaster X-33 that says “Certified”.
Rob: I ‘m not much of a follower. But even I would be tempted to join the X-33 owner’s club. For me, you can’t beat an erroneous engraving or dial print. But perhaps it illustrates my indifference towards this model that it would take such a rarity for me to consider buying one. With that, let’s turn this over to the Speedy faithful and find out where they land on this unusual space timer.
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About the author
Rob’s first exposure to the watch industry was a part-time retail role for the Signet Group at the age of 17. An obsession with watches soon developed. Following an ill-advised BSc in Archaeological Science, he applied for sponsorship to undertake… read more
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