Ask Omega President Stephen Urquhart, in Basel for the World Watch and Jewellery Show, what’s hot at the brand in 2013 and the first word that springs to his mind is Co-Axial, the name given to the proprietary movements that incorporate the escapement of the same name, invented by genius watchmaker the late George Daniels, who later worked with Omega to develop the Co-Axial for series production. “It’s true that in 2012 we tended to hide, so to speak, behind global events such as the London Olympic Games, or the release of the latest James Bond movie, Skyfall. The coming months will see a shift in direction. We’ll be pushing the Co-Axial calibre, including with a global advertising campaign. Omega now has the hindsight and substance it needs to focus emphasis on this next-generation mechanical movement. The Seamaster Aqua Terra 15,000 Gauss is a case in point. Its fully anti-magnetic Co-Axial 8508 Calibre resolves a problem that has challenged watchmakers for decades.”
The ultimate goal
Omega is also at the forefront of research into materials that has been instrumental in producing the 15,000 Gauss. Stephen Urquhart explains how the brand has risen to the materials challenge so far: “Our patented alloy Sedna blends gold, copper and palladium to guarantee an especially long-lasting lustre for the rose gold case,” he notes. “We’re also progressively introducing ceramic into certain models in our ranges. Then, of course, there’s the silicon we use for the balance spring in the Co-Axial movement which provides significantly increased reliability.”
In other words, the Co-Axial takes the brand that much closer to the ultimate goal of mechanical watchmaking… and yet success was never a foregone conclusion. As Stephen Urquhart reminds us, back in the early 1990s, George Daniels did the rounds of Swiss watch firms to no avail; no-one was interested in his invention. “Ultimately, it’s thanks to Nicolas Hayek’s forward-looking vision and the might of Swatch Group, particularly the expertise developed by Nivarox, that the project was able to take off. When I returned to Omega in 1999, I remember that tests were being carried out on 300 watches with existing movements that had been fitted with the Co-Axial escapement. At this stage, however, results were far from conclusive.”
A winning bet
Still, Omega wasn’t about to throw in the towel, far from it. Alongside the group’s movement-making entities, the brand decided to turn the problem around and build a completely new calibre that would provide the right conditions for the Co-Axial escapement to realise its potential. This wasn’t the easiest solution by a long chalk, as the brand would discover; it would take years of development before the Calibre 8500 saw the light of day, in 2007. “Back then, we were convinced of the advantages this alternative to the Swiss lever escapement could bring,” says Stephen Urquhart. “Now we have sufficient hindsight to certify that this type of movement is more reliable and ensures greater mechanical efficiency, hence more stable precision. This is something our after-sales service statistics clearly confirm, and the reason we can provide a four-year warranty on all our Co-Axial calibres.”
It should come as no surprise that the new range of Omega watches for women was designed with Co-Axial technology inside. As Stephen Urquhart says, “Ladymatic is Omega’s first real new collection since Constellation, which dates back to 1982. We’re extremely satisfied with results so far. Of course there is a cultural element behind women’s appreciation of mechanical movements, but their appeal is spreading across every continent. Because we always work with a view to the long term, I’m confident we’re on the road to success.”
Soon the world's N°1?
Now it’s a question of explaining the mechanical subtleties of the Co-Axial movement to the layman for whom nothing looks more like the escapement in a watch than another escapement in a watch. This is where Omega’s 250 worldwide stores come into play, half of which are wholly-owned by the brand. “Nothing is more important than contact with the end customer,” concludes Stephen Urquhart. “It can even be crucial in terms of communication. Omega is a prestigious brand, and customers today want a brand first and a watch second. In this respect, the three stores that Omega is opening this year in Brazil – our first in the host country of the 2016 Olympic Games where we will serve as official timekeeper – are an important step, given the high cost of entry into this market. I’d say that the Co-Axial and the Omega stores have been the brand’s two biggest decisions of these past ten years.”
Beyond these immediate considerations, Stephen Urquhart is serious when he suggests that Omega could recover its number-one status on the basis of “moderate” growth in the region of 5% to 10%. The company already occupied the number-one spot in the second half of the 20th century, when it had to go all out to produce three million watches a year. Watch this space!