This year has been the oddest, most confusing, most mind-meltingly exhausting in memory. To its credit, the watch industry—not known for its nimbleness—seemed to respond, and the timepieces released during the past 12 months shared an abiding practicality, a godsend in a year when time itself seemed to slow down.
At the top of the pile are two icons among icons that capture what I love most about mechanical watches: the Omega Speedmaster caliber 321 and the Rolex Submariner. Both epitomize craft over cost and celebrate a bygone era while nodding toward where watchmaking is headed. And the new models somehow improve upon two archetypal designs.
First, in January, Omega announced a product many of us had been dreaming of for literally decades: a stainless steel Speedmaster packing the legendary 321 movement. The handmade caliber, once considered among the finest ever to come from Switzerland, was taken out of commercial production by Omega in 1969 in favor of industrially manufactured movements. But its legend was only beginning. Due to its exceptional reliability, the 321 would go on to be used for all six Apollo lunar missions.
Save for its metal coating, the new 321 is an exact re-creation of the original (Omega 3D-scanned the Speedy that astronaut Gene Cernan wore on the moon in 1972 in order to remake the parts), and each is built by hand. It’s almost three times as expensive as a standard model, but for the price, you’re getting a piece of history wrapped up in a case and bracelet that exemplify the best of modern watchmaking.
Then, in September, Rolex shocked us all by announcing that its benchmark product, the no-date Cerachrom-bezel Submariner, would get a larger, 41-millimeter case and an entirely new movement. Untouched since 2012, the Submariner is widely considered the perfect dive watch, so even the slightest change feels seismic. And yet the new Sub is indeed the finest ever. The case has been made one millimeter larger, a seemingly strange choice at a time when tastes are shifting to slimmer silhouettes, and yet with thinner lugs and a slightly wider bracelet, it achieves an elegance unmatched by any previous version. Then there’s the updated caliber. Since Rolex remains one of the few watchmakers to use only solid casebacks, you can’t see the new movement it spent all those years developing. So the point is precision, plain and simple.
At Hodinkee, we often debate the perfect two-watch collection. Well, here it is. The models that most represent dependability and utility—from the moon to the bottom of the sea, literally—have somehow gotten even better. It’s a small comfort in a year marked by so much confusion and uncertainty, but I know which watches I’ll be looking at as we count down to 2021.
A version of this story originally appears in the December/January 2021 issue with the title “Two Icons Achieve Even Greater Heights.”