As anyone who has spent more than half an hour on horology forums will tell you, the perennial ‘Rolex or Omega—which is better?’ debate is one that does not lack for opinion. They are the two most recognized Swiss watch brands in the world, and more often than not the first names mentioned in any conversation that turns towards timepieces. As great fans of both houses, we thought it was time we weighed in with our own two cents. And obviously, once we’ve finished, that will be the matter settled; it will unequivocally end the discussion for all time and we can all move on with our lives! Rolex vs Omega. Which brand will come out on top?
All other considerations aside, there is only one place we can start with any comparison and that is with the quality of output from the pair. Both watchmakers have poured countless funds into perfecting every element in their particular models and the effort has seen their respective reputations soar.
There are disparities, however, and one of the most notable is in the materials. Rolex famously owns its own foundry, deep underground in their Plan-Les-Ouates lair. Here they forge—and crucially, exercise complete control over—all three flavors of their gold, as well as the 904L steel which is pretty much the sole preserve of the brand. Unbelievably tough, it is normally used only in the aerospace and chemical industries and has a superior resistance to corrosion than the 316L used by Omega and most of the rest of the watchmaking fraternity.
Yet, how much difference it actually makes in the real world is open to question. 316L is still extremely hardwearing, likely more than enough for the average wearer, and 904L does have the downside of a higher nickel content which can lead to skin irritations in those sensitive to it. The difficulty and expense in working with it is also transferred to customers in the form of higher prices.
As for the all-important movements, both Rolex and Omega construct some formidable engines, but again, there are some distinctions. With Rolex, when they finally got around to building their own chronograph to power the Daytona in 2000, it put them in the rarified company of being a manufacturer that produces every single one of their calibers in-house.
For Omega, while in recent years they have been making significant strides in going completely self-sufficient, especially with the 8500 series and their own mechanical stopwatch, the 9300, many of their movements are made by ETA. But ETA is now owned by the Swatch Group, which also owns Omega, so if you were feeling particularly argumentative, you could claim they were also in-house movements, as they all fall under the same corporate umbrella. It might be a bit of a stretch, but there it is.
One thing Rolex and Omega calibers share is their own draconian testing regimen that goes far beyond the criteria laid down by the industry standards.
Rolex has their Superlative Chronometer certification, which guarantees an accuracy of -2/+2 seconds a day, more than doubling the requirements of the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute (COSC).
Omega goes even further with their Master Chronometer movements. Verified by METAS, the Federal Institute of Metrology, the calibers are expected to keep within 0/-5 seconds a day, while subjected to magnetic forces of 15,000 gauss. One of the biggest killers of mechanical watches, magnetism is all around us, in computers, cell phones and even kitchen appliances. For reference, 15,000 gauss is about what you could expect if you were standing right next to an MRI machine.
Both houses have striven to make their calibers as low maintenance as possible, with Rolex extending their service schedule to an incredible 10-years for new watches. Omega’s Co-Axial escapement provides for a similar length of time, as a recommendation, but many in the industry think it is a little too early to tell whether this is realistic.
All told, watches from either company are pretty well assured of superb performance. For many, it can come down to wanting a purely in-house built movement over a third-party, and if so, it can only be Rolex. But Omega are fast catching up.
There are models from both firms which can only be described as icons in the watchmaking world.
Omega has the Speedmaster and the Seamaster, Rolex has the Submariner and the Daytona. And the Datejust and the Day-Date. And the GMT-Master and the Explorer.
If we are being honest, Rolex probably has this one won, and it comes down to a question of focus. Take any one of their trademark pieces, the Submariner for instance, and lay out each and every iteration that has ever been built, and the basic DNA is consistent throughout. They have never been tempted to change the styling to try and accommodate the fleeting fashions of the day. Rolex had their core lineup, and they stuck with it.
Omega on the other hand, seemed to want to experiment with numerous different families and jump on whatever new trend came along. It left them looking somewhat directionless in the past and it is only relatively recently they have started to settle down, amalgamating the catalog into the four separate groups; the Constellation and De Ville ranges joining the Seamasters and Speedmasters. But even these are tricky. The new Railmaster is part of the Seamaster series for example—is it for underwater train enthusiasts? The Speedmaster has 10 different iterations, from manual to automatic to quartz, and a special limited edition comes out every 30 seconds.
It is all just a bit indiscriminate when compared with Rolex’s cultivated portfolio, the one built patiently over generations and filled with so many familiar faces they become like old friends.
Again, this is a bit of a no contest. The Rolex name is synonymous with not only luxury watches, but with luxury in general. It is the most recognizable timepiece brand in the world, by a long way, and has topped the Global RepTrak 100 for the last three years.
They have worked hard for their position, carefully nurturing an aura of success, achievement and exclusivity. Their use of high profile ambassadors from the worlds of sport and celebrity makes an unspoken association in the minds of would-be customers, who quickly discover they cannot do anything as mundane as order a Rolex from the official website. They have to make the effort to travel to an Authorized Dealer if they want the full experience. Even then, chances are they will be added to a waiting list, with the brand ruthlessly restricting the numbers of watches supplied to their network. It gives the whole process the feeling of an important event rather than just a transaction.
Omega are touted as the second most identifiable Swiss watch brand in the world, helped on by their major mid-nineties coup when James Bond hung up his Rolex and opted for a Seamaster 300M for his Goldeneye mission. The superspy has been timing his operations with Omegas ever since.
Even so, say ‘luxury watch’, you hear ‘Rolex’.
Value for Money
You can look at cost as it applies to both manufacturers in two ways. Firstly, the initial buy-in price for Omega is significantly lower than with Rolex. Right across the board, from entry level pieces such as the Oyster Perpetual versus the Aqua Terra, and divers like the Submariner versus the Seamaster, all the way to the Day-Date versus Globemaster flagships, you get a lot more Omega for your money. Even when you're buying from a pre-owned dealer, Rolex has a higher price tag than Omega.
On the other hand, no other watch brand, in fact no other luxury brand full stop, holds its value like Rolex. Their reputation carries them head and shoulders above everyone else on the pre-owned market, the closest you can ever get to a sure thing when it comes to resale performance, with the possible exception of Patek Philippe. While they may not appreciate particularly, unless you get your hands on an especially rare or desirable model, it is comforting to know you should at least make your money back on a Rolex if you decide to flip it in the future to fund a new purchase.
The same cannot be said for Omega with any degree of certainty. It is not that their resale value is bad; the best from the brand will out-perform the worst from Rolex, but as an average, the crown makes the better investment, bar none.
History & Achievement
It might be a surprise to learn that Omega actually has a longer established history than Rolex, able to trace its roots back to 1848 and a predecessor company called La Generale Watch Co. It became Omega in 1903, two years before Hans Wilsdorf founded Rolex (as Wilsdorf & Davis) in London. For the first half of the 20th century, the rival manufactures were pretty much on a par, with Omega actually proving the slightly more popular in many countries. Each provided vital advances in technology—Rolex developed and perfected the waterproof case and automatic movement, Omega released the world’s first tourbillon wristwatch in 1947.
The 1940s were when each house started to make real breakthroughs in their lineup; Rolex launched the Datejust, Omega the Seamaster, and that work was capitalized on during the 50s and 60s, respective golden ages for both watchmakers. The Submariner, GMT-Master and Day-Date emerged from Rolex in quick succession, the company seemingly able to do no wrong. The Milgauss and Daytona (irony or ironies) were the only possible missteps in this era of incredible inventiveness, but their repute was safe and only enhanced by the Sea-Dweller in 1967.
As for Omega, their name had long been inextricably linked with the utmost in accuracy by their association with the Olympic Games, for which they had become official timekeeper in 1932. However, no one, not even the might of Rolex’s marketing department, could compete with Omega’s finest hour, when Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the lunar surface with a Speedmaster Professional 105.012 strapped to his wrist. Essentially it was the quartz crisis, which was coming to a head even as the moon landing was taking place, that first caused the split in standing.
While Rolex did flirt with the technology, it was a fairly half-hearted effort by their own obsessive standards. It was clear they were doing so out of sufferance, and only for as long as was absolutely necessary. Their focus remained very much on the artistry of traditional watchmaking, taking a gamble that the public’s love affair with the cheap and insanely accurate models flooding in from the east would be a short-lived one, even as long established brands all around them in the Swiss enclaves started dropping like flies.
Omega embraced quartz like a lifebelt, incorporating the electronics into a number of models with familiar names, but which bore no resemblance to anything which had come before. Speedys with LCD screens that looked like Casios, square Seamasters and Constellations that were more archetypally 70s than bell-bottoms and glam rock. In addition, they experimented endlessly, diversifying their catalog so much it became too confusing. This scattergun approach severely dented their image and hit the company hard, and it is only really since the 1990s that they have begun the recovery.
The Co-Axial leap has put them right back on track and they are clearly on a mission to reinvent themselves as makers of the finest luxury mechanical watches. For Rolex, they have really only gone from strength to strength. They rode out the quartz crisis with barely a drop of sweat being shed, thanks in part to their timeless designs and faultless engineering, but also because of their master class in self-promotion.
Nobody can sell a watch like Rolex. Since the company’s second CEO, Andre Heiniger, took the reins in 1962, they have repositioned themselves not so much as a watchmaker, but as purveyors of the ultimate in aspirational lifestyles. You only have to look at their list of testimonees: Roger Federer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, James Cameron, Jackie Stewart. Regardless of the number of patents, they have secured, or the improvements and progressions they have brought to the industry, the message is still; winners wear Rolex.
So, which is better—Omega or Rolex? Obviously, the choice is yours. Each makes exceptional watches, with Omega’s collection being the most varied and affordable. Rolex’s range is more modest and higher priced, but contains hatfuls of pieces that have been proven to stand the test of time; classics that have remained in the family virtually unaltered for 60+ years, and perform better as investments.
Taking them both on their overall body of work rather than comparing individual models to their other-brand equivalent, I would have to come down on the side of Rolex. Detractors will always say they are a triumph of advertising over substance, but nothing can stay so far ahead of the competition for so long on marketing alone. Maintaining the quality of their output in the volumes they produce is extraordinary and they deserve all the success they have earned.
However, for the first time in a long time, they might need to start looking over their shoulder at their neighbors to the north. Omega has started firing some impressive salvos recently and are one of the very few realistic alternatives.
Written by Paul Altieri
Read more posts by Paul Altieri