By some weird quirk of the ebb and flow of taste, fashion and the power of marketing, that most evocative of truly great Swiss watch companies, Omega, seems to have found its standing diminished, its image sullied by associations with one too many anniversary, special edition, ‘one-off’ regurgitations of, or homages to, glories past. This is a shame because Omega’s heritage is steeped with a convincing sense of authenticity in its credentials as a manufacturer of watches that arguably evades a company like Rolex.
Through the 1950’s and 60’s, Omega established a reputation as a maker of luxury watches to suit pretty much all applications. Omega catalogues from the early 1960’s presented a coherent range of watches, with a number of different sub-brands each fulfilling a particular niche. The top of the precision tree was occupied by the Constellation Chronometers, fitted with officially certified chronometer movements.
The Seamaster, whose origins date back to the second world war when the British Armed Services commissioned Omega to produce a watch that combined sturdiness under combat conditions with precision, maintained that essential proposition: “flawless accuracy even at 200 feet below the sea.
The bonus piece of the niche jigsaw is provided by the Seamaster Deville, combining ‘the ruggedness of a sports watch with the elegance of a slim dress watch’. This seemingly conflicting combination of elements was achieved by dispensing with the conventional removable case back and fitting the movement and dial from the front into a one-piece case. Water resistance was provided through a combination of a specially-sealed acrylic watch crystal and a water proof crown.
It is an example of this last category of early 1960’s vintage Omega that forms the basis of this current entry. You may be wondering how a 56 year-old Omega dress watch has inveigled its way into the ocean of oriental content that defines to a large extent the spirit of this blog. The answer to that question derives from my accounts of the acquisition and subsequent servicing of an old stock 1975 Seiko King Quartz. A short time after completing that project, an Australian reader expressed an interest in its acquisition, and I agreed to sell it for a nominal sum that covered my original purchase costs but took no account of the service. The gentleman in question very kindly offered up an Omega Seamaster De Ville that had been languishing unused in his collection by way of compensation for the service. Transaction completed, and a couple of weeks later, the De Ville arrived. This was in July 2015 and somehow nearly 4 years have passed before it has occurred to me that I might attempt its revival.
The package also contained an aftermarket replacement crystal, a replacement crown tube and a couple of spare screws. This being a De Ville, the movement is accessed from the top and because the crystal was already loose, all that was required was to rotate the movement locking ring anti-clockwise to its stop, invert the case and ease the movement out.
The dial is clearly peppered with age spots but in spite of this, it is still an object of beauty. The movement looks sound from this side, although missing the hour wheel film washer and I note too that the setting lever pressure spring is corroded. The business side of the movement is much more interesting and allows us to take in what exactly it is that we are dealing with.
The markings on the train wheel bridge identify this as an Omega 552, a member of the 550 series of Omega automatic movements that featured fully rotating rotors with bi-directional winding. The base movement is the 17 jewel 550, introduced in 1958, 4.5mm in height, indirect centre seconds, automatic, running at 19800 bph and featuring swan-neck regulation. The 552 increased the jewel-count to 24 and was fitted to mainstream Seamasters and De Villes. The chronometer-spec 551 was essentially the same as the 552 but adjusted to 5 positions and temperatures and fitted to the top-of-the-tree Constellations. The serial number inscribed on the train bridge is in the low 20 million range which dates the watch to 1963.
Now, there are a couple of curiosities to note with this particular example. Firstly, and of most significantly, the upper bridge for the automatic winding mechanism is marked with ‘adjusted to five (5) positions and temperature’. To the best of my limited knowledge of these movements, the 552 was not a chronometer movement and certainly not when fitted to the De Ville and so I can only conclude that the autowinding mechanism on this watch must have been substituted with one from a 551 at a previous service. The second noteworthy point is that the rotor is clearly not one from a 1963 552 but is of the later design used in 550 series movements towards the end of the decade. I suspect that this example is a service replacement. The rotor and bridge of my 552 should resemble those of the 565 fitted to my now long gone self-build Seamaster 300.
This being my first time through with a 550-series Omega, and given the lack of a comprehensive service guide, I was having to follow my nose to a degree in figuring out how to proceed. A reasonable first step seemed to be to remove the autowinding bridge and perform a timing check to see how well (or not) the movement was running. The bridge is secured in place by just two screws, one at either end.
You will see that I am using a substitute crown and stem sourced from my box o’ bits. With a full wind’s worth of power under its belt, we can see how she’s running. Dial down, the amplitude is low and the beat error chronic but the traces look clean enough.
The reason the trace stops where it has is not because that’s when I took the photo but because that’s the point at which the movement threw its hands up in surrender. Clearly some work is required to restore this wonderful movement to full health once more.
Returning to the job in hand, I start by tackling the ratchet wheel. Or rather the ratchet wheels. The 550 series feature a clever winding system that features two ratchet wheels, one of which, the main ratchet, primarily serves the hand winding capability and the other, the automatic ratchet, is driven by the autowinding mechanism as well as the main ratchet as required. The two ratchets are mounted one atop the other with the main ratchet mounted freely on the automatic ratchet which in turn is mounted onto the barrel arbor through its square holed aperture. The main ratchet rotates the automatic ratchet via a satellite pinion operating on the inner teeth of the automatic ratchet.
The design ensures that winding of the main ratchet simultaneously winds the automatic ratchet but operation of the automatic ratchet through the automatic device provides no reciprocal action on the main ratchet. Moving on, we see that the crown wheel and click are of a fairly conventional design.
This movement uses an indirect sweep second pinion driven by the third wheel. The triangular train wheel bridge secures the third, fourth and escape wheels whilst the sweep second pinion is held in place by a friction spring.
A bit on the mucky side and the corrosion of the setting lever pressure spring a little more evident than in our initial appraisal. Note the proprietary Omega antishock spring set against the Incabloc jewel serving the lower balance pivot.
The automatic device on these watches is ingenious.
The bidirectional winding is orchestrated by the winding gear (550.1464 in the figure below) whose job it is to convert both clockwise and anticlockwise rotation of the rotor into clockwise rotation of the automatic ratchet wheel discussed earlier.
Clockwise rotation of the rotor pinion A turns the winding wheel B in the opposite direction and this in turn causes the superior of the two winding wheels to turn in the direction F2 in the figure above. The rotation of the superior winding wheel is transmitted to the winding wheel core through a locking of the superior satellite pinion K and it is this that turns the pinion G in the same direction. Pinion G then drives the ratchet wheel driving gear, E, in an anticlockwise direction and this in turn drives the automatic ratchet in the direction F3. So far so good. Now what happens when the rotor turns in the opposite direction?
This time, the anticlockwise rotation of the rotor pinion drives both winding wheels B and C, with C meshing with the inferior winding wheel of the winding gear causing it to turn in a clockwise direction, F2, this time controlled by the inferior satellite pinion. I sense that I may be at risk of lulling some of you off to sleep and so let’s curtail this and march on with the business of trying to put theory into practice. This necessarily, requires me to break down the autowinding device into its constituent parts.
This looks healthy enough with no kinks or distortions and so I propose to reuse rather than spring (!) for a new replacement. This brings us to the half way point. We’ve reached the summit, but we still have to find our way back to base camp. Retracing our steps begins with installation of the now clean mainspring back into the barrel, noting the lovely finishing of the barrel.
You will remember that the two part stem was broken and so a new stem was one of the small number of parts I have had to buy in preparation for the rebuild. This prompts a consideration of what to do with the crown, whose gasket is long past its sell-by date. If possible, I want to keep this as original as possible and so rather than attempting to find a new crown, I opt instead to replace the gasket, its encapsulated state notwithstanding. The first step in this process requires gasket extraction.
Some minor impairment to the retaining washer resulted from my exertions but nothing to lose sleep over. Having cleaned the crown, I installed the new stem but will wait until the service is complete before selecting a suitable replacement gasket.
Meanwhile, the rest of the movement parts have been cleaned and dried and we are ready to begin reassembly. First up, the setting parts, upon which I have lavished a brand new setting lever pressure spring.
There was a crease half way along the fork extension which meant that the fork itself was not sitting in the same plane as the pallet jewels. So progress halted at this point while I tracked down a replacement. An excellent seller in Sweden came up trumps and a few days later, a replacement arrived. With the new part cleaned and fitted, we can move on.
One hurdle I had yet to overcome was the lubrication of the winding gear in the automatic device. You will see from the exploded figure shown earlier that the gear comprises seven separate parts and the service guide details how each part should be lubricated. It also sets out how to dismantle the winding gear but this requires special tools. It is possible to improvise but I did not want to run the risk of damaging the part and so instead followed a suggested route to lubrication recommended on one of the Omega forums. This suggests that following cleaning with the other parts, the assembled gear is immersed in Lubeta V105 immersion lubricant designed especially for reversing gears. The process is as simple as immersion for 10 seconds, removal of excess solution using a blower followed by drying within a bell-housing for 15 minutes.
I had entertained attempting to find a replacement dial, but with that appearing to be a fairly remote possibility, I started to come around to the view that the dial spots are in fact beauty spots and should be displayed with pride. In fact they are just freckles and as everyone knows, freckled faces are wonderful.
Let’s take a break from the movement and turn our attention to the hands. While the dial flaws can be celebrated, the hands were verging on decrepit. In fact, in attempting to clean off some of the corrosion, the seconds hand disintegrated altogether and I had to source a spare from an old Omega Geneve I had left over from a previous project. You may also have noticed in the opening appraisal photo that the black infill on the minute hand had mostly fallen out and so some sort of relume job was required. I accomplished this by removing all of the old infill on both hands and replacing it with a mix of white lume powder, black matt emulsion paint and binder. This seems to have done the trick.
We are pretty much ready at this point to refit the movement to the case. I should mention before doing so that the movement was showing between 250 and 275 degrees of amplitude with its original mainspring refitted and noiseless timing curves with low beat error and so I was content enough to commit to reuniting movement and case knowing that any subsequent regulation would require a rather tedious business of extracting crystal and movement from the top once again. The process continues therefore with crown and female part-stem being separated from the male part.
The crown with its female part-stem is then placed through the crown tube with its slot aligned with the male part and simply pressed into place with a satisfying click (no sniggering at the back please).
Any good plot line has some sort of twist to round things off and this is no exception. You will remember that I reported at the start that the watch had been supplied with an aftermarket acrylic crystal. The part number on the packaging was G22740 which corresponds on Cousins’ site to a 31.6 mm domed acrylic with gold tension ring. Mine even had an Omega symbol impressed at its centre. The design of these one-piece cases is incorporates a collaboration between the case bezel and the profiled edge of the OEM crystal to form the water-tight seal.
My replacement crystal however had a simple flat profile to its sides and could be fitted first, with the bezel following. Innocent as I was initially to these subtleties, I fitted the crystal and bezel and then proceeded to check the timing again. Much to my exasperation, the amplitude had dropped and the timing nowhere near where it had been out of the case. A couple of recycled in and outs later and I was none the wiser and starting to think that something else was amiss with the movement. However, after the final cycle with this aftermarket crystal, the movement stopped altogether with the crystal in place but restarted once more as soon as the crystal was removed again. I noticed too that the crystal tension ring was left sitting around the periphery of the dial rather than coming away with the crystal. This was my light bulb moment. In pressing the crystal into the case, the ill-fitting tension ring was pressing down onto the outer edges of the dial to the extent that it was exerting excessive force and somehow impeding the operation of the movement. With that pressure removed, the movement ran sweetly once more.
The solution of course was to buy an Omega crystal (PX5072) with the correct external profile. Refitting requires the bezel and crystal to be fitted together rather than in sequence and with this done, the watch was complete and running happily.
I have for some time felt that the 550 series of Omega automatic watch movements is one of the more charismatic and certainly most beautiful of all. I have been wanting to tackle this particular project for some time but had not been energised sufficiently to do so partly I think because of the slightly dilapidated cosmetics but also because I knew so little about the brand and had no real emotional investment to commit.
However, I am really pleased to have finally done so now, so much so that I’ve started trawling through auctions for 1950’s and 60’s Seamasters and Constellations in the hope of taking another crack at this most iconic of watch movements. I need to get my eye in first so while I anticipate some more Omega content at some point again in the future, I can’t guarantee it will be soon. In the meantime, I will take pleasure in wearing this one from time to time, and taking satisfaction in knowing that in spite of its elegant, classic lines, beneath is a watch of considerable substance.