The Rolex Daytona and Omega Speedmaster are generally regarded as two of the greatest chronograph wristwatches ever made.
Each has its own cult following, adamantly suggesting that its respective watch is obviously superior, and that you’d have to be crazy to consider the other. In truth, each is attempting to cater to an entirely different customer. While both are chronographs, the styling, heritage, finishing, and wearing experience make these two watches feel more different than alike. As with everything good in the watch industry, the defining elements are the details — the finite differences that make a collector value one watch and hate another.
Today we’re going to analyze the historical and modern contexts of the Daytona and Speedy to help you decide which group of emphatic supporters to join.
History and Modern Identity
There’s some contention about when exactly the Daytona first emerged. The general convention is that the 1963 “Cosmograph” Reference 6239 was the earliest Daytona reference (today the Daytona is officially named the “Cosmograph Daytona”), but it wasn’t until 1965 that “Daytona” was officially printed on the dial. Rolex so named its chronograph in honor of Daytona, Florida, the epicenter of motor racing in the 1900s — though there are early advertisements suggesting that the watch was originally to be called the “Le Mans.” (This name, however, was never printed on a Rolex dial.)
Rolex Daytona 'Big Red'
The earlier Daytona references were manually wound, but by the late 80’s, Rolex had transitioned to automatic-winding movements. Many of these automatic movements were produced by Zenith (Zenith Daytonas continue to be highly sought after to this day) and later in-house by Rolex. Throughout this evolution, the Daytona transitioned from steel bezels to ceramic, hollow links to solid, and hand-wound to automatic, yet the underlying DNA remained unchanged. A tachymeter scale on the bezel, a classic triple-register display, an Oyster case, and a metal bracelet all remained intrinsically linked with the Daytona identity through the years.
The contemporary Daytona is certainly more luxurious than the original blueprint conceived in the 60s: It features polished center links, an elegant, sloping Datejust-style case, polished appliqué indexes, and fine finishing. Simultaneously, Rolex has adopted a stronger steel alloy on their standard models and moved to ceramic bezels to keep the Daytona looking in top shape through hard use. Today, the Daytona is offered in steel, precious metal, or two-tone steel and gold, further reinforcing the luxury aesthetics and highlighting the elegance of the historically utilitarian design. This is precisely the philosophy of Rolex — to develop robust and reliable sport pieces that are equally luxurious and refined.
In the modern era, the Daytona is considered one of Rolex’s most prized collections. Maintaining a strong presence both within the discerning watch collector pool and in broader pop culture, the Daytona managed to branch its influence beyond the industry. Alongside the Nautilus, many Richard Mille references and the Royal Oak, the Daytona has become a universally recognized status symbol. It’s easily one of the most significant chronograph offerings ever created, and the enthusiasm surrounding it continues to grow.
Omega Speedmaster - IN THE SHOP
HISTORY AND MODERN IDENTITY
Similarly to the Daytona, the Omega Speedmaster was born in 1957 as a racing chronograph. Omega was — and still is — the official watchmaker of the Olympics, and the Speedy complemented its status within sporting culture as a reliable timekeeper. The inaugural Reference 2915 had the tachymeter scale and three register layout of nearly all Speedmasters in history, and ultimately the design hasn’t changed much in the last 60+ years.
Omega Speedmaster - IN THE SHOP
After the 2915, Omega released the Reference 2998, which was the first reference in which every example featured a black tachymeter bezel — (certain later 2915s already sported this feature) — and the contemporary dial layout employed in modern Speedys. Additionally, the 2998 became the “first Omega in space” when it was worn by astronaut Wally Schirra on the Mercury Atlas 8 Mission of 1962. Finally, in 1964, Omega released a reference that’s proven very similar to the modern Speedmaster, the Reference 105.012. The case was completely redesigned, with a larger presence, crown guards and beefier pushers. Abandoning the straight lugs of most previous models, the classic twisted-lug aesthetic of the modern era took shape on the 105.012.
Today, the Speedmaster line has expanded significantly, with many options to choose from that clearly highlight the different eras in the Speedmaster evolution. (The Omega Speedmaster Caliber 321, in particular, recreated the famous movement that outfitted the “Moonwatch.”) The Speedmaster in its classic orientation is manually wound, and many variants today feature exhibition casebacks to flaunt their beautiful movements. There’s no doubt that the story of the Moonwatch within the Omega heritage has been the true source of the brand’s popularity in the modern era. (Well, that and James Bond!) There’s a nostalgic association many have between the quest to put a man on the Moon and the watch that accompanied him.
Omega Speedmaster Professional - IN THE SHOP
The modern Speedmaster is a strap monster — nearly every color and texture seems to work with the piece, adding to the versatility of the design. Omega has made Hesalite variations to commemorate the original Hesalite crystals, and modern sapphire versions for those desiring a more modern performance-oriented material. Like the Daytona, the Speedmaster has a cult following of loyal supporters and enthusiasts who cherish the history and beauty of this most venerable watch.
POLISH VS UTILITY: WHICH ONE WINS?
As we’ve established, the Daytona and the Speedmaster have entirely different identities. The Speedmaster definitely wins on the historical side, the NASA association being hard to match. But subjectively, the Daytona feels more at home with a suit and tie, while the Omega is begging to go hiking. The polished center links, flowing case, and elegant profile of the Daytona of today is appropriate to a different application than the rugged, NATO strap-loving Omega with its black textured dial. In short, the Speedmaster feels like a tool watch, while the modern Daytona seems like an everyday piece.
Rolex Daytona 'Zenith'
Interestingly, the same would not be said of early Daytonas: The Paul Newman era was distinctly tool oriented and utilitarian in design, but with the years the profile has been rounded and edges have been eased. If you like the Daytona style but wish the piece had more sports appeal and less flash, consider a Zenith or steel-bezeled variant, or if you can afford it, go back to early Daytona history. If you prefer a more robust appearance or are a space geek, the Speedmaster is unequivocally your choice. Another point of distinction will be the nature of the movements — the modern Daytona is automatic and the Speedmaster is manually wound, and this will attract different collectors to different pieces.
Omega Speedmaster Professional - IN THE SHOP
The important thing to recognize is that the separate philosophies of these pieces are precisely their appeal: The fact that the Omega Speedmaster has retained its DNA and is suffused with the history of space exploration is exactly what’s made it such a success. Rolex’s slight refinements over the years have likewise built the Daytona into a cultural icon and one of the most sought-after watches in the secondary market.
You ultimately can’t go wrong either way!
Let us know which you prefer and be sure to check out our previous Head to Head here.