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Friday, June 21, 2024

This New Mars Watch Is the Latest High-End Digital Timer

Omega’s cachet as a luxury watchmaker is tied unerringly to its status as the maker of the Moonwatch, the chronograph famously worn by lunar-bound NASA astronauts. But with its latest space-age release, Omega is pushing somewhat further into the cosmos: The Speedmaster X-33 Marstimer gives you the time and functions for both Earth-bound locations and on Mars. 

While the prospect of anyone wearing a watch on the surface of the Red Planet is still over a decade away—NASA is currently aiming for the mid-2030s, while Elon wants to get there sooner, of course—the Marstimer, an update on Omega’s X-33 astronauts’ watch and created under a patented license from the European Space Agency, is being presented as a scientific tool, of professional interest to those engaged in researching our neighbor planet and sending rovers and satellites to investigate it.

However, what the new Marstimer really attests to is the enduring potency of space as a theme to inspire watch buyers, no matter how niche the purpose—and the continuing viability (and improbable fashionability) of high-end digital watches in a world that would seem to have left them behind.

Omega brought out its first digital-analog X-33 Speedmaster back in 1998, conceived then as the ultimate wrist-computer for astronauts. Like its descendent the Marstimer, it combined an analog handset for timekeeping with digital readouts (and a cluster of glove-friendly push-buttons) for additional functions like chronographs, extremely loud alarms, and countdown timers, in a robust titanium package. It was launched, on the back of several years’ R&D, at Houston Space Center and would be worn in space by NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts aboard the MIR space station. As a result, it has picked up a cult following ever since.

It had a style that is now, 24 years on, definitively old-school, though Omega has kept updating and developing it. The new Marstimer, with its orange aluminum bezel inspired by Mars’ hematite surface, is an upgrade on the X-33 Skywalker first launched in 2014. Priced at $6,400 (£6,000), it’s powered by a new, high-grade movement, Calibre 5622, which is highly precise, thermo-compensated, and packed with esoteric functionality. For European Space Agency scientists, Omega reasons (the watch is “ESA tested”), tracking mean solar time at Mars’ prime meridian, or using “Mission Timer” functions calibrated to Mars’ calendar, have realistic applications. Civilians will no doubt find the novelty of knowing the time on Mars happily diverting too.

Nevertheless, as a digital watch (albeit an exceptionally high-functioning one), it’s part of a genre that has been long overhauled by the computational power and user-friendliness of touchscreen smartwatch apps. Yet it’s a genre that continues to power on, finding new appeal among the kinds of buyers and collectors more commonly interested in finely crafted mechanics.

Girard-Perregaux, the boutique haute-horlogerie specialist, sprang a surprise in 2021 when it revived an eccentric digital watch from the 1970s, the Casquette, complete with an antiquated LED screen set into a hooded, sideways display. Limited to 820 examples, it was an instant sell-out, with versions now being resold at well over twice its £3,600 ($3,992) sale price.

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Hamilton, the historic firm that happened also to be the maker of the first-ever digital watch, the Pulsar from 1970, staged a similar act of revival in 2020, bringing back this cushion-cased oddity (now named the PSR). It has also been an unlikely hit, which the brand continues to iterate: This year has seen a black, Matrix-inspired version and a new model with a green LCD-OLED hybrid display (£675).

Meanwhile, Casio’s long-standing G-Shock digital range, known for extreme toughness and some celebrated designs going back to the 1980s, has risen to become a bonafide part of hype culture, with an increasingly vibrant array of streetwise collaborations, celebrity endorsements, and social media championing. A match-up this summer between G-Shock and Bamford London, a watch customization and design business working regularly with luxury staples such as Zenith and TAG Heuer, was an instant sell-out.

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According to George Bamford, founder of Bamford London, nostalgia is an inherent part of the G-Shock’s quirky appeal. “It’s a mixture of ruggedness and ’80s design,” he says. “The digital watch has transcended being something ultramodern to now becoming an icon, just as you’ve seen with mechanical watches. They fit into every major watch collection.”

With the new Apple Watch Ultra, Apple itself has acknowledged the demand for watches with the hardiness to perform as genuine adventure tools, though the digital faithful can point to the one true advantage of a G-Shock or equivalent: a battery life of several years (or indeed solar power), versus the Ultra’s 36-hour charge and inevitable obsolescence.

Omega’s Speedmaster X-33 Marstimer boasts a two-year battery life, which should be just enough for a short Martian round trip when the time comes. Once there, the wearer can make use of the watch’s solar compass (calibrated for both the Earth and for Mars, with the equation of time for each implemented in the watch’s software), which displays true north when the watch is oriented towards the sun and one of its buttons pushed.

Symbols in the LCD display distinguish between Earth and Mars, thanks to Omega developing new software to carry the Mars functionality. Once the Earth-bound Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) is set, the watch can compute Coordinated Mars Time (MTC), the mean solar time at Mars’ prime meridian, which passes through the center of the Airy-0 crater

Martian days being referred to as “sols” (2.7 percent longer than Earth days) are logged, and additional information, including the day of the sol year (out of 669 sol days) along with the day of the week and week number (out of 96) are available. The X-33’s customary event-timer functions—Mission Elapsed Time and Phase Elapsed Time—are also calibrated to a Mars setup.

Could all that be done in an app? Sure, and it has been. But Omega CEO Raynald Aeschlimann counters that this isn’t just about functionality—it’s about romance, something that today could be extended to digital watches in general. “Anyone interested in space, or even science fiction, is obsessed with Mars. It has generated so much curiosity, so many stories,” he says. “To be on Earth and able to track its movements gives the term “timepiece” a new meaning.”

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