Tom Hamilton-Dick’s Omega Chrono-quartz watch turns heads. Made for the 1976 Montreal Olympics, it was the first digital/analogue chronograph. “The thing looks like it’s something Buck Rogers should be wearing,” says the Omega collector — adding that the design resembles the stadium timing boards used at the Games.

The landmark piece is one of five watches owned by the Briton, a deputy principal at a college of further education, that were made to mark the Olympics. He has noticed growing interest in these commemorative timepieces among collectors. “They’re such great talking points,” he says.

Next year’s Winter Games, taking place in Beijing in February, will be the 30th occasion that Omega has held the role of official timekeeper at the Olympics. To mark one year to go, the brand released a stainless steel Seamaster Diver 300m with minute-markers at 2, 4, 8, 10 and 12 in the five Olympic ring colours and the Beijing Games’ emblem stamped on the case back.

Jonathan Darracott, global head of watches at auction house Bonhams, says collectors “get sidetracked” into buying Olympic watches, rather than such pieces being the focus of collections. “They are collectible because they’re unusual watches,” he says. “Not only is it a year watch, but it’s also a city watch.”

Tom Hamilton-Dick’s Omega Chrono-quartz for the 1976 Montreal Olympics
Tom Hamilton-Dick’s Omega Chrono-quartz for the 1976 Montreal Olympics © Tom Hamilton

His favourite example is a gold Omega Seamaster, produced to commemorate the 1956 Melbourne Games, with the Olympic Cross of Merit on the dial. Bonhams sold one for HK$38,125 ($4,900) in 2019, which Darracott says is about three times the value of the same model without the Olympic connection.

Gold Omega Seamaster commermorating the 1956 Melbourne Games © Omega

Most watches that have been made to commemorate the Olympics are Omegas, thanks to the brand’s long association with the event: it was first the official timekeeper in Los Angeles in 1932. There are exceptions, however. A Longines stainless steel chronograph made for the 1972 Munich Olympics sold for HK$14,025 ($1,800) at Bonhams last year.

Longines chronograph for the 1972 Munich Olympics
Longines chronograph for the 1972 Munich Olympics

A rare stainless steel Seiko chronograph with a lap counter, produced for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics — the first of six Games for which the brand served as official timekeeper — led the first auction dedicated to the Japanese watchmaker. Described as the “holy grail” of Seiko watches ahead of the sale at Bonhams last year, the piece went for HK$138,125 ($17,740) and is now on display at the Seiko Museum Ginza.

But it is not only vintage models that are appearing on the secondary market. Phillips sold an Omega Speedmaster made for Tokyo 2020 for HK$63,000 ($8,090), against the top estimate of HK$50,000, in November last year — more than six months before the postponed Games took place. The model, which has a red bezel to represent one of the Olympic Rings, was one of a limited edition of 2,020 pieces launched in the Japanese market before the Games.

Raynald Aeschlimann, president and CEO of Omega, says the appearance of its Olympic watches on the secondary market reflects “the very clear worldwide success of some of these references”.

Seamaster Diver 300m for next year’s Beijing Olympics
Seamaster Diver 300m for next year’s Beijing Olympics

However, Alexandre Ghotbi, head of watches for continental Europe and the Middle East at Phillips, says Olympic watches are a “very niche” area, even though pieces sell at auction at a 5 or 10 per cent premium to comparable models without the connection. It is rarity that makes a watch desirable, he adds, so a watch made to commemorate the Olympics “doesn’t tick all the boxes for . . . a true collector item unless that watch was actually never sold, or never made public and given as gifts to the athletes or to the organisers”.

Sotheby’s sold a Rolex Datejust, dated circa 1988, which featured the Olympic rings on the dial and was made for members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for SFr21,250 ($23,000) in 2014, more than three times its low estimate.

Today, Omega’s partnership with the IOC, which extends to 2032, protects the brand from competition from other companies making Olympic watches. In return, Omega runs its designs past the IOC, in keeping with the protection granted to Olympic logos.

Tyson Gay of the United States wins the Men’s 100m Round 1 Heats, on Day 8 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 4, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Omega via Getty Images)
Omega has been official timekeeper of the Olympic Games on nearly 30 occasions. Shown: Tyson Gay of the United States wins the Men’s 100m Round 1 Heats, on Day 8 of the London 2012 Olympic Games © Getty Images

Aeschlimann, who has noticed more interest in his company’s Olympic watches because of the postponement of Tokyo 2020, says Omega’s association with the Games highlights the brand’s values, including legacy, responsibility, precision and pioneering spirit. “We are on screen not because it is marketing, it’s because we’re given this right from the IOC to make sure that people . . . know [the timing] is precise,” he says. There is also an “emotional part” to the role, he adds, of being there for the athletes and emphasising their performance.

Such global exposure has a knock-on effect: Omega watch sales were higher during this summer’s Olympics than in a “normal” month, says Aeschlimann.

The brand’s social media networks also saw “extremely high peaks”, with the website attracting up to 100 per cent more visitors.

Swimming: 2008 Summer Olympics: USA Michael Phelps in action during start of third leg of Men’s 4x100M Medley Relay Final at National Aquatics Center
© Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Aeschlimann says Omega’s research and development for its Olympic timekeeping mission helps it evolve its mechanical watches.

It is the brand’s history of innovation and precision that appeals to Hamilton-Dick. He says the Olympic watches are “so special because they commemorate a moment in time. There was a specific design, a specific ethos, a specific thinking about introducing that watch at that time to commemorate something that’s so important. The Olympics has been one of the contributors to giving us all more hope this year.”

Get alerts on Watches when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section