Confessions of a Speedmaster Addict: 1969 Tribute to Apollo XI ref. 145.022By Wei Koh
William Blake’s oft-quoted saying goes, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Well I’ve sojourned down that path many times but found the ultimate destination frustratingly elusive. The problem is that I don’t deal with limitations. Which explains why I once ate so many California rolls that I lost consciousness.
I’m serious. Before I could afford the more erudite Edo style sushi, my thing was all you can eat Japanese buffets. And my philosophy was simple. Baring the outbreak of a Salmonella epidemic, I wasn’t going to step away from the table until I thought I was about to lose consciousness. Yep, in buffet terms I was Chuck Yeager pushing the outside of the envelope each time I took to the proverbial skies.
Finally, either as a result of severe dehydration — can’t waste stomach capacity on water — or all the blood rushing from my head to help my faltering digestive system, I actually saw stars and blacked out. Awakening to see two perplexed emergency medical service team members, looking down at me, I croaked out, “Don’t close my tab, I think I can take down a couple more!”
The 1978 Omega Speedmaster Alaska III reference 145.022
It is for this exact lack of impulse control coupled that I should never be admitted into auction rooms of any kind. I’m just going to lose my shit. Yet this is precisely the circumstance I found myself in last year at the Phillips Auction, held in New York, where Paul Newman’s actual Daytona, was on the block.
Knowing my budget made me a non-starter for the most famous wristwatch in Christendom, I had my eyes set on something else, the Omega Speedmaster Alaska III. “Alaska” in Omega speak means NASA and the Alaska III, with its brushed case and radial subdials, was not only the inspiration for the now super collectable Speedy Tuesday watch, but was one of the coolest expressions of the Speedmaster’s relationship with the US space program.
I played it cool but when the bidding started I could feel that crazed, almost fugue like state come over me. It was like an outer body experience where I saw the prices on the big screen shoot past my limits and yet my hand holding my auction paddle was flying upwards. Suddenly the paddle was torn out of my hands and the people I’ve arranged to choke me out Jack Bauer style are approach from behind me. A calm but authoritative voice tells me, “It’s over. You’re done,” with solemn finality.
My Speedmaster Addiction
In recent years, I’ve become obsessed with the Omega Speedmaster. The mythology, the history, the lore; I love it all. The watches are so rich with in-built character and dramatic narrative that it’s safe to say, I’ve developed a pretty severe Speedy addiction.
Enabling this addiction is that thanks to Omega’s incredible, CEO Raynald Aeschlimann and head of product Jean Claude Monachon the brand has yielded some of the most stunning timepieces around invoking vintage codes and clien d’oeils but always bringing something new to the game.
In a very short period of time I’ve bought the blue CK2998, the Silver Snoopy, Speedy Tuesday, two 50th anniversary CLK2915s, (I gave the first one to my buddy George Glasgow as his wedding present) and then went back and bought a Tin Tin made between 2013-2016. But what I was missing was a proper vintage Omega Speedmaster.
I’ll always kick myself for not pulling the trigger on the spot on a tropical CK2998-1 lollipop hand Speedy, which I was shown by a vintage dealer many years back. Though, to be fair, I always suspected he was trying to play me off another bidder and have since viewed him with circumspection.
I had naively thought the ultra rare and incredibly cool Alaska III was going to be it. Dejected, despondent and not a little hung over from the wine heavy lunch before the auction I sauntered over to the bar at the nearby Four Seasons Hotel to think about what watch I might try to target as an alternative.
1969 Yellow Gold Omega Speedmaster Tribute to Apollo XI Reference BA 145.022
For the better part of last decade, I’d been declaring the return of yellow gold to anyone that would listen. And during that time was fortunate enough to amass a few yellow gold watches including a 1979 6265 Daytona with a champagne dial, a 1978 AP Royal Oak, a cloisonné enamel Patek world timer and a piece unique Vacheron Constantin Cornes de Vache.
One watch, which I came tantalizingly close to pulling the trigger on a couple of years back was the stunning 1969 Omega Speedmaster BA 145.022, the watch made to commemorate NASA’s first moon landing. To me this was always one of the coolest Speedmasters ever made.
Its dial was unique amongst Speedies because of its square black markers and the fact that it was crafted out of solid gold. Look down on either side of the Swiss hallmark under the minute track. It reads OM Swiss OM, which stands for Or Massif, which translated to English means made from a big ass chunk of gold. I remember scheduling to see a nice example in a watch shop in Milan’s Duomo just a stone’s throw from the Park Hyatt, where I was decamped from fashion week, but in the end it just didn’t happen. There were 1014 of these made, so a couple of years ago you could find them.
But try looking for one today and you’ll see that it’s close to impossible. Meaning that in the ensuing last two years, savvy collectors have been buying them up. Then all of sudden I see one of the guys in the watch world I respect the most my friend, Ben Clymer post his new BA 145.022 on his Instagram account and I knew something was up. This watch is poised to increase in value and desirability in a big way.
Why? Well, first of all this is one of the most storied Omega’s of all time. The very first 32 of these watches were presented to NASA astronauts in a banquet in Houston to celebrate Apollo XI’s conquest of the moon. For those of you who don’t remember that’s when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed their lunar module on the moon and went for a saunter on its surface.
From a geo political perspective this is one of the most significant events of the 20th century. It effectively ended the Space Race between America and the USSR and the technology that enabled it would later result in the creation of the Internet.
Legend has it that the first two of these gold Speedmasters were presented to Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, who had to decline because of their costliness. You can see these watches in Omega’s museum today. Second of all because vintage yellow gold watches are a blazing a skyward trajectory in value, led by the pump pusher yellow gold Newman Daytonas in particular the “John Player” black dial watches as well as B Series Royal Oaks and much more.
Collector lore has divided the Omega BA 145.022 watches into two categories of dials, those with an oval “O’ in Omega believed to be used for the earlier watches and those with a round “O” believed used in later watches. There were also three types of case backs, with faint writing used in the earliest watches, with deeper writing in the middle of the series and with red lacquer filled writing in the end of series. However, the truth is we see casebacks with red lettering and round “O” dials in enough early watches that it is hard to say conclusively that there are any rules.
Commiserating with my buddy Nacho Lascaray a fantastic contemporary painter, you can check out his work on IG handle @nacholascaray, who also goes by @ck2915, for his watch collection about how it was impossible to find a BA 145.022 today, I suddenly got a message that set my heart pounding in my chest.
Nacho’s friend was selling a beautiful condition 1969 Apollo XI BA 145.022. After a short email exchange, I bought the watch. It was an early example with the faint writing on the caseback and the round “O” dial and instead of a burgundy DON (dot over ninety) bezel it has a black service bezel that looks like the one off the 1980 limited edition reference 345.0802.
Amazingly, though the owner “William” split his time between Bangkok and Surrey, in England he would be in Hong Kong a few days later. Even more amazingly was that my flight was arriving a few hours from when his was departing Hong Kong and we could even meet at the Hong Kong airport express.
Slipping the gold Speedmaster on I was just blown away by the condition of the case, the dial and even the sublime gold bracelet. When I asked if the links could be removed, William explained that in these early bracelet links could only be added or removed by a gold smith. Amazingly, playing around with the fine adjustment the watch was a perfect fit. Just as I was thanking him, William smiled and said the most incredible thing….
“I wanted to wear a very special watch to show you. Something I picked up last year.” With that he pulled up his sleeve and it was like stepping back in time. Surreally enough, sitting on his wrist was the exact Omega Speedmaster Alaska III that I had been bidding on at the Phillips auction last November. He explained, “I bought this at the Phillips auction last year. It’s the only Speedmaster I don’t own.” I looked at him and said, “William I think it is our destiny to be friends.”