Omega Museum to Bid On Author Ralph Ellison's Speedmaster Ref. ST 145.012By Sumit Nag
The historical significance that we the watch collecting community most readily attribute to the hallowed Speedmaster, is its role in the NASA missions to the moon. Hence its well-earned moniker, the Moonwatch. If you’re not terribly familiar with this story there, here are the cliff notes.
James H. Ragan, retired NASA Project Engineer and Program Manager and Petros Protopapas, Omega International Brand Heritage Manager chronicles in the tome Moonwatch Only, that in the lead-up to the Gemini missions, the Agency saw the need to “test, select and certify” a complete array of standard equipment for the astronauts’ use. One such equipment on the list was originally a request that was made by the astronauts themselves, “a watch for use during training and flight.”
Flight Crew Operations Director Deke Slayton took on the task of finding this watch by issuing an internal memo that listed the need for a, “highly durable and accurate chronograph to be used by Gemini and Apollo flight crews.” The memo then passed on to the hands of James Ragan. It was his task to send out the request for quotation to a list of watchmakers, stated earlier by Deke Slayton.
Three brands responded in time for NASA to take the proposed timepieces onboard for testing. These watches were: a Longines-Wittnauer 235T, a Rolex chronograph reference 6238 and, lastly, an Omega Speedmaster reference 105.003. Curious thing to point out here is that the Speedmaster used Omega’s own version of the Lemania 2310 movement, which is the Calibre 321. Whereas the Rolex and Longines timepieces used their own versions of the Valjoux 72.
The rest, as we now know is history, with the Speedmaster having survived NASA’s battery of tests before it could be marked, “Flight Qualified for all Manned Space Missions” on June 1, 1965. The references of the Speedmaster that eventually went to the Moon, specifically were the 105.012 and the 145.012. Both references, therefore, were worn on the lunar surface during the missions of Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17. And as well on board the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission.
Who is Ralph W. Ellison
Familiar as we may be with the Speedmaster’s association with the Lunar missions, you have to wonder how many other incredible stories the watch has been a part of, considering the fact that Omega has kept the chronograph in production for 64 years. One such story has surfaced lately, thanks to the watch itself having set out for auction at Phillips Watches’ 2021 year-end sale in New York.
The timepiece in focus here is Lot 138, a ref. 145.012 that was once the property of Ralph W. Ellison, a 20th century American writer and scholar best known for his renowned, award-winning novel ‘Invisible Man.’
To understand the man the writer was in life and why his continues to be important in the literary landscape, here are a few interviews and recordings that we’d like to recommend you watch.
Further to this, here’s an excerpt from the catalog essay:
Time and time again, we turn to Invisible Man to better understand our present and ourselves. Ellison encompasses not only the Black experience in America, but the American experience itself – the problem of invisibility is not the provenance of one race or culture. The dilution of reality that runs through Invisible Man only serves to make those important moments more visceral. The magnitude of his impact on American literature, culture, and even the arts, cannot be understated. For example, renowned contemporary artists such as Kerry James Marshall created important paintings inspired by Invisible Man, with the ideas of visibility and invisibility in society influencing his artwork. Ellison sought to transcend the narrow definition of what he was supposed to be writing and who he was supposed to be writing for.
Reading Invisible Man with the added lens of a watch enthusiast, watches, clocks, and time are clear motifs appearing throughout the novel. Used as props during key narratives, they are detailed with such nuanced understanding that it’s clear that Ellison was familiar with and perhaps even intrigued by timekeeping and timekeepers. Later in the novel, after receiving Brother Tarp’s leg shackles from his prison sentence, the narrator muses on this unlikely yet deeply poignant gift:
“I looked at the dark band of metal against my fist and dropped it upon the anonymous letter. I neither wanted it nor knew what to do with it; although there was no question of keeping it if for no other reason than that I felt that Brother Tarp’s gesture in offering it was of some deeply felt significance which I was compelled to respect. Something perhaps, like a man passing on to his son his own father’s watch, which the son accepted not because he wanted the old-fashioned timepiece for itself, but because of the overtones of unstated seriousness and solemnity of the paternal gesture which at once joined him with his ancestors, marked a high point of his present, and promised a concreteness to his nebulous and chaotic future. And now I remembered if I had returned home instead of coming north my father would have given me my grandfather’s old-fashioned Hamilton, with its long burr-headed winding stem.”
Not only did Ellison understand the connotation of hereditary significance watches can have – keeping in mind Ellison’s own father died when he was quite young – and the emotional weight they can carry, he could speak of specific watches eloquently and descriptively.
As a man apart from time, “aloof” like one of his idols Faulkner, he endured criticism for not conforming to what is expected of him. After the success of Invisible Man, he spends time lecturing both nationally and internationally, writing short stories and critical essays, and humbly accepting the gamut of literary distinctions. He is an avid musician, particularly jazz, and photographer – a Hasselbad to be exact – a dog enthusiast, a cigar aficionado. His home on the Upper West Side overlooking Riverside Park is filled with African idols, framed prints, thousands of books and clippings. He wears impeccably tailored suits and tuxedos, and a well-groomed moustache. On his wrist, beginning in the summer of 1968, an Omega Speedmaster reference 145.012-67 – the present lot.
An odd detail about the research done by Phillips has pointed out that Ralph W. Ellison’s 145.012 was often photographed on his wrist with a missing pusher. Specifically the start/stop pusher. The present consignor, according to Phillips, “serviced the watch, where only the movement was cleaned and adjusted, a period-correct chronograph pusher installed, and the gasket and crystal replaced to ensure water resistance. The original crystal, in fact, accompanies the watch. Otherwise, it is in its original state of preservation as purchased from the auction house, almost exactly as it had been worn by Ellison for the twenty-five years it was in his possession.”
Phillips also states that the consignor enlisted the help of renowned journalist Michael Clerizo who managed to uncover within the Ralph Ellison Archives kept at the Library of Congress, copies of Ralph Ellison and his wife’s insurance statements where the exact serial number of the watch had been consistently recorded.
Omega, the brand themselves, have gone further to ascertain listing that, “with the serial number, we can confirm the model reference. The Speedmaster that eventually became Ralph Ellison’s watch was produced on March the 15th, 1968, and our archives further confirm delivery of the watch to the USA on April the 30th, 1968, via our agent of the time – Norman M. Morris Corp. in New York.”
But Omega isn’t stopping just at research. Having recognised the authenticity of the timepiece and its significance, the OMEGA Museum will be on site in New York to bid for the Speedmaster.
Lot 138 at the 2021 Phillips New York Watch auction is to be offered at session 2 of the sale on December the 12th at 432 Park Avenue, New York, NY, United States, 10022. Estimate on the lot is listed at the moment at a conservative USD 10,000 – 20,000.
More details: phillips.com