Omega Seamaster Aqua Terra Railmaster Review

Share this story:

When the topic of luxury watch brands comes to mind, Omega is likely one of this first you think of. Even if you aren’t into watches, chances are you are aware of the brand. Whether it’s because of their long and rich history (which we detailed here), a relative who wears one, ubiquitous media, event sponsorship or James Bond uttering the word “Omeeega” on a train, they are a household name. Then, should you fall into the trap of becoming a watch enthusiast, it won’t be long until you find yourself with one on your wrist. They are one of those brands that are so core to the mythology of the modern watch, that it’s impossible to not be intrigued by their story and the watches they’ve created over the years.

For most people, the first Omega they will think of is the Speedmaster, and for good reason. The first watch worn on the Moon, it’s as iconic as a watch can be, still a mainstay for the brand, and has the unique feature of being largely unchanged for the last 50 years (the Speedmaster Professional, that is). It’s one of the few watches that is as much a cult classic as a popular success. But, it’s not the only watch the brand is known for, and this year at Basel 2017, Omega celebrated not only the Speedmaster, but two other significant watches that were released alongside it in 1957, the Seamaster 300 and the Railmaster with near visually identical, limited edition rereleases.

While not the Speedmaster in caché, the Seamaster 300 is certainly a well-known and regarded timepiece. Highly collectible and visually intriguing, it’s a big part of Omega’s history. The Railmaster, however, is a bit of an underdog. Alongside the Rolex Milgauss and IWC Ingenieur, it was one of a few watches released in the mid-twentieth century that dealt with the ever-growing concern of magnetism, specifically for railroad engineers and other professionals exposed to magnetic fields. By surrounding the watch’s movement in soft iron, they effectively created a Faraday cage, protecting against up to 1,000 Gauss or 80,000 A/m. (Interesting aside, Tissot is credited with making the first anti-magnetic wristwatch in 1929.)

While conceptually cool, the Railmaster wasn’t a big hit (neither was the early Milgauss) and the watch was discontinued in 1963. While its short lifespan denied the Railmaster the same prestige as its other “master” siblings, it does equate to high collectibility on the vintage market. Regardless, there it stayed in the archives until 2003, when it made a bit of an odd resurgence. Now under the Seamaster Aqua Terra line, the 2003 models were available in 36, 39, 42 and a monstrous 50mm (with a manual Unitas movement). The smaller versions were available with Omega’s new co-axial chronometer calibers. I’ll get to co-axial movements later, but these were among the first watches by the brand to sport this revolutionary technology created by George Daniels.

These Railmasters appear to have remained in the line for a longer time, eventually disappearing in 2012. While visually appealing and sticking to the design motif of the original, this era of the Railmaster had a significant conceptual flaw (though I doubt it played into their eventual retirement)–they had no consideration for magnetism. There was no soft iron cage shielding the co-axial escapement. Quite the opposite, in fact–they featured display case backs. It seems they were Railmasters because of their chronometer status–playing off of the idea of the railway watch–and dial design only.

Once again, the Railmaster was back in the file cabinet. During its absence, Omega turned their engineer’s eyes back to the problem that first inspired the watch–magnetism. Now utilizing silicon in the movement itself–which is non-ferrous by nature–along with other non-ferrous alloys, Omega announced in 2013 their caliber 8508, first featured in the Aqua Terra >15,000 Gauss. As the name indicates, Omega outdid the previous standard of 1,000 Gauss by 15 times, creating a watch that needs no shielding to perform (or outperform, as the case may be, those with soft-iron cages) as the movement itself can’t get magnetized.

Omega introduced this technology into more of their calibers, and eventually began to submit them through a new testing process, earning their >15,000 Gauss, chronometer-rated movements the title of “Master Chronometers.” Now, in 2017, 60 years after launching the Railmaster and equipped with an arsenal of industry-leading tech, Omega has brought the Railmaster back. And while you might be thinking about the LE anniversary model that got a lot of attention last spring, it’s actually this new non-limited version that really matters.

Sporting the Master Chronometer caliber 8806 with a co-axial escapement, the Seamaster Aqua Terra Railmaster is a true spiritual successor to the original, and a visual evolution on the theme.  The soft iron cage is gone, but the anti-magnetic concept that first defined it is still at its core. But perhaps what makes this watch so intriguing to worn&wound is that for the first time a Master Chronometer watch will be available just shy of $5,000 at $4,900 MSRP on a strap ($5,000 as shown on bracelet). While this certainly is far from inexpensive, for a tech-laden watch from a major luxury brand, it’s very competitive and represents a unique “entry-level” luxury offering that any watch enthusiast should be aware of.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Advertisement
$5000

Omega Seamaster Aqua Terra Railmaster Review

Case
Brushed Steel
Movement
Omega Cal 8806
Dial
Brushed Black
Lume
Yes
Lens
Sapphire
Strap
Bracelet
Water Resistance
150
Dimensions
40 x 46.6mm
Thickness
12.5mm
Lug Width
20mm
Crown
push Pull
Warranty
yes
Price
$5000

Case

Like the 2003 model, the new Railmaster is part of the Aqua Terra line, so it utilizes a variant on that twisting lug case. This is a departure from the original, but it’s an appealing modern update. Measuring 40 x 46.6 x 12.48mm (to the top of the domed sapphire) with 20mm lugs, the Railmaster is a pleasantly stout watch with a very wearable size. There’s a lot of metal around the dial from a thick bezel, chapter ring and chunky mid-case that create appealing proportions and the illusion that it’s a bit smaller than it is. It’s also simply very solid looking giving it a reassuring feel. Strangely, other Aqua Terras are 41mm, making the Railmaster a bit unique in the line.

From above, those gorgeous twisting lugs really steal the show. While Omega isn’t the only brand to have used this design concept, it’s definitely associated with them as the Speedmaster has featured a similar design since ‘64, and I think they work fantastically on this watch. I’m actually glad they didn’t go for the original straight lug case you’ll find on the 60th Anniversary LE, as this feels more modern and aggressive.

From the sides, you’ll find that the case is actually quite simple. The sides are flat and lack break lines or ornamentation, but this is made up for in the finishing. The profile is simple as well, with the mid-case running straight across the wrist, turning down ever so slightly for ergonomics. The wide bevel that runs down the case edge, which is part of what creates the twisted lug, adds just the right amount of geometric detail.

Interestingly, the whole case is brushed including this bevel, which on other Aqua Terra models is polished. While the contrast of finishes would make these curves pop more, the brushing is fantastic so you don’t really miss the contrast. The case sides have a beautiful texture that runs horizontal, while the brushing on the bevel is vertical. The way light plays differently off of the two surfaces is very attractive. This is definitely the type of finishing one finds on a higher-end watch. There’s just something about the texture that is more complex and refined.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

On the right side, you’ll find a small push-pull crown with a funny, flared shape. It’s fluted on the sides for grip, and rounds out over its outer face, where you’ll find an Omega logo. To be honest, this is my least favorite detail of the case. I can’t get past it looking a bit like a muffin. Moreover, I just don’t see how the shape relates to the rest of the case or watch. The flared design does make it easier to grasp, but in my opinion that’s not such an issue with cylindrical crowns that it needs to be addressed.

Flipping the watch over, you are presented with a treat for the eyes. The case back is solid steel, and features and incredibly detailed stamping and very appealing shapes. Instead of your typical tool grips, this case back features a series of scallops that must align with a proprietary device. It’s functional, obviously, but also visually appealing. In the center, you’ll then find an elaborate relief of the Seamaster Hippocampus (this is part of the Seamaster family, after all) with an arcing “Railmaster” above and the Omega logo below–all floating on a textured background. It’s simply gorgeous. It’s like having a secret piece of art to enjoy when the watch is off your wrist.

Additionally, you’ll find a little bit of text including “Anti-magnetic,” “15,000 Gauss,” “150m/500ft,” and most curiously, “Naiad Lock.” Omega has used the term “Naiad” on crowns before; in fact, the original Railmaster featured it, denoting that the crown sealed tighter as the watch was under more pressure. Here, the “Naiad Lock” is a new system that allows for the case back to screw on and be centered every time, thus putting the artwork in the correct orientation.

It should be clear that I’m a big fan of what Omega did with this case back, but I can’t help but wonder if this watch, at the very least from a conceptual standpoint, should have an open case back. As I wrote above, the original had a soft iron cage to prevent against magnetism, and the 2003 model had a display case back and forewent any anti-magnetic shielding. The new Railmaster has a Master Chronometer movement in it, which far surpasses the original watch at its goal, but doesn’t need any shielding, thus can be on full view. Here, showing the caliber 8600 would have felt like the watch (and Omega) celebrated the achievement more. Also, the Omega caliber 8XXX series happen to be very cool looking.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Advertisement

Dial

The dial of the Railmaster takes the original design concept of the watch into new and intriguing territory. It still has the most distinctive elements of the original, but mixes in some new details making it ride between a recreation and a modernization. The dial surface is the first thing that will catch your eye. Instead of matte black, Omega has gone with a vertically brushed surface with a faded black tone. The result is unlike other dials I have come across, and it’s very enjoyable. The brushing is aggressive and highly random, creating tons of variation across the surface in both tone and depth. When light hits the dial at different angles, it changes wildly.

The faded black coloring is unique as well. It’s a plated color with a bit of metallic sheen, but while it’s called black I would argue it’s really a lighter graphite gray, with an almost inky, purple undertone. It’s subtle, but at some angles there is definitely a color to it, which adds to the dynamic light play from the graining.

Pulling from the original, the primary index consists of bold triangle markers for the hours–short and wide at three, six, nine and 12; and long and thin for the rest. The triangles are all lumed and feature “vintage” khaki lume (Omega actually uses the word “vintage” to describe it). The execution of these markers is quite exceptional. First, they appear impossibly flat, and that’s because they are actually recessed, coming just up to the edge of the main dial surface. The color then isn’t simply solid khaki; there is discoloration within where slightly darker patches emerge.  In the dark, the markers glow solid green, and while the vintage-toned paint may not be as bright as C3 it still gives off a respectable amount of light.

While this is probably the most elegantly executed vintage lume I’ve seen, I can’t help but question its use a bit. It looks good and it goes very well with the brushed black dial, but this watch isn’t a re-creation like the 60th Anniversary edition is, nor does it look vintage. It’s a modern interpretation of the Railmaster. Crisp white or slightly green lume would likely still look great on this watch. Perhaps it’s not a matter of either/or, and it’s more a matter of having the option as this version is definitely stylish, but a purely modern version would be tempting as well.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

You’ll then find three, six, nine and 12 numerals printed in white, and a cross-hair tying the numerals and branding elements together. Let’s start with the numerals. This is a detail from the original, but in a typeface that is far more graphic and modern. At first, I sort of longed for the bolder vintage text or a modernized version of it, like the sort we saw on the Seamaster 300s released a couple of years ago. That said, this eventually grew on me. It’s clean, legible, less baroque and it gives the watch a more understated feel.

Below 12 you’ll find the customary Omega logo and wordmark in white, while above six you’ll find “Railmaster” in a hand-written script (speaking to the original) in a khaki tone, with “co-axial master chronometer” beneath in small caps in white. While there is a decent amount of text above six, I think it’s well proportioned, mirroring the logo at 12 in weight. Extending from three to nine and the logo to the text block are thin white lines creating a cross-hair. I’m a sucker for cross-hairs, and I think this one works very well. It subtly uses up negative space, and while not a detail on the original, it does recall mid-20th century designs.

The last graphic element of the dial is a railroad index around the outer edge. Another departure from the original design, it’s a slightly on-the-nose reference to trains, but it’s nevertheless visually appealing. I quite like the contrast between the weight of the thin line on this index and the bold triangles that cut right through it. All together, the dial elements play off of each very nicely, creating a balanced whole that is as legible as it is stylish.

For hands, Omega went with brushed batons with khaki lume filling for the hour and minute, and a lollipop seconds hand. This is a slight departure from the original, which is known for having a broad arrow hour and dauphine minutes (like what you’ll see on the 60th Anniversary). That said, there were some baton-handed models made back in the ’50s–they’re just rare. Anyway, at first I thought, well, that’s a bit of a shame as the broad arrow hand is so distinctive, and while Omega wasn’t the only brand to use them, their use definitely tied in with the mythology. Then I thought, this is a new watch and not a replica, so what would work best here is unrelated to all of that. And the baton hands, while more common, have a purposeful, sporty look. Like the change in typeface for the hour numerals, they are a bit more understated, which is something I can always get behind. The lume on the hands also glows more blue than the dial.

Before moving on, the Railmaster is also available with a steel grey dial. Though not on-hand for the review, I had the chance to see it in person and try it on for a few minutes, so I figured I’d give my impressions. It’s a very distinctive look and a much further departure from the original. It also features black accents where the black dial features white. At first blush, it was the more appealing of the two, but then the added contrast from the black dial made that model pull ahead. The khaki lume and brushed steel are just a bit too similar tonally, making the triangles pull back and the black numerals  become the center of attention. The hands  are also the same brushed steel, so they are much less visible. It’s a cool look, but the black dial just felt more well-tuned.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Advertisement

Caliber 8806, Co-Axial Escapements and Master Chronometers

While the case and dial design of the Railmaster make it visually appealing, what sets it and other modern Omegas apart are the movements within. Behind that crazy case back, you’ll find the in-house Omega Caliber 8806, which is a no-date version of the 8800 released in 2016. The 8806 is a 35-jewel, bi-directional automatic caliber with hacking seconds, a free-sprung balance, a Si14 silicon balance spring, co-axial escapement, 55-hours of power reserve and a frequency of 25,200 bph (which is seven beats a second). Though in this instance you can’t see it, it’s also a nicely decorated movement, featuring rhodium plating and Côtes de Genève in “Arabesque,” meaning a spiral sort of shape. It is also a METAS-certified Master Chronometer.

The 8806 shares the same architecture as the 8806, but lacks the Sedna Gold

Before getting to Master Chronometers and METAS, we’ve got to get through the co-axial escapement. People have already written long articles about this–heck, probably even books–so I have no intention of doing that here. This will just be a not-particularly-technical overview. For something more substantive, check some of the links at the end of the article. Basically, all of the mechanical wristwatches you own or have owned use the Swiss lever escapement, which was invented by Thomas Mudge a couple of centuries ago. While it does a fine enough job, it isn’t perfect. Friction is the enemy of efficiency and longevity, and because the Swiss lever escapement uses sliding friction to work, it needs regular oiling and maintenance.

George Daniels, the famed British watchmaker, invented the co-axial escapement to solve this problem by eliminating sliding friction in favor of direct impulse friction. A good way to picture this was explained to me by Nicholas Manousos when I met with him about his Tourbillon 1000X. He said to picture opening a door by sliding your arm against it, starting on the outside moving in. That’s the Swiss lever. Now imagine pushing it directly in one spot and the door flinging open. That’s the co-axial. You can picture and feel the difference in the types of friction, with the first example clearly creating more.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

How does this work? Well, that’s where I’m going to default to more technical articles. To quote Europa Star, “He succeeded in greatly minimizing the sliding friction by completely separating the functions of locking and impulsion.” The escapement still uses many pieces you might be familiar with and it’s made of the same materials, but it works differently due to–as this layman sees it–a clever arrangement of the parts coupled with some very complex geometry. The result is an escapement that doesn’t need lubrication (though other parts of the movement certainly do, so this doesn’t stop a need for maintenance).

People love to go back and forth about the pros and cons of co-axials from tricky servicing to added cost, etc., but for the sake of this article, let’s accept it for what it is–a cool piece of tech that is currently only in mass production by Omega, and thus it adds value to the watch. Is it still going to need servicing? Yes. Is it best to bring it to Omega when you need it? Yes. Will it hopefully make your watch last longer and work better? Yes.

Omega has been putting co-axial escapements in their movements since 1999–at first they trickled them in, but now almost entirely with their in-house movements (that said, it’s unlikely we’ll see a co-axial caliber 1861 in the Speedmaster Professional, as that would differ from what NASA approved all those years ago). With the 8806, the co-axial is only part of the story, as the watch is also a Master Chronometer, which basically wraps the concept of a chronometer together with passing a series of tests within high anti-magnetic fields.

Before getting to those tests it’s worth knowing the background of the Master Chronometer. With their new anti-magnetic movement in tow, Omega worked with the Swiss Federal Institute of Metrology (METAS) to develop a series of tests for chronometers to hold them to a “higher” standard. The tests are performed within Omega’s manufacturing facilities, but they’re conducted by independent METAS employees. After the movement has been manufactured, it goes to the COSC for chronometer certification. After that, it comes back for Master Chronometer certification. That’s when the movements undergo eight tests of not just the movement, but also of the movement in the watch (which is an important difference as COSC tests are done prior to casing).

Advertisement
The Omega Co-Axial Escapement with Silicon Hairspring

From Omega’s website, the eight tests are:

1. Function of COSC-approved movement during exposure to a 15,000 Gauss field.
2. Function of watch (as in COSC movement in finished watch) during exposure to 15,000 Gauss field.
3. Deviation of daily chronometric precision after exposure to 15,000 Gauss (checks the difference post exposure and demagnetization after 24 hours).
4. Average daily chronometric precision of the watch (a four-day test in six positions and two temperatures with exposure to 15,000 Gauss field, after which the average deviation is recorded).
5. Power Reserve test.
6. Deviation of chronometric precision in six positions.
7. Deviation of chronometric precision between 100% and 33% of power reserve.
8. Water resistance (writer’s note: because, why not?)

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

If the watch goes through all of these tests and stays within accepted limits of chronometric precision, then it earns the label of Master Chronometer. As for how it survives these fields, credit should be given to the materials that make up the movement. Perhaps most significantly, the balance spring is made of silicon, which is simply unaffected by magnetic fields. As the balance spring is typically most affected by magnets, this goes a long way. That said, silicon balances are nothing new and can now be found in watches from brands ranging from Patek to Tissot, yet they aren’t boasting these same claims (ok, in fairness, the Rolex caliber 3255 is made of nickel-phosphorous and is, to use their words, “insensitive to magnetic interference”). Additionally, Omega says that they are using new non-ferrous alloys in the construction of the movement. It would seem that the two combined create the special anti-magnetic sauce.

Why go through all this trouble? Well, magnetism is an issue with watches, for sure. While we might not all be railroad engineers or building Tesla coils in our basements, our electronics produce fields and it’s a common cause of errant timekeeping. 15,000 Gauss is way above what you are likely to run into, but overkill is the name of the game here. The other part is showmanship as Omega is setting a bar that they can say they are above, while no one else currently is. Optics play a big role in the marketing of luxury goods, so designators like “Master” certainly can’t hurt. At least it’s not an empty expression as these tests are real and rigorous, and they result in more accurate watches.

Straps

There are three strap options for the Railmaster; a leather NATO, a herringbone tweed two-piece and a metal bracelet. The first two come in at $4,900 while the bracelet is $5,000. The bracelet is 20mm at the solid end-links and tapers to 18mm at the clasp. It’s a very simple, straightforward bracelet with a three-link design that is fully brushed. It’s about 3.6mm thick, making it solid, but not too heavy and comfortable to wear. It features a butterfly clasp, which keeps the bracelet flat under the wrist. I happen to really like the butterfly closure as it minimizes bulk, which is especially pleasant when typing on a laptop.

I’m a bit torn on the bracelet. On the one hand, it’s completely inoffensive, comfortable, it looks fine on the watch and it gets the job done. On the other, there just isn’t anything special about it. I’m glad there was no unnecessary polished detailing, but I wish there was something more. After having seen and tried the rivet bracelets from Tudor and Oris, I’ve come to want a bit more style in my tool-watch metal. Also, and I know this is a controversial point of view, I don’t love how end links fit with twisted lugs. They just never look quite right, and actually take a way a bit from the dramatic visual of the twist.

Needless to say, I tried the watch out on a couple of leather straps, and found that to be the most appealing pairing. The leather provides a nice contrast to the brushed case, making the geometry jump out and the watch actually feels a bit smaller or more compact. The natural and rugged texture of the leather then brings out the dial even more. With that said, I’d probably pick the watch up with the bracelet to have it on occasion, and I’d simply get some extra straps after the fact.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Wearability

On the wrist, the Railmaster is wonderful to wear. It’s a great size at 40 x 46.6, which is fairly short lug-to-lug making it sit nicely on top of the wrist. 40mm seems to be a modern goldilocks size, especially when there is some bezel to it. It mixes everyday versatility with presence. The thick bezel and lugs then give it this solid, sport watch feel that, as I wrote before, has a reassuring sense of quality to it. The 12.5mm height works proportionally with the watch as well. It’s not thin, but you don’t really need it to be.

Aesthetically, the Railmaster is a bit hard to put your finger on, but ultimately it’s very appealing. The brushed case is casual and masculine with just enough style coming from the curved lugs to make it pop. The dial is then this energetic mix of textures and tones with the dynamic brushed surface casting strange reflections and the bright, khaki lume jumping out at you. The triangular markers are also very aggressive, adding some attitude to the otherwise subtle play of finishes.

On Steel
Gray dial on leather NATO
…and the 60th Anniversary LE just for the hell of it

Visually, it’s unlike other watches I’ve worn, and over the too-short-time I had with it the watch was nearly impossible to take off. At times, it seems thoroughly modern, and at other times it speaks to a vintage sensibility.  It’s also versatile in terms of outfits, looking great with casual, rugged clothing, yet fitting in great with a blazer, too.

One of the things I really like about wearing the Railmaster, is that it doesn’t scream luxury. It lacks bling from polished curves, applied indexes, gold surrounds and some of those other details that, whether from a high-end brand or not, seem to indicate “expensive” on a macro level. In some respects, it’s actually a fairly simple, understated watch with some cool, graphic elements that are aggressive at times, but never showy. What it hides within is for you to know, and it’s not overtly communicated on the exterior. It’s a sport watch–a tool watch even–that while obviously carrying a significant price tag doesn’t try to dress up that fact with glitzy details.

Conclusion

The new Omega Railmaster represents a smart step by the brand back into the “entry-level” luxury market. Over the last few years, we’ve seen more and more brands offer higher value in the $3,000 – $5,000 range. Better tech, in-house movements and simply desirable branding–if you’re into it–have become more available. It’s great to see as that price point used to be full of fluff watches where marketing meant more than watchmaking.

The Two Railmasters

While the Railmaster is at the upper end of the spectrum, it’s the first time that Omega has made one of their co-axial Master Chronometers available sub or at $5,000 MSRP. Not only will this be desirable for people looking for something in that range, but also shows that some of what was available at a previously more unobtainable price point might be making its way down. After all, it makes sense, especially with technology, that it will get cheaper the more it gets produced. While I doubt Omega will come down that much more (of course, we’re talking MSRP and street price will already be less), it makes sense for them to be competing in this price bracket too.

Regardless of all that, the Railmaster is also just a really enjoyable watch. The updated Railmaster styling works well. It’s quirky and fun in a way that is unexpected from a big Swiss brand, and while familiar in some ways, it doesn’t look or feel like anything else on the market right now. More over, it’s beautifully made, as you’d expect, and it wears very well and is stylish to boot. Then you have the movement inside, adding some serious credentials. For people who have been eyeing watches in the $3 – $5,000 range, this is going to be one very worth considering.


For more information, visit Omega (note that at the time of publishing, the Railmaster is not featured on the site).

additional resources:

On Railmasters
On the Railmaster 2003
On Co-Axial Escapements
On Co-Axial Escapements 2
On METAS and the Master Chronometer Rating

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Images from this post:

Save

Zach is the Co-Founder and Executive Editor of Worn & Wound. Before diving headfirst into the world of watches, he spent his days as a product and graphic designer. Zach views watches as the perfect synergy of 2D and 3D design: the place where form, function, fashion and mechanical wonderment come together.
wornandwound zsw
Categories: