The last few years have been particularly interesting ones in the watch world. As watchmakers new and old work to find ways to appeal to a new generation of customers with different wants, needs, and behaviors than the previous generation, they have tried a number of strategies. There are those who think straight vintage re-issues are the way to snag that fledgling collector who might be comparison shopping against a vintage Sub; there are those who think going high-tech will convince someone that mechanical watches can still go toe-to-toe with smartwatches as a solution for the future; and there are those who decide taking the best of both of those approaches to create products that feel both grounded and contemporary.
Omega is, at times, all three of these watchmakers. There are watches like those in the Trilogy collection that are literary part for part recreations of pieces from the archive at one end of the spectrum and watches like the cutting-edge Speedmaster X-33 at the other. But, sitting right in the center, is the new Seamaster Railmaster. No watch better exemplifies this third way of watchmaking, which at once nods to the past while also creating something new that could never have been imagined half a century ago. This watch draws on a collector favorite from the 1950s, but you don’t need to know a single thing about Omega’s history to get everything out of the Seamaster Railmaster. It is that all important thing – just a really great watch.
Sixty Years Of The Railmaster
In 1957, Omega released the very first Railmaster, the reference CK2914. We all think of dive watches and hearty chronographs as tool watches, but the Railmaster was a tool watch of a different sort: It was a watch for scientists that could stand up to the magnetic fields encountered in the laboratory. As you likely know, magnetism can wreak havoc on a mechanical watch, distorting the balance spring and impacting its ability to maintain a stable frequency, and thus keep accurate time. The CK2914 used a soft iron inner case as a Faraday Cage and a thicker dial to shield the movement from outside magnetic fields of strengths up to 1,000 Gauss.
Omega wasn’t the only watch manufacturer creating this kind of watch. Rolex famously has the Milgauss, which takes its name directly from the 1,000-Gauss resistance (mille being French for 1,000) and was developed in partnership with the Swiss laboratory CERN. The watch was produced from 1956 until 1988 (with there being two major generations in that time frame, the 6543/6541 and the 1019), before it was again revived in 2007. Likewise, IWC has the Ingenieur, which actually came before either the Milgauss or the Railmaster, debuting in 1954. By that time, IWC already had a history of producing anti-magnetic watches for pilots, so the Ingenieur seemed a logical next step. Two decades later, it would get an overhaul by Gerald Genta in the form of the Ingenieur SL and today the brand has kept the line alive as a collection of racing-inspired watches, though that’s a story for another time.
The Railmaster 60th Anniversary Limited Edition
Watch brand’s are great at finding anniversaries to celebrate and historic models that need re-inventing, but Omega kind of hit the jackpot last year with the concurrent 60th anniversaries of the Speedmaster, Seamaster 300, and Railmaster. Totally separate from the watch collection being reviewed here, Omega also released a limited edition recreation of the original 1957 Railmaster too, faithful down to nearly every detail.
While technologically advanced and practical for a very specific type of wearer, the Railmaster was not a top seller for Omega and the model was retired in 1963, just six years after its launch. You have to remember, this was the age of typewriters, rotary telephones, and manual transmissions – watch wearers weren’t contending with a world filled with electronics, all of which generate some level of magnetism that a mechanical watch must deal with in one way or another.
Over this short period of time, however, a number of variations of the Railmaster CK2914 were produced. Most had black dials, though there were some variations with white dials, including a few with railroad-style numerals and markers. The hands varied a great deal as well, with the most recognizable black dial, with its triangle-shaped luminous markers, being paired with broad arrow, dauphine, and baton-shaped hands in different configurations. While the different varieties make vintage Railmasters particularly interesting, it also makes knowing if a given example is good or bad a challenge. This is one of those watches where you really want to consult an expert before jumping.
The most lasting impact of the Railmaster, however, is seen in Omega’s commitment to anti-magnetism in all of its modern watches. There is no brand today that is pushing harder in this direction, and Omega has been doing so for quite some time. The Seamaster Aqua Terra 15,000 Gauss certainly got a lot of attention when it was released in 2013, but Omega has quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) been integrating that technology into all of its high-end movements too. The brand’s stated goal is to make its movements as durable as possible and to reduce the frequency with which they need to be serviced. That’s an easy objective to get behind.
The Seamaster Railmaster
That brings us to the watch at hand, the awkwardly named Seamaster Railmaster (as one of my colleagues noted, there are no trains in the ocean, but I digress). This watch sits within Omega’s main Seamaster collection, alongside the various Aqua Terra and Planet Ocean watches. While at first I thought this was a strange choice, the logic sort of makes sense to me now. Instead of giving the Railmaster its own top-line collection – placing it alongside the Speedmaster and Constellation – placing it within the Seamaster collection places the watch in the context of the strides made within that family over the last decade or two and underscores that the Railmaster’s special properties aren’t something to be walled off. Rather, this is a stylistic divergence that brings its own weight to bear on the rest of the Seamaster models as well.
I knew right away at Baselworld last year that this was a watch I wanted to spend some time with. However, while many of the new releases would be coming to market over the summer months, this watch wouldn’t be landing on wrists until much latter in the year. I had to be patient. Eventually though, a pair of Railmasters made their way to HODINKEE HQ, and I knew it was worth the wait.
The Railmaster is one of those watches that I put on and enjoyed right from the get-go and that didn’t seem ostentatious or out of place in my life at all.
I chose to spend my week primarily with the version of the Railmaster you see above, with the black dial and the stainless steel bracelet, though I did wear the grey dial version with a leather NATO strap for a day or two just to get the full experience.
The Seamaster Railmaster comes in a 40mm stainless steel case that measures a hair over 12mm thick. The result is something that feels very sturdy both in the hand and on the wrist without being excessively heavy or chunky. You’re not going to mistake this for a vintage watch by any means, but that’s not the point here. What makes the dimensions really work though is the sense of proportion. The way the bezel is integrated into the case is simple but effective and the length of the lugs in relation to the size of the case makes it feel like a compact, no-nonsense package.
The finishing on the Railmaster’s case is almost totally unique in the modern watch world. There are no brightly polished surfaces in sight. Not one. From the bezel to the case band to the facets of the twisted lugs, everything has a soft brushed finish. I would describe this as sitting somewhere between a bead-blasted look and a true directional finish. You definitely see some grain, especially on the sides of the case, but it’s not dramatic, and I get the sense that the watch will age exceptionally well, taking marks and scratches gracefully. The twisted lugs are quintessential Omega and to me they’re essential to making this design work.
One thing that might surprise you is the lack of an open caseback. Old-school antimagnetic watches had to have closed backs by necessity – that’s no longer the case with the use of non-ferrous materials in movements. That said, while I wouldn’t mind looking at the beautiful Caliber 8806 movement underneath, there’s something super pure about Omega opting for the steel back here, plus it cuts down a bit on height. You’ll also notice that the wording and Railmaster logo all appear perfectly upright. This is because of a patent-pending system called the Naiad Lock that allows Omega to both get a tight seal and ensure that the orientation is always identical. Again, it’s not a make or break thing, but the attention to detail is appreciated.
As I mentioned earlier, there are two dial options for the Railmaster, one black and one grey, but they share a number of key features. Both have a dramatic, vertically brushed finish that catches a ton of light and adds a lot of visual interest. Additionally, the basic layout and markers are the same with both too. There is a white printed chapter ring at the very edge, just inside the rehaut, that is punctuated by 12 triangles made of Super-LumiNova that is nearly identical in color to aged radium. These triangle are actually set into the dial so the surface of the lume is nearly flush with the surface of the dial. This is a little thing, but it makes a huge different.
Working our way in, there are white printed Arabic numerals at the poles, another carry-over from the CK2914, along with a matching crosshairs. The Omega logo and “Co-Axial Master Chronometer” are both printed in white, while the scrolling Railmaster letter mark is printed in beige to match the lume. This gives the dial an added punch while also providing a nice sense of balance.
The dial finishes alone are something to behold.
The hands are simple and effective, with a baton shape for the hour and minute hands and a lollipop shape for the central seconds hand. All are filled with lume that matches that on the dial itself, and the minute hand is ever so slightly thinner than the hour hand. The hands themselves are polished, so you get a hint of reflection off of them, further helping legibility.
The dial finishes alone are something to behold. The black can look a rich, deep black in direct lighting, but the moment light begins to hit it at any angle, the dial lights up. The brushing really catches the light and you can see the deep varied grain. This has the effect of making the dial appear more like a dark grey than a true black in most cases, which isn’t something I minded at all. Likewise, the grey can appear like a soft, even dove grey in certain light and almost like a piece of polished metal in other light.
The only real downside to this is that in some lighting conditions, especially when outside on a sunny day, you can get a little too much reflection and the watch gets a bit difficult to read. Now, you can just turn your wrist a bit here and there and you’ll be fine – the watch is never illegible – but it can be a bit annoying.
While you can’t see the movement through the steel caseback, this watch is packing serious heat under the hood. Powering the Railmaster is the Omega Caliber 8806, a time-only movement that carries the best of what Omega has to offer today. First off, it both has the co-axial escapement utilizing a free-spring balance wheel and a silicon balance spring and is certified as a Master Chronometer by the Omega-founded Swiss Federal Institute of Metrology (METAS). This means is can handle up to 15,000 Gauss of magnetism and is regulated to +4 seconds per day (there is no minus tolerance – the watch is essentially +2/-2 for a rate that is two seconds fast).
The 8806 is an automatic movement and it carries a power reserve of 55 hours. The winding mechanism works in both directions and the entire movement runs in 35 jewels. Furthermore, despite being hidden, the movement carries all the usual finishes. This means the deep stripes radiating from the movement’s center point as well as a a rhodium-plated finish and red-filled lettering.
On The Wrist
If this watch looks good on paper, and even better sitting on a table in front of you, it really hits its stride on the wrist. Sometimes you strap a watch on, and you get that settled-in feeling immediately – that’s exactly how I felt when I closed the folding clasp on the Railmaster’s bracelet, shaking my wrist a bit to let the watch fall properly. That the bracelet happened to be sized for me right out of the box only helped things along.
At 40mm across, this watch is on the larger size for my personal taste. I know that’s right in the sweet spot for a lot of people (and even on the small side for some), but no matter what size your wrist might be or where your preference lie, the Seamaster Railmaster can wedge itself in there and work for you. The way that the bracelet meets the case with fitted end links means that you get a gentle drape of the links, and the watch feels weighty enough to let you know it’s there without getting uncomfortable during days of either endless typing or walking around New York City.
Sometimes I wear watches for reviews and I end up getting lots of questions from friends and colleagues. You know, the good ole’ “Oh man, what’s that?” over drinks or a curious, “Wait, what are you wearing?” from a desk mate (hey Cara!). This watch, however, provoked none of that. And I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. The Railmaster is one of those watches that I put on and enjoyed right from the get-go and that didn’t seem ostentatious or out of place in my life at all. The people around me didn’t think twice that this is what would be on my wrist. That silence might say even more than the usual questions.
Personally, I don’t think I’d wear this watch with anything dressier than a very casual sport coat, though the size doesn’t really cause any cuff problems. But calling this a “sports watch” somehow still doesn’t feel quite right. Maybe we go with “casual watch” then? For a lot of people, this is a solid everyday style, going from jeans and a t-shirt to a nice sweater or a casual jacket for a night out. If you’re wearing lots of suits, best to invest in a true dress watch – but for everyone else, this should do the trick day in and day out.
Up until now, I haven’t even mentioned the price of this watch. The Seamaster Railmaster retails for $5,100 on the bracelet and $4,900 on the leather strap. I’m going to go ahead and say that if you’re buying this watch, get the steel bracelet. For $200, you would really have to be a fool not to – you can get a comparable or better quality leather strap for about $200, while the bracelet adds hundreds of dollars in value to the watch in my opinion.
If you’re looking at the Railmaster, you’re probably looking for a relatively casual watch in a medium size that you can wear every single day. Let’s throw in the qualification that the watch must be available on a bracelet, since I’ve just made that non-negotiable (seriously, if you buy this watch and don’t get the bracelet, message me on Instagram or let me know in the comments below – I’d love to know why). Here are a few standout options that might catch your eye and offer alternatives of various kinds to the Omega.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual 39mm
If we’re talking about a daily wearer from Omega, you know the first thing we have to look at is what Rolex offers as competition. The 39mm Oyster Perpetual is closest to the Railmaster when you factor in price and style. At $5,700, it’s not much more than the Omega, and you still get a chronometer-certified watch with an anti-magnetic hairspring. You do lose the vintage styling here, as the Oyster is very much a contemporary watch, albeit one that will look good forever. The grey dial with blue accents is a particularly compelling option. So why it isn’t the Milgauss here? The reasoning is simple: it is more than 50% more expensive than the Railmaster, so it’s not really a fair comparison.
Grand Seiko SBGR309
While I really like the soft lines of the Railmaster and the muted finish, some people like something punchier. At $4,600, the SBGR309 is $500 less expensive than the Railmaster and offers just that. What you’re not getting here are all of the anti-magnetic properties that are core to what the Railmaster is, but if that’s a primary concern for you, you’re probably not worried too much about comparison shopping. If what you want is an everyday watch with a black dial and steel bracelet, this offers all of that with a slightly sharper, higher-contrast look. In particular, the Zaratsu polished case and the diamond polished hands really gleam in the light, and the entire package has the look of a high-precision timekeeper.
IWC Pilot’s Watch Mark XVIII
Okay, I’ll admit it, this isn’t the first watch I thought of when trying to come up with comps for the Railmaster. However, if you accept that the criteria here are a casual watch in a moderate size with a steel bracelet, it totally fits the bill. The Pilot’s Watch Mark XVIII is priced at $4,950, so right in the same ballpark as the Railmaster. As someone who’s owned an IWC Pilot’s watch, I can assure you the bracelet is super comfortable and the 40mm case is slim and sits low to the wrist. On second look, with its matte black dial, antimagnetic properties, and price, the Mark XVIII might be the best comparison for the Railmaster after all.
The Seamaster Railmaster is a deceptively simple watch. It takes a relatively basic formula and aesthetic cues from Omega’s past and uses them in a way that seems at once new and familiar. It’s a watch that technologically could only exist right now, but in daily practice it doesn’t feel that way at all. It’s a watch that appealed to me the first time I saw it and continued to impress me after a week of wearing it.
Omega doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the quality of its movements and its dedication to making them perform at the limits of what volume production mechanical timekeepers can achieve. The Railmaster is a subtle watch that harnesses the best of modern Omega watchmaking in a watch that starts with style and finishes with substance, all for a very competitive price. It doesn’t do anything flashy, it has purposefully understated finishes, and one of my favorite things about it is how comfortable and at home it felt on my wrist from the first minute I put it on.
Sometimes it’s the simplest things, done the right way, that make the biggest impression.
For more, visit Omega online.