Most collectors come to know Omega by its legendary Speedmaster, perhaps the sine qua non of Omega heritage. But I’m not most collectors. For reasons unknown, the Speedmaster didn’t have that hold on me. Instead, it was the Aqua Terra, and to a lesser degree, the Planet Ocean, that got me hooked on Omega. I’ve watched the AT grow and expand from its introduction, which I observed with fascination. It took me years to save up for my own Aqua Terra, and by that time it had entered its second generation, often called the Aqua Terra 8500. It’s one of the most celebrated watches made today and it’s one of my favorite watches of all time, so I’m coming to the third generation with very high standards. Does it meet them?
To find out, I took two pairs of watches, a dressier 3.0 two-tone AT and a dressier 2.0 two-tone AT, as well as two sporty, more colorful variants, on bracelet. This will give us a very broad comparison of the dual worlds the Aqua Terra inhabits, that of dress and that of sport, not only with members of the same generation but with members of the preceding one. For purposes of coherence, whenever I show a photo of all four Aqua Terras, they will always be in this order. Going from top left to right, we see the 126.96.36.199.02.001, and the 188.8.131.52.03.001. From bottom left to right we see the 184.108.40.206.02.001 and the 220.127.116.11.01.004. It’s also important to note that these photos are not to scale as the 3.0s and 2.0s have slightly different sizes. More on that later.
Let’s begin by taking a look at the most obvious change between the 3.0 and 2.0 models, the dial pattern. The AT8500 introduced vertical lines to the Aqua Terra, a decision that would actually become very influential throughout the watch industry. The new model, however, uses horizontal lines. That, on its own, is fairly unremarkable, but if you look carefully you’ll appreciate the subtle increase in complexity in the 3.0’s lines, using uneven thickness of stripes to add a degree of visual intrigue to the dial. While sunburst textures aren’t new to the 3.0, I find the blue dial here to be particularly impressive when it comes to nuanced finishing. It has some resemblance to the Patek Nautilus, although that watch has very broad and even horizontal lines.
Stepping back from the dial, we can notice several more changes. The most important is the relocation of the date. This is something Omega has been gradually working towards for years now and other versions of the AT (i.e. beyond the three-hander) have already adopted the new location. I still wish it had a date frame, and that’s a sentiment I hear echoed on the forums quite often, but if you’re going to get rid of the frame, at least make it symmetrical so it doesn’t feel like we’re missing an index. That’s precisely what Omega did here, and the new date window is better because of it. Another positive change, at least in my view, is the elimination of the 150m/500ft writing on the dial, creating a slightly cleaner look. I would also direct your attention to the dark hands of the two-tone Master Chronometer. This is no trick of the camera. The hands and indices are quite a bit darker than the other models, which greatly increases the contrast. I could, of course, discuss the differences inherent to each model, but there are a wide variety of new and old Aqua Terras and we’d be here for ages. Instead, I’ll focus on the overarching changes across the line.
I took a variety of lume shots, more out of my personal curiosity than any expectation that there’d be a difference. Despite stabilizing the lighting and post-production settings as much as I could, there is still a fairly clear difference between new and old models. For reasons unknown, it seems like the new models glow slightly brighter than the old ones. That could simply be luck on my part, and I’m not willing to come to any conclusions about all new Aqua Terras having improved lume, but if any of you happen to have a new and an old model available, maybe give it a shot yourself and see if you get the same result. Differences aside, this is still a very solid amount of lume for a watch that could realistically be worn to any occasion. It’s more than enough to be practical, although not enough to make it a diver either. For that you’ll need a Planet Ocean, but for just about anything else this will do very well.
The case and bracelet (more on that soon) also received minor updates. For one thing, each of the new models is 0.5mm smaller than the last, at 41mm versus 41.5mm. As you might expect, this is not appreciable in real life, but in an era of huge watches, it’s nice to see a watch get smaller, if even by a tiny amount. In terms of my own measurements, the thickness is basically unchanged within my margin of error. Each measured just a hair over 13mm thick. Lug to lug length did decrease measurably though, at 47.5mm versus 48mm on the older models. Suffice it to say, the size difference is not meaningful unless you happen to be holding each watch next to the other. For practical purposes, then, they are the same size as they used to be. But do note a subtle change to the end link of the bracelets. The new end link is slightly shorter than the last one, and the first center link is now much smaller. It appears to be a near-identical center link that is available in some other Aqua Terras, like the small rose gold accent on the new two-tone. This “link” seems to be available on any of the new Aqua Terras if you order it on a rubber strap. So far, no option to get it for those who want a leather or NATO strap, however.
Another change is the totally revised crown. Both the shape and signature are different. I’d say the new crowns are a bit more stylized in shape compared to their utilitarian predecessors. Yet, the rough circle surrounding the Omega logo does quite the opposite, promoting a more aggressive, “tool” look. In either case, both new and old models are good for 150 meters, 50% more than almost every other watch in this class. This makes it an excellent choice for people who frequently swim in their watches. Another change here is that the crown is no longer recessed, or at least, not nearly as much. You’ll also notice that the second beveled area of the case is considerably narrower on this side than it used to be. This has the effect of making the watch much more symmetrical. I’m fairly neutral to the new crown in general, but I do like the more symmetrical case.
The updates extend to the other side of the watch, as well. Whether you go rubber or steel, you’ll get a new clasp. The update to the leather and rubber models is extremely subtle and you’re not likely to notice it unless you’re looking for it. The update on the clasp of the bracelet is a bit more obvious, opting for an Omega logo and Omega written out. To be honest, I prefer the simpler look of the original clasp, but the new version is certainly inoffensive. Inside the clasp is a new locking mechanism. Omega has moved the mechanism out of the center of the butterfly clasp and onto the clasp itself (the part with the Omega logo). I’m not sure what advantages this has, but a change this under the radar must have had a practical reason, and the only possible one I can imagine is that it’s stronger or more secure, as it’s exactly as easy to use as the last version.
We’ll get to the 8900 movement in a moment, but first we should note the updated case back and writing. Not that case backs are scratch magnets to begin with, but the new brushed finish is probably going to stay looking new a little longer than its polished predecessor.
Before we get to the movement, let’s talk about the new watches on their own, without regard for their AT8500 predecessors. As I mentioned before, the Aqua Terra 8900s (8800 in the smaller versions) come in a wide variety, and I have no doubt that the collection will expand to include dozens, if not hundreds, of versions over the next five or so years. I actually love both of these models, but I suspect that my favorite is one I haven’t had a chance to see yet, the silver-dialed 18.104.22.168.06.001. Maybe we’ll get to that one down the road, but for now, let’s take a look at these two.
The existence of teak lines on the dial of the Aqua Terra was designed to evoke ideas of boat decks and an overall nautical feel. Generally speaking, boat decks tend to have “vertical” lines going from front to back, but you can find a very impressive array of variations on the theme. I actually tend to think that the horizontal lines here better capture the nautical feel that Omega is looking for, but not because they’re horizontal. I think it’s their non-uniform design. If you Google boat decks (go ahead, I’ll wait) you’ll find that there are usually larges wooden areas that break with the overall repetition of lines, often down the middle or edge. It’s possible that Omega was trying to incorporate that non-uniformity in real boat decks into their dials. It is also this non-uniformity that sets it apart from other watches with horizontal lines, the most famous of which is the Patek Nautilus, another staple of watch collecting.
In a sense, these two Aqua Terras represent the duality of the watch itself, and even the very name of the watch. On our left we have a dressier model, but with its rubber strap and high-contrast dial it hasn’t lost touch with its sporting roots either. On the right we have the sportier incarnation, on bracelet, and yet, it’s not too sporty to keep it out of practically any occasion. The Aqua Terra is, technically speaking, a sports watch, but it never lets that fact get in the way of being versatile.
The new 8900 movement has been around for a little while in other Omegas like the Globemaster and Planet Ocean, but this is the first time we’ve seen it in an Aqua Terra. As you no doubt already know, this new movement is a “Master Chronometer.” Now you might be thinking, understandably, that Aqua Terras were already Master Chronometers, but quite confusingly, they were “just” Master Co-Axials. Like chronometer certification in general, Master Chronometer status is not a series of physical components, but proof that the movement meets certain standards. While there are a variety of tiny physical differences between the 8900 and 8500, few, if any, have appreciable significance to the wearer. The big update is the testing and guarantees that come with the watch. I suspect that’s why the rotor still says Master Co-Axial instead of Master Chronometer, although Omega would be entitled to use that writing if they preferred.
Master Chronometer status is not a new alternative to the COSC chronometer rating, but an additional certification on top of it. All Master Chronometers, including this one, must first be chronometers via the COSC. Once a manufacturer has passed the COSC testing, it may then submit the movement, including the watch, for Master Chronometer testing by METAS, the Swiss Federal Institute of Metrology. Any brand can submit a chronometer to METAS testing and achieve Master Chronometer status, so it’s at least conceivable that other companies will one day also offer Master Chronometers. What does this testing entail? Well, there are 8 tests of the watch. Some of these are fairly obvious, others less so, but if I had to sum up the most important difference between COSC and METAS testing, it’s that METAS tests watches, which include movements, and the COSC tests movements alone. On top of the obvious basic accuracy tests, three separate tests examine the watch during and after exposure to a 15,000 Gauss magnetic field, and I think it’s this anti-magnetism that stands out most to people about Master Chronometers. It’s one of extremely few truly anti-magnetic watches with display backs, and that’s because Omega took a very different route with fighting magnetism. The conventional wisdom, since the days of the legendary Milgauss, is to shield the movement from magnetism. Omega went precisely the opposite direction by allowing the movement to be exposed to magnetism, but making the components within virtually immune to its harmful effects. It’s the difference between quarantine and a vaccine. Personally, I love this approach. It’s simple, elegant, and on a practical level, it’s lighter and potentially thinner as well.
Master Chronometer certification guarantees that your watch’s power reserve meets its stated specs, this 8900’s 60 hours for instance, and also tests for accuracy between high and low parts of the power reserve. Water resistance is another attribute tested, proving that the watch will meet its own rating. Whereas COSC testing is extremely accuracy-centric, METAS testing is toughness-centric. Basically, when you buy a Master Chronometer, you’re getting a guarantee that the watch is highly resistant to magnetism and at least as water resistant as it claims to be, in addition to the accuracy you expect from any “ordinary” chronometer. I’ve covered this topic pretty thoroughly in my Globemaster and Planet Ocean reviews, so for more information, please check those out. For now, let’s take a look at the movement itself, sans-testing.
For fans of Omega, this won’t be a lot of new information, but in case this is your first time seriously examining a modern Omega watch, you might find this useful. What I’ve highlighted for you here is one of the most crucial pieces in a watch, the balance wheel. Omega, along with a select few other manufacturers like Rolex, Tudor, and Patek, prefers this design, the free sprung balance. The free sprung balance is closely associated with high-end in-house movements, although we’ve seen some proliferation of this design in somewhat more accessible pieces like Tudor’s North Flag. It has the advantage of greater stability compared to its more common regulated counterpart, all things being equal anyway.
Because free sprung movements, by definition, lack a regulator, there is no simple screw to turn or lever to move to increase or decrease the rate. To combat this, free sprung movements use something called a variable inertia balance wheel, which has some form of adjustment built directly onto the balance. In most cases, like Rolex or Omega (by far the most numerous users of the design in terms of movements produced), tiny screws in the rim of the balance can be moved. By moving an opposing pair of screws the rate can be altered. The screws can also be used to change the poise of the balance. Despite being more work to get right, most watch collectors hold this design in high esteem because it tends to be more stable than a comparable regulated design. I prefer free sprung balances for the more abstract reason that I view them as a simpler, more elegant, design.
Another unusual design that is used by Omega here is the full balance bridge, as opposed to the ubiquitous balance cock. The difference between these designs is simply that the bridge goes all the way across and is secured on both sides of the balance, whereas the balance cock suspends the balance on only one side. In theory, the balance bridge is the stronger, more robust design, but few manufacturers, aside from Rolex, Tudor and Omega anyway, use it. I personally prefer balance bridges, but that’s more the result of the fact that I think they look cooler than the alternative.
Another interesting aspect of modern Omega movements is their use of the Nivachoc shock system, compared to the extremely common Incabloc or Kif shocks. These are basically tiny springs that help the most sensitive components of the watch deal with harsh impacts. It’s unclear if there are any major practical differences between any of the high-quality shock systems, but it’s still neat to know that the 8500 and 8900 have something a little more special under the hood.
So that’s the new Aqua Terra 3.0. Or is it the Aqua Terra 8900? I suppose we’ll see which label the watch collecting community prefers going forward. It’s not nearly the radical update that the Aqua Terra 8500 was to the Aqua Terra 2500, but then, it didn’t have to be. The AT8500 was already an extremely refined piece, stylistically and in terms of movement technology. Whereas many watch companies prefer to wait a long time, often a decade or longer, before unveiling a totally new movement, Omega is a company that prefers constant, incremental updates. The 8500 was a massive leap forward compared to the 2500, but the 8500 has since undergone constant revision. The 8900 is still, at heart, an 8500, but it’s several steps further along the process of evolution.
In terms of aesthetics, the new Aqua Terra hits it out of the park. While I don’t expect everyone to prefer the new dial to the old one, I think it’s a great addition. I’m not necessarily sure that it’s superior to the AT8500’s dial, but it was time to mix it up and this accomplishes that goal while staying true to its predecessor. I also believe the case to be superior to the older model. I like the greater symmetry that comes with eliminating the recessed crown, for instance, and while it’s only marginally smaller than the model it replaces, I think it’s nonetheless a step (perhaps a half-step) in the right direction.
There is one other positive change I haven’t mentioned: the new and improved models are more affordable than the ones that came before them. The two-tone 22.214.171.124.02.001 is $8,000, $400 less than the other two-tone model here, and that continues on to the blue 126.96.36.199.03.001, which is $500 less than the AT8500 Golf. The new Aqua Terras are clearly a better value than before, and are priced very competitively with their most direct rival, the Datejust 41.
So my conclusion is pretty straightforward: if you liked the AT8500, you’re going to like the AT8900. It has a slightly better case, a slightly better (or at least, better-tested) movement, and a fresh new dial that suits its nautical theme better than ever. If you weren’t a fan of the last Aqua Terras, I’m not sure this will change your mind, but given that the Aqua Terra is one of the most universally liked watches available, I think there are going to be a lot of people very happy with the new model.