An Interview With Omega Forums Co-Founder Ashley Budgen
Before social media became a platform for watch enthusiasts and collectors, we hung out on some of the (many) watch forums online. At some point, Omega Forums arose, using a very user-friendly interface for its members to participate in watch-related discussions. Although the name implies that it’s about Omega, the site also hosts forums for fans of Longines, Rolex, Zenith, Seiko, Universal Genève, and others.
I thought it was about time to interview co-founder Ashley Budgen of Omega Forums. I’ve met him on two occasions. The first time was 10 years ago during a Speedy Tuesday event in the Netherlands, and the second time was during a Speedy Tuesday event in Singapore in 2019. Ashley is a wonderful guy and very knowledgeable about various watches. Although I’m sure he doesn’t feel that he is part of the watch industry, I believe that he actually has a very important role in it. Ashley is on the side of the consumer, and we need more people like that in this industry. In this interview, we will talk about the origin of Omega Forums, what it means to run such a big platform, what the future will hold for these types of sites, and why you should use forums like his rather than participate in Facebook groups.
Robert-Jan Broer: You’re the founder of Omega Forums. Can you share with us when you started the site and, perhaps more importantly, why?
Ashley Budgen: Trevor Curtis, my co-founder, and I met and started working on the project around 2010. We launched it in March 2011, so it’s been just over 12 years now. When we started talking about it, Trev and I were both very much into watches and Omega, but it was rather frustrating as the Omega community was extremely fragmented. There was a good community on Timezone, WatchUSeek, and Rolex Forums, with the last one being where we were most active. But it was more than slightly embarrassing for one of the best Omega communities to be on a Rolex forum. As I was a systems engineer and Trev was a very talented designer, we had a feeling we could build something better than the others.
Timing-wise, it couldn’t have been more perfect. Omega had taken a huge leap upmarket around 2010/2011 when its caliber 8500 became the standard throughout the product range, and this generated a great deal of interest and excitement. The fact that, at that point, Omega was making watches on the same level as the “Golden Era” of the ’50s and ’60s really helped drive the community forward.
Omega Forums today
RJB: How many active users do you have on Omega Forums these days?
AB: We get about 210–250K users per month on average, which is down slightly from the peaks of around 2021. But it does fluctuate quite a bit through the year, with Christmas and January being the big peak and mid-year being a bit slower.
RJB: Can you elaborate on what it takes to manage a website like Omega Forums on a daily basis?
AB: It takes a lot of time, patience, and the help of a really good team of moderators. For a site like this to succeed, you need to give people a decent amount of freedom to be themselves and have their views and opinions, which can cause conflict. In turn, we have to manage that, or conflict gets in the way of meaningful discussion. In that way, moderation can be a bit like catching a falling knife. But it does have to be that way because, without a degree of freedom and open discussion, the forum would be too boring for anyone to bother participating in. It’s the reason why every watch brand that has started a forum of its own has failed miserably. The necessary restrictions turn it into a rather monotonous PR exercise rather than a real discussion.
The importance of the Speedmaster
RJB: You’re a Speedmaster owner, and you’ve participated in a couple of Speedy Tuesday events over the last 10 years. What does the Speedmaster mean to you?
AB: The second Omega I ever owned was a Speedmaster Professional 145.012-67SP powered by the legendary caliber 321, and it started my habit of hoarding Speedmasters. I have a rather odd and, at times, frustrating relationship with the Cal. 321 Speedmaster as I have this habit of buying basket-case-condition, old project-watch Speedmasters, Frankens, or watches that have been in a house fire and trying to accumulate enough parts to rebuild them. As a result, most of my Speedmasters are in bits or waiting for bits. Thankfully, though, I do have several modern examples to enjoy. The thing that makes it so special to me is that, in a world where every watch has a gimmick or a marketing angle to justify its existence and price, the Speedmaster is a watch that was good enough on merit to earn its place in history.
RJB: How important is the Speedmaster for Omega Forums?
AB: In the first couple of years, we actually had no real Speedmaster content, just vintage Seamasters and Constellations. We eventually attracted a lot of Speedy fans, and that was really the point where the site exploded in popularity, so it’s a massive factor. It almost worries me at times that the Speedmaster casts too large a shadow as I don’t like to think of Omega as a single-model brand like Audemars Piguet and the Royal Oak. There are also some incredibly strong models with many fans in the Seamaster and Constellation families, though, and especially the new-generation 300M diver collection.
RJB: What’s the most desirable Speedmaster for you?
AB: I have three that I’m really interested in. One is the aventurine Moonphase, which is probably the rarest modern steel Speedmaster in my view and incredibly special. The second is the DD145.0022-2 Italian special with gold sub-dials. These are still really cheap considering how beautiful they are. The third is a weird one… I have the box, papers, and VHS tape lying around from a Speedmaster that went to the Soyuz space station. The owner loaned me the set to copy the VHS tape as he was afraid it was degrading. I did that years ago but couldn’t get hold of him again, and then I found out he had passed away and nobody knows where the watch went. I’d love to reunite the box with the watch, but that’s probably a long shot.
RJB: What do you think of Omega’s strategy of going from several limited editions — perhaps a few too many — to none? Did it do any good for any party involved?
AB: I’ve owned and loved a lot of limited editions, but as they heated up in the later 2000s, it was getting too hard for passionate fans to get the watch they wanted. Buying a watch should not be a customer-hostile experience. You shouldn’t have to jump through hoops, be a VIP, or have bought a bunch of watches you don’t want first. The old limited-edition Speedmasters, like the Gemini IV that I love so much, were like that. Sales were slower, so around 2,000 units would take several years to sell out with no scalpers involved.
At this point, I think only the Snoopy and the Calibre 321 are in the difficult-to-get category. Even the No Time To Die is readily available, which is how it should be. I don’t enjoy any watch more just because other people can’t get one. Quite the opposite, in fact. I love taking group photos at Speedy Tuesday events with a bunch of guys all wearing the same special model.
The impact of the MoonSwatch
RJB: How did the MoonSwatch release affect traffic and discussions on Omega Forums? What are your feelings about this joint project between Swatch and Omega?
AB: The MoonSwatch launch was huge. Traffic tripled and stayed high for a week. It was just such a hot topic and brought in so many new members wanting to learn about the Speedmaster and Omega as a result of it. We actually created a new Swatch sub-forum because of all the interest. It was interesting because it happened at about the same time as Rolex’s event and, being the main competitor, we always have discussion threads about new Rolex models.
The MoonSwatch effectively killed that discussion. A few months on, I couldn’t even remember what Rolex had released. It was also interesting in that there were groups of people who hated it and were genuinely upset by it because they felt it cheapened the brand, and I just didn’t understand that mindset. The MoonSwatch is a Swatch and is a fun window into the world of Speedmasters in the same way a dealer clock or other piece of merchandise is.
The other watches that light Ashley’s fire
RJB: Your interest isn’t limited to the Speedmaster or Omega in general. What are the other brands and watches you are keen on?
AB: My favorite non-Speedmasters are the early Seamaster Calendars, specifically the pie-pan Deluxe variants. I’ve got three of those and eventually want to collect all of them. Aside from Omega, I love the Daytona and the Zenith A386 El Primero even more so. A decade ago, I managed to find a brilliant vintage example that I still have. The watch I really want that I haven’t found the right example of is the Ikepod Seaslug, which is just such a special, unique, and interesting watch with one of the best names of all time. In a world with testosterone-overload names like “Chronofighter Black Arrow Digi Camo,” I like the idea of wearing a Seaslug.
RJB: What has been the best-read thread on Omega Forums in all these years?
AB: I think one of the best-read threads is an older one about the Silver Snoopy. Forum members were tracking arrivals and sales and excitedly trying to get theirs, and in the process of that, it came to light that some authorized dealers were doing things that were less than fair and not in line with customers’ or Omega’s expectations. I believe some action was taken against some of them, but it was a great moment for the community to come together to realize what was going on.
My favorite interaction happened at some point in the gigantic WRUW (What Are You Wearing?) thread, so it would be hard to find, but a member posted an image of a Seamaster Pro 300M diver on his wrist. Another member who was a dermatologist saw this ink-blotch-shaped mark on his hand and identified it as seriously advanced melanoma. They got in touch by private message, and he was able to get the skin cancer cut out. That Seamaster became his lucky watch as it saved his life.
What does the future hold?
RJB: Now that Facebook groups are widely used, how do you see the future for specialist forums like yours? Is there a difference in audience between OF and FB?
AB: I think there’s a pretty big difference. Discussions on forums go a lot deeper and longer than on Facebook, involve a lot more photos and long-form content, and, most importantly, are searchable. Over time, we realized that Omega Forums and the knowledge, data, images, and so on served as an important historical archive and reference library. We must preserve that for researchers, journalists, and anyone keen to learn.
RJB: What does the future hold for Omega Forums?
AB: We have an entirely new version of the forum platform that we’ve been working hard on for a long time now. It should create a faster, more convenient, and more streamlined experience. We’re also keen to expand on the education and reference side, making the wealth of images and data we have more readily accessible and searchable to people doing research in the future.
Pros and cons
RJB: What’s your favorite thing about running the forum?
AB: Seeing young people get into their first watch, whether it be a vintage Genève or Seamaster or a used Seamaster Pro, and knowing they’ll be watch enthusiasts for life. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to see so many young people grow into knowledgeable, passionate collectors.
RJB: And, what’s your least favorite thing about running the forum?
AB: Seeing people inherit counterfeit watches from family members and come to us asking if they’re real, what they’re worth, or where to get them serviced. There are some really sad reactions when people find out that the collection their dad or grandpa left them is bogus, and it can be very upsetting for people to find out. This is yet another reason why you should never touch fake watches.
I’d like to thank Ashley Budgen from Omega Forums for this interview. Make sure to visit the Omega Forums here.