Lost to Time: Gallet Part One
Looking back at the watches Gallet made, it is impossible to downplay the achievements they accomplished: first wrist-worn chronograph in a water resistant case, first dedicated ladies chronograph, first wrist-worn chronograph worn by a US President. All from the oldest manufacture of clocks and watches in the world
Firstly I should address that I know that Gallet is not truly lost to time and that unlike Wittnauer (who now make cheap, throwaway watches) and Universal Geneve (who now sit in perpetual limbo on the Kong Kong stock market), Gallet are still producing high end watches. Kind of. I'll be getting into more detail about the current state of Gallet in a future article but let's say for now that they don't produce watches on a regular basis, they aren't stocked anyway so they are, for all intents and purposes, lost to time. How they got to this state is a story for another day and now it's time to talk about the Gallet of long ago and that means going back nearly five hundred years.
Underneath Gallet's logo you'll see the date 1466, the year that Humbertus Gallet moved from France to Geneva and was listed on the census as "Builder of Tower Clocks" and then in 1685 more of the French Gallet's moved to Switzerland to avoid the religious persecution of Protestants in France. Another two centuries went by before the company name Gallet & Cie. was registered in La Chaux de Fonds by Julien Gallet. The family history of Gallet shows that it is a true family business that has been passed down from father to son for over five hundred years, unfortunately ending that tradition in 2006 with the passing of Bernard Gallet. I do think that having 1466 listed underneath the company's name is slightly misleading with 1826 being more accurate, a date that is still several decades before the formation of Breguet or Blancpain.
It was the beginning of the 20th Century that Gallet started making some big advancements in watchmaking, especially in wrist-worn chronographs. In 1914 Gallet manufactured the MultiChron 30M for the British Royal Air Force and they claim that this is the first true wrist-worn chronograph ever produced. I assume when they say "true wrist-worn" they mean it was designed as a wrist watch first rather than as a pocket watch conversion. By comparing the MultiChron to a Longines Monopusher from 1920, you can see that the Gallet's lugs are longer and more pronounced, the numerals are more practical and the sub-dial design is more functional which lends credence to it being a true wrist-worn chronograph watch. Yet it still has hallmarks of a pocket watch in it's design, namely the hinged caseback, sterling silver case and white enamel dial.
Gallet continued to develop MultiChrons for several years before their next big development, the Clamshell case. Patented in 1937, the Clamshell case was an alternative water resistant case back design. Rolex had developed a hermetic case within a case for their Submarine watch in 1922 and in 1926 Hans Wildorf purchased the rights to a screw-down case that would eventually become the iconic Oyster case. Unable to use a screw-down case to ensure water-resistance, the Clamshell design use four screws beneath each of the lugs that secured the case back to the case, sandwiching the lip of the crystal between them. The Clamshell became the world's first water resistant chronograph and the design would be used until 1951. Like the super-compressor case developed by Ervin Piquerez S.A, just because the clamshell design was alternative didn't mean it was superior. The weakness of the Clamshell was that it required the four screws to provide an equal amount of pressure otherwise the seal would be compromised. Whilst flawed these watches were great technical achievements for the time and the Clamshell case was used for the most famous of all Gallet's watches, the Flight Officer.
In 1939 Missouri Senator Harry s. Truman sponsored a bill to provide a chronograph for pilots and navigators of the United States Army Air Force. Gallet was chosen to make this watch and it developed the Flight Officer, naming the watch after a rank in the USAAF. The Flight or Flying Officer as it would also be known was a two register chronograph with a rotating twelve hour bezel and twenty three countries named around the dial. By setting the correct home time and aligning the bezel to a desired city, it allows the wearer to know what the time was all around the world, the first ever watch to do this. Truman himself would wear the Flight Officer during his terms from 1945 to 1953 as the 33rd President of the United States. Looking through Hodinkee's excellent guide to the watches worn by United States Presidents, it appears that Truman was the first to adopt a wrist-worn chronograph. He did wear a Universal Geneve Tri-Compax whilst at the Potsdam Conference but I imagine the time-zone function of a Flight Officer to be more useful to a jet-setting President.
Whilst research the Flight Officer I came across a watchuseek forum post regarding a very special and potentially one-of-akind Flight Officer that belonged to one of the Tuskegee Airman. To those unfamiliar with the story, the Tuskegee Airman was the unofficial name for the all African-American 3332nd Flight Group and 447th Bombardment Group of the USSAF. During World War 2 the United States Military was still segregated and the story of the Tuskegee Airman is a truly inspirational story of men risking their lives for their country where they were considered second-class citizens. The writer of the post inherited the watch from his Grandfather, a Tuskegee Pilot, and this Flight Officer has a unique red, silver and black color scheme. He contacted Gallet who confirmed the watches authenticity and said that they did issue Flight Officers to the Tuskegee Airmen who passed flight school but this was the only one known to still exist. I implore everyone to read the entire story right here as it's a truly fascinating tale.
Over the coming decades Gallet would continue to develop their extensive line of chronographs, specifically the MultiChron line. In 1939 they released the MultiChron Petite, the first chronograph intended for women and at the time the world's smallest chronograph. The MultiChron Decimal released in 1942 and then again 1952 and was intended to be used by scientists, engineers and industrialists and had a 10th of a minute track running round the dial for precise timing. The 12H is probably one of the most popular and varied MultiChrons with each reference being a classic example of the era it was made in. Going from a classic text heavy dial in the thirties, to stylish dress chronograph in the sixties and finally to a funky black PVD case in the mid-seventies.
The MultiChron Pilot looks like a spiritual successor to the Flight Officer, a chronograph with a rotating 12 hour bezel but it replaced the cities text with a tachymeter and telemeter. As long as an object or event can be both seen and heard, the telemeter allows the wearer to know how far away it is. For example if you were in a thunderstorm, you would start the chronograph when you see lightning and then would stop it once you heard a clap of thunder. By reading off the dial you would know how far you are away from the centre of the storm. The 37mm case size would have appeared huge then but is a perfect vintage size for today and depending on the year of production you would either see an Excelsior Park 40 or a Valjoux 40/72/7736 inside.
Like with most independent watch companies that focused on high quality chronographs, production slowed down during the quartz crisis and Gallet never really hit the same heights again. At one point in the last century they were producing 100,000 watches a year! Gallet continued to supply watches to various military units including the pilots and navigators heading out to fight in the upcoming Gulf War. After six prototypes marked "Gallet Desert Storm" were delivered to the US Government and successfully passed the necessary tests, 30,000 watches marked "Marathon" were shipped out. The name change happened because Operation Desert Storm was still secret at the time of delivery. Whilst the watch looks somewhat similar to some of the Benrus Vietnam era military watches, it is significantly bigger, measuring 47.3mm by 43mm.
This brings us to the Gallet of today which I'm going to discuss in a later article. There is a truly fascinating story about charity, reclaiming historical pieces, the ups and downs of the watch market to be told but I need to make sure that I've got all my facts straight before publishing. In the meantime I cannot reccomend www.galletworld.com enough if you have a particular reference that you are researching as they seem to have nearly all of them catalogued.