Lost to Time: Gallet Part Two
Out of all the brands I've covered on Lost to Time, Gallet is unique. They aren't languishing in Chinese stock market perpetuity like Universal Geneve nor did they end up making cheap quartz watches like Wittnauer but until recently their current state was a mystery to me. I scoured through countless websites, archived pages and forum posts, I contacted museum directors and board members and now two months later I'm finally ready to tell Part Two of Gallet.
In their prime Gallet was an industry powerhouse that sold over 100,000 watches per year with a focus on chronograph production. They invented the world's first true wrist-worn chronograph in 1914 and the first waterproof chronograph in 1937 but it is the Flight Officer that is Gallet's most memorable watch. It was issued to pilots and navigators of the USAAF during World War II and saw wrist time on President Truman.
Gallet would continue to produce some outstanding chronographs up until the mid-eighties when the quartz crisis forced their hand. Like dozens of other watch brands, Gallet slashed their prices to remain competitive with Japanese quartz however they ended up withdrawing from the American retail market. During my conversation with David Laurence, Chief Operations Officer at Gallet, we wondered if Gallet had increased their prices to focus solely on the luxury market how things would have turned out.
All inventory from Gallet USA was sold off and countless records of Gallet's production and history were discarded so they didn't have to be shipped back to Switzerland. It might seem madness for a company to disregard their history so easily but it's been done before. In 1975 Zenith was purchased by the Zenith Radio Corporation who believed that electric watches were the future so promptly ordered all mechanical watchmaking tools to be sold for scrap . If Charles Vermot hadn't stored tools, diagrams and machinery in secret then the return of the El Primero chronograph wouldn't have been possible.
Gallet claims to be the oldest surviving watch and clockmakers with a lineage going back to 1466; the year that Humbertus Gallet was registered in Geneva as a builder of tower clocks. There has been speculation about how direct the lineage to Humbertus is as 1466 only appears in present day advertisements and it wasn't until 1826 that Julien Gallet registered Gallet & Cie. Mr. Laurence confirmed a direct lineage of father to son/brother going back centuries and said that several Gallets still hold minority control of the company. He sent me a scan from the Geneva Archives showing Philippe Gallet, Great-great grandson of Humbertus, listed in 1702 as a watchmaker. 1826 is still an impressive year considering it is two decades older than Omega and seventy nine years older than Rolex and perhaps is more reflective of the formalization of the Gallet company.
Gallet made the decision in the mid 1990's to withdraw from retail and focus on movement production through their sister company Montres Lunesa. Escapements and other parts were sold to various brands with only a few modern interpretations of classic Gallet watches being released. Over the next few years there was a internal struggle within Gallet as to what the company should focus on. One side proposing a return to watches manufactured under the Gallet name, the other content with staying a movement supplier.
In 2008 the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania began research for an upcoming exhibit, Time in Office, that focused on Presidential watches and contacted Gallet to help in researching the history behind President Truman's Flight Officer. Over the coming months a partnership blossomed between Gallet and the Museum that continues to this day. Gallet serviced the Truman watch, sponsored the exhibit and provided financial support to the Museum after their budget was slashed. Museum Director Mr. Noel Poirier couldn't have spoken more highly of Gallet when I communicated with him; the brand has sponsored numerous exhibits including the installation of a new wristwatch gallery, provided a guest curator who documents the wristwatch collection and has loaned several of their vintage pieces to the Museum indefinitely.
In 2010 Gallet decided to make a limited edition watch with 10% of the profits being donated to the Museum. This Museum Edition Flying Officer was limited to 1050 pieces (250 in steel, 250 in red, yellow and white gold and 50 in platinum) with prices ranging from $32,500 in steel to $149,500 in platinum with a 40% discount available to National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC) members. The Gallet Multichron Duo-Force Caliber G330 inside the watch would have been COSC certified and was the first automatic rattrapante chronograph movement powered by two separate mainsprings. An unnamed brand that Gallet/Montres Lunesa produced movements for attempted to purchase majority control of Gallet whose resistance caused production delays with the G330. These troubles combined with low interest and poor cash flow meant that the Museum Edition was shelved and deposits refunded. "It didn't take off as well as we'd hoped" said David Laurence, "We hadn't regained our public persona and the price was much higher than it should have been".
Despite the disappointment of the Museum Edition, Gallet still wanted to push forward with a watch to benefit the Museum. "We wanted to create a watch with as many functions and features as possible. We hadn't fully kept our promises to the Museum and we wanted to create something much more than a standard chronograph movement" Mr Laurence told me. This led to the creation of the Lunesa-Gallet V1925, a chronograph movement with a vertical clutch allowing for better transition of power from the mainspring to the chronograph module upon activation. This new movement would be placed inside the new Truman Edition Flight Officer. Like the Museum Edition before it, the Truman Edition would be offered to NAWCC members at a 40% discount with proceeds going to support the Museum. A modern interpretation of the classic Flight Officer, the Truman Edition would limited to 1000 watches with a steel case back engraved with Harry S. Truman's signature and the NAWC Museum logo.
This watch, along with the 75th Anniversary Edition Flight Officer, have been advertised on Gallet's website since February 2013. Archived versions of Gallet's website show the release date for the watch being pushed back year after year. Originally available only to NAWCC members at a 40% discount ($14,500 to $8700) the Truman Edition is now open to the public for purchase, discounted from $19,500 to $8700. The 75th Anniversary Edition price increased from $14,500 to $19,500 without warning and it was only through talking with Mr. Laurence that I discovered this was because of the inclusion of the V1925 movement inside the watch. I do not know what movement the V1925 was replacing.
These price changes, an outdated website and lack of clear communication to consumers only add to the Herculean task that Gallet has of resurrecting it's name and reputation. They are launching two expensive, complicated watches with very little consumer awareness of the brand. During a conversation with a watch dealer last week I mentioned Gallet and he was completely unaware that they still existed today. If someone whose livelihood is dedicated to watches isn't aware of Gallet then convincing a more casual watch fan to part with almost $9000 is going to be difficult.
Despite constant setbacks Mr. Laurence has high hopes for the return of Gallet. A display model of the Truman Edition was shown at the Lunesa booth at Baselworld and a fully functional prototype is expected to be ready within thirty to sixty days. In 2017 they are hoping to release a limited edition Tuskegee Airman Flight Officer and are currently working with a European racing museum to design a brand new racing watch with proceeds of the sales going to support that Museum. Gallet also hopes to start supporting the NAWCC Horology School in hopes of bringing in more young people into the profession.
I can't put into words just how passionately Mr. Laurence spoke about Gallet during our conversation. What was meant to be an impromptu quick chat turned into an hour and a half discussion of Gallet's history, the importance of Museum patronage and the future of watchmaking. Gallet's commitment to the NAWC Museum is laudable and should serve as an example to other brands. Only time will tell whether the Flight Officers will return and I truly wish everyone involved the best of luck. As President Truman said " A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties".
I'd like to thank Mr. Noel Poirier, NAWC Museum Director, and Mr. David Laurence, COO of Gallet, for taking the time to speak with me. Their help and information made finishing this article possible. If you'd like to learn more about the Museum or would like to donate please visit www.nawcc.org. For more information about the Gallet Flight Officers then visit www.galletwatch.com.
- Archived Gallet Watch: Museum Edition Flight Officer Chronograph. June 28th 2011
- Fundable: Gallet Flight Officer Fundraising campaign
- Fundable: Gallet Watch COmpany Private Investor Fundraising
- Gallet Watch: Gallet Investor News announcing merger with Montres Lunesa.
- Gallet Watch: Good "Time" for Local Museum. PDF copy of Harrisburg History Examiner piece. November 15th 2009.
- Gallet Watch: NAWCC Museum Flight Officer Press release
- Gallet Watch: A Pioneer Takes Flight to Preserve Timekeeping
- Gallet World: Gallet Chronograph Flight Officer Lineage
- Gallet World: Gallet Multichron Diver
- Personal Communication: Emails with Mr. Noel Poirier, NAWC Museum Director
- Personal Communication: Phone conversation with Mr. David Laurence, COO of Gallet Watches
- Watchuseek: Forum post contesting the actual age of Gallet Watch Co.