Like Clint Eastwood’s legendary Man With No Name, two of the most coveted military chronographs of all-time are devoid of model identification. The legends on the dials tell you that they came from Lemania, but there are no model designations.
There was no need for them, for they are true tool watches, designed for form over function. Instead, they are known strictly by the branches of services for which they were devised. And these chronographs aren’t merely sought after: they are still influencing chronograph designers today.
While Lemania was better known for movements than whole watches, it did produce complete timepieces, including one of the Dirty Dozen. The attraction for these chronographs, among all the watches issued by Lemania and military chronographs in general, is enhanced by something curious: Lemania’s chronograph calibres – whether left untouched or modified to suit the clients – found their way into timepieces from Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet and, perhaps most notably, Omega. Yes, the basis for the Omega Speedmaster is the Lemania Calibre CH 27, so the bloodline is noble in both directions.
“Bloodline” suggests family, and there is a link between Omega and Lemania. Omega is, of course, the star brand of the Swatch Group. That conglomeration of brands has origins far older than the merger in 1983 of ASUAG and Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère (SSIH), in the wake of the quartz crisis.
Lemania was founded by Alfred Lugrin in 1918 as Lémania-Lugrin SA to specialise in the production of chronographs, but the Great Depression created global economic woes. This led to Omega joining forces with Tissot in 1930, pooling their technical strengths and their markets. Two years later, Lémania gained a seat on the board of SSIH.
Lemania remained a chronograph specialist, supplying the British military, among others during the 1940s through the 1970s. The two treasures seen here are, with black dial, the model issued to Royal Navy navigation officers and Fleet Air Arm pilots. It was once common, but the rise in collector-mania has pushed prices up to the £3,000 to £5,000 bracket. In terms of size, functionality and looks, it is impossible to fault, its charm enhanced by the lume on this watch aging to a crème brulee hue.
It’s the white dial model, which by virtue of rarity, can command as much as £8,000 on a good day in auction. It was made for Royal Navy nuclear submarine officers, hence the total absence of lume material, which would upset radioactivity readings. But don’t despair if you fall in love with them: the new chronographs from Vertex are dead ringers.
As a post script, in the late 1990s, decades after the birth of the Breguet XX and the heyday of the Lemania chronographs, the revived Breguet would be the brand within the Swatch Group that absorbed Nouvelle Lemania.