What is the oldest watch-making company in the world? If you answered “Gallet,” you would be somewhat correct. Gallet got started back in 1466, and is famous both for its rich history and for its MultiChron chronograph watches. While Gallet has been measuring time for centuries, the company is hardly a relic of the past. Gallet & Co. continues to operate today, crafting its timepieces in-house in Switzerland.
Ready to learn more about Gallet vintage watches? Let’s explore this brand’s history and discuss some of its most iconic timepieces.
A Swiss Family Business is Born After the French Edict of Fontainebleau
Humbertus Gallet founded the Gallet watch business in 1466 when he was residing in Geneva, Switzerland, where he made clocks. He wasn’t originally a Swiss citizen, but became one on April 18th of that year.
The next big event in the company’s history didn’t take place until 1685. Family members at the time were living in France where they were protected as Protestants by the Edict of Nantes. But then Louis XIV passed the Edict of Fontainebleau, after which the Edict of Nantes no longer applied. Realizing they were no longer safe, the French members of the Gallet family moved to Geneva. As they themselves made timepieces already, it made sense for them to join their relatives in Geneva who had continued Humbertus’ original business.
There are detailed records on how the family business was passed down after that, but perhaps the next most noteworthy milestone is the one which took place in 1826. That year, Julien Gallet moved the company from Geneva to La Chaux-de-Fonds.
This was also the year when the company was registered as Gallet & Cie (Gallet & Company). Prior to that year, the company always bore the name of the current Gallet patriarch.
After Julien died, his sons Leon and Lucien together with his widow Louise took over the business. When Leon took full control of the company in 1855, he acquired another watchmaking company called Grumbach & Co. to get access to their workshops. Grumbach & Co. made “Electa” brand watches, so Gallet & Cie. became known as Electa Gallet & Cie.
Lucien remained closely involved with company operations and opened locations in New York City and Chicago in 1864. One of their cousins, Jules Racine, already resided in America, and was able to help them broaden their reach to US customers.
From this point onward, expansion in the American and European markets was rapid. Gallet put thirty-seven new brands of watches out which were tailored to the US market. Rather than confining itself to one particular target market, Gallet came up with a wide range of different watches in different price brackets. Thus, whether you were a blue collar worker or a member of the elite, you could find a Gallet watch in your budget.
A Slump in the 1930s and Success During WWII
Heading into the 20th century, more than 100,000 Gallet timepieces were selling annually, so the company was enjoying a heyday.
That changed with the Great Depression in the 30s. While Gallet had diversified in the past, the company was forced to specialize again in order to survive. This was when Gallet got into manufacturing military watches in earnest, which pulled the company through the 30s and resulted in sales which once more rose above 100,000 timepieces a year going into WWII.
Gallet stayed focused from that point onward on military and professional watches, and didn’t diversify again as it had in the past.
As you might expect, the world’s oldest watch company has quite a few firsts under its belt. Here are some key milestones from Gallet’s history:
- 1914: Gallet manufactures the world’s first wrist chronograph, the MultiChron 30. This watch was manufactured for the British Royal Air Force. Also noteworthy, the MultiChron 30 was the first waterproof wrist chronograph.
- 1915: A year later, Gallet produces the first yachting timer stopwatch.
- 1938: First rotating bezel, installed in the Gallet Flight Officer.
- 1939: This year, Gallet manufactures the MultiChron Petite, which was the first chronograph aimed at a female market. It also was the world’s smallest wrist chronograph at that time, with a diameter of just 26.3mm.
- 1943: Gallet comes out with the MultiChron Navigator GMT, which was the first 24-hour chronograph. This watch also included a compass hand.
- 1945: Gallet introduces the MultiChron Yachting Wristwatch, the world’s first chronograph watch to include a yacht racing regatta count down timer.
Iconic Gallet Watches
Now that you know about the origin and evolution of the Gallet watch company, you probably want to check out some of the company’s most famous watches.
Gallet MultiChron 30M
As mentioned in our timeline, one of the most important watches ever introduced by Gallet was the MultiChron 30, also called the MultiChron 30M.
The original versions of this watch contained Valjoux or Minerva movements. Later versions of the watch instead featured the Venus caliber 150 movement.
Various cases and dials have been featured on this watch. The most famous version is probably the MultiChron 30M Clamshell.
The “Clamshell” name refers to the extra-thick compression case which houses the dial. Even though the original MultiChron 30M came out in 1914, the Clamshell version came out in the late 30s.
This stylish, functional, and durable timepiece is one that many Gallet collectors hope to acquire. As such, if you find one for sale, it will likely carry a high price tag (i.e. on the order of $5,000+).
Gallet Flying Officer Chronograph
In 1939, Senator Harry S. Truman was involved in the development of a Gallet chronograph wristwatch for the US Army Air Forces.
The result was the “Flight Officer,” later called the “Flying Officer.”
The design for this watch was based on the earlier Gallet MultiChron model 30M which we just discussed. But the Flight Officer/Flying Officer added some impressive features such as a rotating 12-hour bezel. Important cities were listed around the dial. This helped aviators to figure out time changes while in flight.
As you might expect, Allied aviators relied on the Flight Officer/Flying Officer during World War II.
Over the course of the war and during the years which followed, the watch became renowned not just among members of the British and US militaries, but also among civilian pilots.
Quite a few different versions of the Flying Officer have been manufactured, and there are still pilots today who keep time with this iconic watch.
Another iconic Gallet vintage watch is the Commander, manufactured between the years of 1938 and 1948.
The watch contained a movement called Excelsior Park 42, which was shaped specifically to allow a compact build for the watch.
This watch became famous because Second Lieutenant James Richard Hoel had one when he served in WWII. He served as a navigator onboard a B-26 Marauder bomber.
Hoel’s main claim to fame was the misfortune of getting captured by the Germans after his plane was shot down (he lost the watch in the process).
During his imprisonment at Stalag Luft III, he participated in “The Great Escape” (as it was dubbed in the title of the 1963 film inspired by the events). His specific job was to get rid of the soil dug out of the escape tunnels surreptitiously.
Alas, it was not much of an escape. Seventy-six men used the tunnels to exit the camp, but only three survived the attempt and got away. The rest were caught and put back in the camp or killed. But it was a valiant and inspiring effort, and a great story of resistance and courage.
Hoel was among those who survived only to be put back in the camp. Later, he was moved to a different camp with abominable conditions. He survived that ordeal as well, and eventually gained his freedom as the war drew to a close.
What happened to the Gallet Commander watch that Hoel lost when his plane went down? Amazingly, it found its way back to him in 2003.
That year, an 89-year old man named “Tiny” Baxter figured out that the watch had just spent 6 decades in his drawer! Tiny got the watch from his mother, who had a number of items from the war.
Tiny went to work restoring the watch, which at the time was out of commission. After he got it working again, he returned it to Hoel with the help of Peter Cooper, who managed to find him so they could give him a call letting him know they had the watch. The watch was returned to Hoel at the location where his plane went down at the Maas River.
As you can see, Gallet’s watches have played an important role in history, and there are many amazing stories contained in their dials and movements.
Gallet Watches Today
Gallet is still in business after all these centuries. The company has an active and capable service department that repairs and services pre-owned watches. They also continue to release new timepieces on a regular basis. The Gallet family is still involved in the business.
Just a few years ago in 2018, the company came out with the 100th Anniversary Racing Heritage chronograph to honor 100 years since the Indy 500 purchased Gallet chronographs (both wristwatches and stopwatches) to help time the events.
Collecting Gallet Vintage Watches
Many Gallet watches are rare and highly prized. That means that you will probably pay a premium to add one to your collection. Expect to be shopping in over-$1,500 range, with chronographs in nice condition regularly reaching $5,000.
If you do find a good deal on a well-preserved, legitimate Gallet timepiece, consider jumping on it. These watches were built to stand the test of time, and many of them are as beautiful and functional today as they were decades ago, even with signs of age.
I am finishing this article with a word of warning. It seems like there are quite a few watches and spare parts of dubious origin being sold on the bay. With the Gallet brand, the reference out there is very limited, so it’s admittedly harder to do authenticity checks. It can be a good idea to ask on forums before buying a high-ticket Gallet vintage watch.
Further reading : learn more about other prominent watch brands
- galletworld.com, Gallet World, probably the most complete resource dedicated to Gallet Watches
- forums.watchuseek.com, 45+ pages thread with identification information on Gallet watches