Tempus fugit, amor manet… “Time flees, but love endures,” or so goes the ancient Latin proverb. Although perhaps not a universal truth, it seems an apt expression for the enduring place Lemania holds in many collector’s hearts.
Lugrin SA was founded in 1884 by Alfred Lugrin (1858-1920), who some sources claim was a self-taught prodigy in the art of complex watchmaking. Other sources attribute his remarkable skills to an early apprenticeship at the legendary house of Jaeger-LeCoultre, certainly plausible given Lugrin chose to establish his new venture in Le Sentier. Whatever the source of his talent, Lugrin very quickly established a reputation as a premier watchmaker in his own right, receiving awards and gold medals at exhibitions in Milan and Berne as early as 1906 and 1914. After relocating to l’Orient, also located in Switzerland’s famous Vallée de Joux, Lugrin’s son-in-law Marius Meylan later adopted the name Lemania Watch Company in tribute to Lake Geneva, Lac Leman in French.
From its earliest days the company specialized in complicated movements, chronographs and repeaters in particular. Initially they utilized ébauche (movement blanks) from Hahn of Landeron. Starting in 1895, however, Lugrin began producing ébauche in house. By 1900 Lemania was producing both movements and completed watches at their manufacture.
By 1932 Lemania had joined Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogére SA (SSIH), a group of premier Swiss watch companies initially formed by Omega and Tissot. SSIH and AUSAG (Allgemeine Schweizerische Uhrenindustrie AG, or in French Société Générale de l’Horlogerie Suisse) were the dominant Swiss watch collectives, which later would combine in the early 1980s to form the Swatch Group. After joining SSIH, Lemania produced fully finished chronograph movements for both of its new siblings, Omega and Tissot.
Lemania soon established an impressive pedigree, having been chosen by the UK Ministry of Defense (MOD) to supply wrist chronographs issued to British armed forces throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The two-register, single-pusher Lemania Cal. 15 CH and its two-pusher variant, Cal. 15 TL, in particular, have become synonymous with UK service watches of the era. Designed by Albert Piguet, the manually wound, 17 jewel Cal. 15 CH/TL column wheel chronograph movement enjoyed a long career, later renamed Cal. 2210 and 2220 (without and with Incablock, respectively), or Cal. 33.3 when cased by Omega and Tissot. It also formed the basis for Piguet’s later and even more enduring CH27 chronograph design.
Combined with the fact it was the only watch to survive NASA’s rigorous testing program, Lemania’s military lineage also may have influenced NASA’s selection of Omega’s Speedmaster Professional chronograph for the US space program. The Speedmaster Professional gained global fame as the watch Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin famously wore on the moon. It’s also the watch NASA’s Apollo 13 astronauts so dramatically relied upon to safely return home after a catastrophic loss of power required them to manually plot their capsule’s earth reentry trajectory. The 17 jewel, manual-wound movement in these watches was none other than the Lemania Cal. CH27-C12 designed by Albert Piguet and originally introduced in 1942, which by then Lemania was producing under the designation Cal. 321 for Omega. Later Omega Speedmasters continued the tradition, employing Lemania Cal. 1873 (Omega Cal. 861).
Lemania’s Cal. CH27-C12 also was made famous as a gift to Winston Churchill from the Canton de Vaud, where Lemania’s manufacture was based; a stunning 18k yellow-gold case with gilt dial, which Churchill reportedly received while vacationing in Switzerland before delivering his speech advocating the merits of a united Europe. To this day, many consider Lemania’s Cal. CH27-C12 among the most elegant and robust chronograph movements ever produced. Indeed, in addition to its famous Cal. 321 Omega moniker, Lemania Cal. CH27-C12 also was used as a base movement for Patek Philippe’s equally iconic perpetual calendar chronograph Ref. 3970 (Cal. CH 27-70 Q), and for Vacheron Constantin’s spectacular Cal. 1141. That’s a pedigree difficult to equal, let alone surpass; quite remarkable for a design introduced in 1942.
But Lemania didn’t rest on its laurels, continuing to push the envelope of innovation. In 1948, for example, Lemania already had developed an automatic winding version of the CH27-C12 movement, dubbed Cal. CH27-C12A, delivering ten prototypes to Omega for testing. Inspired by the L.Leroy early “flip-flop” or oscillating bumper-style design allowing only 310° of rotation, Omega deemed Lemania’s Cal. CH27-C12A reliable but decided against adopting the automatic chronograph movement for fear consumers might object to the sound of the oscillating mass against the stops. Thus, Omega passed up the opportunity to make watchmaking history, leaving that competing claim to the Zenith El Primero and Dubois Dépraz Caliber 11, both introduced over two decades later in 1969.
Undeterred, Lemania proceeded to develop its highly esteemed Cal. 1340 perpetual chronograph movement in 1972, this time jointly with Omega, who employed the similar Lemania Cal. 1341 (Omega Cal. 1040/1041). In addition to being a cam-switched central-rotor automatic movement, Cal. 1340 was innovative through its use of an unusual dial arrangement many find easier to read than prior designs.
In the early 1970’s, Lemania’s Albert Piquet also developed a new, specialized yacht-racing movement based on Aquastar’s 10-minute countdown timer. The now famous “regatta” Cal. 1345 is based on Lemania Cal. 1341, modified with a design derived from the first regatta movement, Felsa’s Cal. 4000N. After the Aquastar Regate’s introduction, Lemania Cal. 1345 was employed by many brands, including Yachttimers produced by Aquastar and Tissot, as well as regatta watches by Heuer, Omega and of course Lemania (more later on Heuer’s relationship with Lemania).
Lemania’s Cal. 5100 represents another much later, but no less legendary, chronograph design widely adopted for military and other hard duty “tool watch” applications. Introduced in 1974, Cal. 5100 differs significantly from many of its earlier Lemania ancestors, and most other chronographs, in several important respects.
First, rather than hand-wound the Cal. 5100 is an automatic design descended from Lemania’s first commercially introduced auto-winder, the Cal. 1340. Like its predecessor, the 5100 displays both chronograph seconds and minutes on the main dial, with running seconds and 12-hour sub-registers at 9 o’clock and 6 o’clock. Many fans find this configuration more intuitive given the ability to read elapsed time off the main dial rather than searching it out on smaller sub-dials. Adding to its functionality, Cal. 5100 included a 24-hour sub-dial at 12 o’clock and a date window at 3 o’clock.
But it’s not just the dial configuration that sets Lemania’s 5100 design apart. Like its predecessor, Cal. 5100 is cam actuated, a cost-cutting measure many designs had adopted by the 1960s and 1970s to compete with cheaper quartz designs. But Lemania went a step further with the 5100, constructing its movement from stamped steel and Delrin (a durable plastic resin), making it less attractive by some measures; but at the same time much cheaper to assemble, simpler to service, and highly durable even under extreme conditions. These traits combined with its highly functional dial configuration have earned the Cal. 5100 a cult following and reputation as a legendary hard-duty movement. As a result, Lemania’s workhorse Cal. 5100 powered many of the most iconic tool watches of its era including robust sporting and military models from Heuer, Sinn and Tutima, and of course its sibling brands Omega and Tissot.
Another factor contributing to Cal. 5100’s expanded use by brands beyond Omega and Tissot was SSIH’s sale of Lemania to independent investors including Piaget in 1981, at which time it adopted the name Nouvelle Lemania. Shortly thereafter, the Piaget-Nouvelle Lemania group bought Heuer, after which the majority of Heuer’s chronograph movements were produced by Nouvelle Lemania. This union with Heuer lasted only until 1985, however, when Heuer was acquired by TAG.
By 1991 Nouvelle Lemania itself was purchased by Investcorp under their recently acquired Breguet Group moniker, which in turn was acquired by Swatch group in 1999 and thus Lemania was reunited with its former SSIH siblings Omega and Tissot. It also may be of interest to note that this purchase by Swatch brought Lemania together for the first time with the hugely influential watch manufacture Eterna, its esteemed movement specialist spinoff ETA, and Eterna’s reunited former sibling, A.Schild, as a result of Swatch’s 1983 formation by the combination of AUSAG with SSIH – but that’s a story for another day!
It’s also worth mention that Lemania didn’t restrict itself to chronographs. If three-handed watches are your preference, or if you just require something more subtle to accompany formal business attire, Lemania delivers on that front as well. Although not as well known for three-handed designs, Lemania offered a number of fine movements in this category. One example is Lemania’s in-house Cal. 3150, a hand-wound, 17 jewel, 18,000 A/h movement with sweep seconds and 44 hour power reserve. Simple, robust, elegant. By comparison, Cal. 3150 holds its own against anything from Omega’s contemporary offerings, and for that matter is quite similar to the highly-regarded Omega Cal.260 family movements.
Lemania offers classic designs combined with some of the best quality and value for any collector, no matter their budget or taste. Its movements were employed by some of the most iconic timepieces ever produced, whether for hard-use military specification or prestige luxury manufacturers. Thus, it’s no surprise that Lemania has become increasingly popular with discriminating collectors seeking the highest quality, high-prestige watches for good value.
© Copyright 2020, P. Scott Burton and Mitka Engebretsen; all rights reserved.
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References: Gerd-R. Lang & Reinhard Meis, Chronograph: Wristwatches to Stop Time (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., ). Gisbert L. Brunner & Christian Pfeiffer-Belli, Wristwatches, Armbanduhren, Montres-bracelets (Köln: Könemann Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, 1999). Joël Pynson & Sébastien Chaulmontet, Chronographs for Collectors (Toulouse: Time To Tell, 2016). GRAM, A Moon Watch Story: The Extraordinary Destiny of the Omega Speedmaster (La Croix-sur-Lutry: Watchprint.com, 2019). Anders Ottesen (Lemania guru and editorial consultation par excellence). Mitka Engebretsen (technical consultation, editorial support and overall inspiration).