Last January, I picked up my second Vacheron Malte Chronograph. I had sold my first one a few years earlier to buy another Vacheron horological bauble, but I really missed the Malte: Its rose gold case, beautifully guillochéd dial and especially the Calibre 1141 movement.
I already owned two Vacheron chronographs: the 47101 in platinum and the Malte Chrono Perpetual, both with the 1141 movement. I knew that the Vacheron caliber was not an in-house design, but one based on a highly successful Lemania design. I also knew thet the Lemania design had been used in one form or another by Omega, Patek Philippe, Roger Dubuis and Ulysse Nardin.
So it was time to dig a little deeper into the Lemania story to see how a 70 year old design which hads endured for so many years and becoame so ubiquitous.
We go back to the mid-19th century Switzerland and the two Lugrin brothers. Both excelled at watch movement design, particularly chronographs. Henry Alfred left for America in 1868 where he designed chronographs and repeaters for Waltham and Wittnauer.
Alfred, the younger of the two, remained in Switzerland, trained and worked at Le Coultre and eventually designed and patented a chronograph movement which caught the eye of Longines. They licensed it and used it in the production of their own chronographs watches. Then in 1884, Alfred founded his own company A. Lugrin S.A. and continued to register design patents, gain awards for his designs and garnered a well-deserved reputation as a designer and innovator.
Sometime around March 1918, A. Lugrin was morphed into the Lemania Watch Company. And in 1920, Alfred’s son-in-law, Marius Meylan took over as managing director.
By the 1930’s many of the watch companies were falling on hard times. Some companies failed and some were able to merge resources and survive. Two of the latter were Omega and Tissot which formed the Societé Suisse pour l’Industrie Horologère (SSIH). In 1932, Lemania’s poor financial position prompted Meylan to approach SSIH to absorb the company. They did so and it turned into a win-win situation. Lemania received much needed capital to continue R&D and production and Omega would be able to make use of the Lemania designs. The use of these designs led to Omega being selected as the official supplier of timekeepers to the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, a role it has maintained to this day.
Opening Ceremony of the 1932 Olympics at the L.A. Coliseum
At this point, I could say: “the rest is history”, but there was more and better!
The “more and better” came in the person of Albert-Gustave Piguet who joined the technical division of Lemania at l’Orient in 1934. Lemania was by then a wholly-owned subsidiary of SSIH.
Albert-Gustave Piguet (1914-2000)
Albert Piguet as the name indicates came from a distinguished family of watchmakers. His great grand-father was co-founder of Piguet Frères. His father was deputy director of LeCoultre in Sentier and went on to be Director of Zenith until his retirement in 1928.
Albert-Gustave came from the same mold as the Frères Lugrin. He not only managed Lemania’s R&D but was also one of their leading designers.
In 1942, at the behest of Omega, Piguet designed and built a totally new chronograph, the caliber 27-CHRO-12. It was a 27mm diameter movement with a 12 hour totalizer. It was thin and was in fact at that time the smallest chronograph movement made. The movement was a tri-compax (3 registers) design using a column wheel and having a réserve de marche of 46 hours…all in all an outstanding achievement. Within 3 years the design was improved to include shock protection (Incabloc), and a new antimagnetic balance spring. Other refinements ensued and in 1946 the movement was introduced as the Omega 321, destined to run the famous Speedmaster chronograph.
Before continuing this saga, I am going to digress a little to talk about chronograph function.
Everyone knows what a chronograph does…from ther Ggreek “chronos” – “time” and “graphis” – “writer” or “writing” or more liberally translated as “recording”.
The early designs had no way to control the engagement of gears when the Start, Stop and especially the Reset buttons were pressed. The column wheel allowed the functions to perform in the correct order. However, column wheels are expensive to produce and maintain and many manufacturers have gone to other systems using cams and levers. Nevertheless, iIt does remain a feature of high end chronographs. There was also a second problem. Repeated engagement of the gear wheels, starting, stopping and resetting put significant stress and wear on them, causing broken teeth and failure of the mechanism.
The problem of engaging the gears also created the “jumping hand” on starting the chronograph function. Several solutions were tried to smooth out the start of the hand. One was to make the centre chronograph wheel for the hand large with many small teeth and place it very close to the intermediate and 4th wheel (from which it derived its power). This arrangement created a much smoother though not perfect engagement, minimizing but not completely eliminating the small starting jump of the hand. In addition this system and others like it, which relied on an engagement-disengagement action, created additional wear on the gears. There are many illustrations, schematics and explanations of the chronograph’s parts and functions in: ”The Theory of Horology” by Reymondin et al.
The problem was finally solved by introducing a vertical clutch mechanism incorporating a rotating pinion and lever. With thius system, the teeth of the wheels wcould always be meshed. By engaging the clutch, the chronograph would start smoothly without any jump. The mechanism is quite delicate and expensive to produce. (A few good illustrations of this vertical clutch can be found in George Daniels’ “Watchmaking”.
Piguet may have initially incorporated a vertical clutch to the Omega 321 but I am not sure. I think that given the thinness of the movement, however, he may have decided upon or developed a horizontal clutch. But by the time it got to the Vacheron caliber 1141’s predecessor, it likely had a horizontal clutch mechanism.
Now back to the Lemania story.
The Omega 321 also went by another name: Lemania 2310. This was the movement that captured the interest of several haut-gamme manufactures such as Vacheron, Patek and Breguet. The 2310 was upgraded to the Calibre 2320 increasing the number of jewels from 17 to 21. The swan-neck regulator was introduced as well as a rhodium-plated finish. I believe that this Lemania caliber included a clutch mechanism and it may have in fact been an horizontal rathsr than a vertical clutch. It was in fact this caliber that was used by Vacheron as an ébauche for its 1141 movement. The caliber has been used for several decades, finding a home in the Les Historique Chronograph, the Malte Chronograph, the Malte Perpetual Chronograph and the Patrimony Traditionelle Chronograph. Only this year with the introduction of the Harmony Chronograph with its Calibre 3300 dual column-wheel, horizontal clutch movement has the venerable 1141 been replaced. However, a smaller chronograph in the Harmony line (for smaller wrists) exists and uses a cal. 1142, based on the 1141.
In 1990 Vacheron introduced the Les Historiques Chronograph series as the Reference 47101. After 1999, it was renamed the 47111 with the addition of a screw back and some minor modifications to the movement. It was a tribute to and replacement for the iconic 4178.
The movement that Vacheron used in its new chronograph was the Lemania 2320-based Calibre 1141. This is a robust, beautiful chronograph movement using a column wheel, Breguet overcoil balance spring, a horizontal clutch which also helped keep the movement thin, and an elegant swan-neck regulator. It had a rate of 2.5 Hz – 18000 vph and a reserve of 48 hours. Vacheron Constantin was not the only manufacturer to know a good thing when they saw it. Patek Philippe, Breguet, Roger Dubuis and Ulysse Nardin also used this Lemania movement in their own chronographs.
The 47101/47111 became a very popular chronograph and has remained so to this day, having become almost as iconic as the 4178.
The onset of the new millennium heralded a desire for a larger watch case. Obligingly, Vacheron introduced the Malte Chronograph, which for me is the epitome of chronographs. The Malte line was not everyone’s “cup of tea”, but I found the retro Art Deco lugs to be a beautiful artistic touch. The guillochéd dial was another wonderful touch, although the watch also came in the “sand-blasted” dial Excellence Platine version. The watch also sported blue chronograph and totalizer pointers and both a telemetric and tachymetric scale.
All in all, for me, at least, it was a perfect combination. Vacheron turned to the Calibre 1141 for this watch, which iss finished in the typically exquisite Vacheron fashion, with attention to every detail and every tiny component.
Vacheron also released the Malte Perpetual Calendar Chronograph in gold and platinum around the same time also utilizing the Calibre 1141 movement.
The dial has one of the loveliest engraved moon phases ever to a grace a watch, as the photos attest.
More recently, Vacheron chose to introduce this Caliber 1141once again in their Patrimony Traditionelle line.
But here I will step back a bit for an interesting comparison.
Lemania not only made movements but for a short period of time, they also produced watches although production numbers were small. They made watches for the Czech and Swedish air forces and for the British Defense Ministry.
Around 1950, they manufactured a lovely chronograph using the 2310 movement.. It was 38mm diameter and 8.5mm in thickness. It was pink gold with sword hands, applied markers with numerals at 12 and 6 o’clock. and a bicompax dial with sunken registers.
Here are some photos:
Does it look familiar? It should!
Here is the Vacheron Traditionelle Chronograph (Photos courtesy of Vacheron-Constantin):
Perhaps the 1950 Lemania was the inspiration for the later Vacheron chronographs. But as one can clearly seen the Vacheron finish makes the Lemania movement look very ordinary.
But what happened to Lemania ultimately?
In the late 1970’s they separated from SSIH through a management buy-back and resurrected itself as Nouvelle Lemania. For about 5 years after that, in the ealy 1980’s, they owned Heuer and supplied their chronograph movements until the TAG acquired the Heuer brand in 1985.
Lemania formed a close association with Breguet after the latter was purchased from Chaumet. Lemania continued to supply movements to a number of Swiss and German manufacturers even after they were fully acquired by Breguet in 1992 and eventually folded into the Swatch Group.
To optimize their R&D, and movement design and production, Swatch built a new facility in L’Abbaye in 1996, restored and reequipped the original building in L’Orient in 1996. A few years later, the Lemania sign was removed and replaced. The new sign read: “Montres Breguet, S.A.”
The 100 plus years of Lemania had come to an end. But it has left an enduring legacy which has permeated the watch industry and had a clear and enduring effect on chronograph design which we can see even to the present day.
(I am indebted to Steve G. and his descriptions and photos; The Lemania Legacy by Anthony Young, The Baily Blog, and Alex Ghotbi’s articles on The Hour Lounge, among others for their excellent articles on Lemania and chronographs.)