Our survey of international military timepieces is back with part 2 of the chapter focused on Italy. You can read part 1 right here. We’re picking things back up mid-century with chronograph watches.
Italy has an important place in the history of the military chronograph, though in this case none of the watches produced under contract for its military was made by an Italian company, but rather by storied Swiss maisons.
The earliest — and by far, the rarest — of these chronographs was retailed by A. Cairelli in the 1950s, a Roman subcontractor of military equipment in a similar vein to the early Panerai company. This watch, the HA-1, was an oversized, 44.5mm stainless steel chronograph featuring a unique 24-hour dial and meant for aerial navigation, perhaps for submarine hunter crews. Outfitted with the famed, manually wound Valjoux cal. 55 VBR movement with flyback feature — the same caliber that powered the Rolex ref. 4113, one of the rarest Rolexes in the world — the HA-1 was produced by Universal Genève and supplied by Cairelli to the Aeronautica Militaire Italiana (Italian Air Force). These watches are quite rare and consequently, highly desirable: one hammered at auction in 2016 for nearly 200,00 CHF.
1960s | 1970s
No less beautiful but significantly less rare (in certain iterations) are more modern chronographs produced under contract by Universal Genève, Leonidas, Breitling and Zenith for the AMI in the 1960s, some of which were also retailed by A. Cairelli. St. Imier-based Leonidas — which was later purchased by Heuer — produced the CP-1 (cronometro da polso, or “wrist chronometer”) in the mid-1960s to specifications required by the Italian military. 38mm in diameter and housing the handwound Valjoux cal. 222 with flyback function and hacking seconds, it featured a dual-register chronograph layout, rotating 12-hour or 60-minute bezel and a black dial with tritium-based luminescent paint.
The CP-2 watch was essentially an upsized CP1 measuring 43mm in diameter. Produced by Universal Genève, Leonidas, and Zenith from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s., the CP-2 in its Zenith-made iteration was manufactured in a run of roughly 2,500 pieces, though interestingly, many remained unissued following an abrupt cancellation of the contract by the AMI. A. Cairelli, which fulfilled the CP-2 contract, subsequently sold off much of the remaining stock to civilians. These examples, which are mostly devoid of military case back markings, are still highly desirable on the vintage market, albeit less so than their issued counterparts.
The Zenith watches were powered by the cal.146DP — a manually wound movement produced by Martel, a company purchased by Zenith in 1959 — while the Leonidas CP-2 was powered by the Valjoux cal. 222. Universal Genève’s version of the watch, marked with the A. Cairelli name, utilized the cal. 265P in the late 1960s, though production of this particular model was supposedly limited due to cost. All CP-2s featured a three-part case with screw-down case back, a wide, graduated rotating bezel, an inner dust cover, a black dial illuminated with tritium, a dual-register chronograph layout and a fifth-second outer railroad track. These watches were distributed through the early 1970s and discontinued in 1985.
In the mid-1970s Breitling was also contracted to produce chronographs for the AMI, which it did in the form of the reference 817. This watch was based upon the smaller CP-1 case, though it’s not always referred to by this designation, making for some confusion. Produced for use mostly by helicopter pilots and officers of the Battaglione Paracadutisti Carabinieri Tuscania, a special operations-capable paratrooper battalion, it’s believed that only 1,000 examples were made, signed with “E.I.” for Esercito Italiano (“Italian Army”) and an issue number.
1980s | 1990s
Evidently pilots complained, however, about the manually wound cal. 236 movement and the watch’s small pushers, which were difficult to operate with gloves. These issues led to the development of automatic chronographs produced with the famed Lemania cal. 5100, one of the great mechanical workhorse movements of the 20th century, unique in its layout and utilization of a central minutes counter.
Produced by Heuer and Lemania from the early 1980s through the 1990s, these 5100-based watches were housed in 40mm stainless steel, tonneau-shaped cases with screw backs, screw-down crowns and two round chronograph pushers. They featured black dials that made use of the cal. 5100’s thee sub-registers, tritium illumination and day-date displays in Italian or German. Examples can be found adorned with different squadron logos.
Also during the 1980s and 1990s, an Italian firm, DPW, contracted Swiss manufacturers to produce timepieces that saw supposed use by various branches of the Italian armed forces — though it may be that these watches were merely sold in base exchanges and weren’t issued equipment. Many of these use 80s-era, early PVD-coated Breitling Colt cases measuring roughly 38mm in diameter, quartz movements with the date, and dials stamped with different units’ insignia. Different models used different case types, however, and it’s even possible to find watches with analog/digital displays. Unfortunately, there isn’t much scholarship on these more modern contracted watches, and little information seems to be available in English regarding production numbers, procurement, etc.
Even less information is readily available as to what, if any, wristwatches are still issued to Italian forces. Given the increasing worldwide trend of having soldiers procure and purchase their own wristwatches for use while in service — generally of the cheap, reliable, digital variety — there’s little doubt that issued watches have largely gone the way of the dodo in Italy, and should they still exist, only do so within the ranks of highly specialized forces, such as special operations units.
Ultimately, though the development of AMI-issued chronographs in the 1960s and 1970s constitutes an interesting chapter in the history of military equipment, it should be understood that without Panerai, a firm founded in Florence in the mid-19th century, the military tool watch landscape might indeed look very different than it does today.