Who knew that being a Flight Officer in 1938 could be so exciting? This watch, the Flying Officer, was produced by Gallet for the United States Army Air Corps and worn by Harry S. Truman, Senator for Missouri, a Reserve Field Artillery Officer and the eventual 33rd President of the United States. Truman’s 34mm stainless steel Gallet Flying Officer Chronograph accompanied the president throughout his tenure marked by historic events such as the dropping of the Atom Bomb, the Korean War and the Berlin Airlift.
When I say exciting, I am not referring to the historic events of Truman’s presidency but the “World Timer Cities” written around the outside of the dial, as this was the world’s first time-zone wristwatch. We are used to seeing watches with the cities New York, Paris, London written on them but we are not used to seeing Moskva Cap, Calcutta, Denver City or the brilliantly spelt ‘Tokio’. This is because the destinations on this dial represent Longitudinal Lines at the crossing point, so a pilot could turn the 12-hour bezel to track the time zone offset for each of these as they were crossed in 1938.
This version of the Gallet Flying Officer was originally commissioned by Truman for the Officers of the US Army Air Corps, before WWII. It would become a well-worn watch by US military pilots for the duration of the war, with a special version made for the Mustang P-51, African American 332nd Fighter Group, known as the Tuskegee Airmen and designated ‘The Red Tails’.
The watch was in continuous production until the 1970s with a larger, Version 3 Flying Officer made for the Swiss Air Force. This 36mm model was a three-piece design, with a screw back as opposed to the earlier ‘Clam Shell’ case and using larger two register movements to match. The small-edged hands were treated with Radium or then Tritium that often dried out and would powder – as in the case below, where handsets were replaced with suitable style hands.
With the two watches illustrated above, you have representatives of the first and last pieces in the production cycle. Below, in the Racine catalogue of that period (a retail partner of Gallet in the US, which was absorbed into the company), both dial versions of the watch are offered with the one above signed Racine on the bridge of its Landeron 149 movement, as opposed to the smaller original Flying Officer which contained a Gallet-signed Venus 170 movement. The 1970s produced almost a panic reorganisation of these venerable old marques in the face of the Quartz Revolution and I have seen the larger watch using a Valjoux 7733 motor as well as other two-register chronograph movements.
I’d like to go back to the WWII original Gallet Flying Officer, simply because it is a beautiful watch with an incredibly well-machined case for the time. Did I mention the Clam-Shell case? This was a Gallet design that utilized a ‘top hat’ style crystal and an early rubber ring gasket to make the watch water-resistant. The crystal sat on top of the dial’s outside edge with the rubber ring beneath, this formed a stack, comprising the movement with the hands fitted, then having the rubber ring and crystal placed on top.
The top frame of the case with bezel allowed the crystal to pop through, creating a pressure seal as the case pressed down on the flat lip of the top hat crystal. The domed caseback was then fitted on to the top frame with an additional rubber gasket between it and the watch case in its own slot. The central body of the watch was secured with 4 screws in the underside elbow of the lugs, which when screwed down, tightened the sandwich together keeping pressure on the rubber rings to create a seal – as you can see in the below shot of the watch back. The watch itself is like a pocket watch that slots into the frame, you can see how the pushers and crown stem fit into pre-cut slots in the side of the case.
Although it was quite ahead of its time in terms of design, it would prove to be fiddly for watchmakers and it was not long before solid cases with a screw or snapback, fitted with a rubber seal, became standard across Swiss manufacturing. N.B. A famous military mid-1960s watch by Heuer used this design in a much larger pilot guise, which is now known as the Heuer Bundeswehr 1550 SG.
Gallet was a specialist chronograph innovator of the early and mid-20th century with lovely designs and stylish watches across its range, making military watches for the early Air Corps and other technical professions including doctors. With names like Duo Dials, Regulators, Multichron Petite (for women drafted into technical war services in WWII) Flying Officers, Multichrons and the brilliantly named Excel-O-Graph, it really is one of the classiest vintage watch brands from the technical sector. Less ‘Mad Men’ and more ‘Union Jack Jackson’, Gallet continues to this day and has even produced quartz watches for the US military in the 1990s under both the Gallet brand and Marathon.
There are multiple Gallet watches I would like to tell you about, but they will have to wait to be explored individually. Still, it is safe to say that although Gallet is not a household name to the watch buying public, it was certainly one of the Swiss manufacturers – along with Breitling – that developed the chronograph to become one of the most technically used ‘watch tools’ of the 20th century, for both the military and civilian markets. Gallet is still in operation today and still produces a modern incarnation of its chronographs, which you can see here at the Gallet site. Good luck and, as always, Happy Hunting!