Gallet Multichron Commander
Watch reviewed is part of a private collection
When 2nd LT James Richard Hoel was shot down while on a mission on 17th May 1943, his bomber crashed into the Maas River in German-occupied Holland, along with the Gallet Commander wristwatch he had received as a gift from his employer before he left for the war. He was captured and sent to Stalag Luft III, where he helped dig the tunnels in the escape attempt that would be the basis for the movie “The Great Escape”. Hoel never made it to the infamous tunnel Harry; he stayed, at Stalag Luft III, until that prison was closed, and he was marched to Stalag VII-A Moosburg, where he remained until the war ended. Surviving ordeal after ordeal as a POW, recovery of his lost watch mattered much less than making it home. Fast-forward to 2003: Hoel received a phone call from England, the man on the other end claimed to have found the missing chronograph. Hoel never thought that, 60 years after the crash, he would be reunited with his Gallet Commander chronograph.
Such is one of the many colourful stories about Gallet chronographs and their owners. Not surprising, given the company boasts, perhaps, one of the longest watch- and clock-making histories, dating back to 1466. In 1939, Gallet was the only company to design, make and market a chronograph for women. The MultiChron Petite remains the smallest chronograph ever produced, and was a favourite of the “Ninety-Nines”, the world’s first organisation of women pilots, originally presided over by Amelia Earhart. The slightly larger MultiChron Commander made it the perfect unisex chronograph; something of a rarity even today.
Technically brilliant also, Gallet boasts a number of other innovations, such as the first water-resistant cases for chronograph wristwatches, nicknamed the Clamshell, released in 1938. They also supplied a small number of its Excelsior Park movements to Zenith and Girard-Perregaux. During its heyday, Gallet chronographs were retailed by the likes of C. Bucherer in Lucerne, Turler in Zurich, and Tiffany’s in New York; a testament of its quality. Yet nowadays, Gallet is largely unheard of outside the realm of vintage watch collectors and enthusiasts.
Most modern-day mechanical chronographs have diameters starting from 40mm; with a complicated movement and featuring 2-3 sub-dials, these usually sit large and high on small wrists. In comparison, the Gallet MultiChron Commander measures in at only 29mm. Despite its small size, it still has all the hallmarks of a standard chronograph: the dial on this particular example features a tachymeter, telemeter, a small seconds and a 45-minute counter, without feeling overcrowded. The blued hands in this particular example take on different hues, from navy to almost black, under different light, and are angled at the tip towards the dial to improve readability at all angles. The flat pushers at 2 and 4 o’clock, with the various circular measurements on the dial, create a sense that the watch is round; in fact, the case is more oval-ish in shape. The mirror polish on the front of the watch contrasts nicely with the brushed sides from lug to lug.
Then there’s the movement: the in-house Excelsior Park 42 calibre, the first and only oval chronograph movement ever made. At its release in 1938, it was the only movement capable of recording events lasting up to 45 minutes; most chronographs, even today, feature 30-minute counters. Inside the caseback, the EP42 is a beautifully intricate yet no-nonsense movement, with no superfluous finishes, reflecting Gallet’s reputation at the time as a high quality, professional-use watch manufacturer.
It is rare for a watch to be marketed as unisex now, much less in the era when the MultiChron Commander was created. On larger wrists, it is discrete but does not disappear. On smaller wrists, its presence is stronger; its statement is one of functionality and professionalism. It easily adapts to the occasion and wearer; on a leather strap, the Commander appears almost like a dress watch; on a metal bonklip bracelet, it takes on a vintage sporting flair.
The problem with it is...
Scarcity and rarity. Gallet Commanders don’t often come up for sale; when they do, as with most vintage watches of this age, pieces in good condition are hard to come by. Many that appear on the market are often no longer in full original condition; having been polished, relumed, redialled, or the crown replaced at some point. Nor do they come cheap: expect to pay $2,000 US or more for one, depending on condition. Fortunately, Gallet is still in operation and offer servicing of their own watches, including vintage watches, at their US service facility; a complete service starts at $850 US for basic 2 and 3 register chronograph models.
Would we own one?
Being a vintage lover, this one is a no-brainer yes. The oval EP42 movement gives a sense of exclusivity and the dial is beautifully busy. I'm particularly drawn to the numerals on the dial with the signature 'coat-hanger' seven. It adds the complexity of the dial and draws you in to discover the minute details.
Good things come in small packages. The Commander is a beautiful watch, one guaranteed to attract the attention of vintage watch enthusiasts. Personally, it was a surprise to find a chronograph that doesn’t overwhelm my own small wrist. It is versatile and functional, and an excellent conversation starter, be it about the movement, or design, or the colourful characters who have owned a Gallet in the past.
The Gallet for me, was a surprise. Not having an active interest in vintage chronographs or vintage watches in general it was interesting to learn the back-story and the unique quirks associated with the Commander. I love the sizing and it’s certainly refreshing to put on a chronograph that isn’t massively tall. Having seen the watch on a combination of straps and bracelets it is a very versitile watch that can be worn in a multitude of situtations.