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The Lémania Legacy

A brief history of the revered movement maker with a deep legacy in Swiss watchmaking

The Vallée de Joux has for centuries been one of Switzerland’s most fertile in terms of horological movement design and manufacture. One of those movement manufacturers was Lémania, which had its basis in L’Orient, just southwest of the Lac de Joux. The great Swiss movement companies often had their start with the vision and skill of just one man, and for Lémania, Alfred Lugrin was that man.

Henry Alfred Lugrin and his brother Alfred were both born and raised in Switzerland around the middle of the 19th century. (Some say Henry Alfred was born in 1848 and Alfred in 1858).  Henry Alfred learned ébauche and movement design and construction in his late teens, and then left for the United States in 1868; he immediately took up watchmaking in New York City. He would go on to file numerous patents for his stopwatch, chronograph and repeating movement designs made for Waltham and Wittnauer in America, and the Timing and Repeating Watch Co. in Geneva.

The younger Alfred chose to remain in Switzerland and worked for a number of companies in and around the valley lake region.  Alfred, like his older brother, was particularly skilled in the design of chronographs and he patented a design in the late 1870s which came to the attention of Longines.  The watch company purchased a patent license and the Longines chronograph soon became a preferred timing device for many sporting events.

Chronographs were not Alfred Lugrin’s only focus. Note the quarter repeater (pictured here) with movement signed A. Lugrin that was made circa 1880.  He formally founded A. Lugrin S.A. in L’Orient in 1884 and received a patent due to his significant improvement in movements. He also received one (Brevet No. 359) for the refinement of his own chronograph movement, which is documented in an advertisement from 1896 for watches made by Jules-Fred Jeanneret in St.-Imier.

Lémania Is Born

As a result of these successes, A. Lugrin S.A. became known as an innovative maker of chronograph movements and won awards for caliber designs. It won medals for entries in the 1906 Milan fair and the 1914 Bern fair.  Swiss records document that on March 12, 1918, the name of the Lémania Watch Company is registered in the Canton of Vaud. According to NAWCC life-member Claude Girardin, operation of the company passed to Alfred Lugrin’s son-in-law Marius Meylan as its new managing director in about 1920.

In 1930 the Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère (SSIH) was formed when Omega and Tissot joined forces. By 1932, the dire economic climate forced Meylan to approach the SSIH to purchase Lémania and save the company.  This proved mutually beneficial as Omega in particular would now have free access to Lémania’s superb chronograph movements and Lémania was free to continue to market watches under its own name and it did so for decades.

Albert Piquet was one of the firm’s star designers. His career at Lémania would span more than forty years. One of his first designs was the Lémania 27-CHRO-12, released in 1942.  The movement was a tri-compax chronograph with column wheel that included 12-hour elapsed time indication. Working in conjunction with Omega, Piquet further refined this movement to include shock protection and an antimagnetic balance spring, and Omega introduced it in 1946 as the now famed Cal. 321.

Lémania, Omega and the Speedmaster

The post-World War II era was a boon for Lémania as well as all Swiss movement and watch companies as the world returned to peace and the resumption of commercial production.  While Lémania and Omega had produced manual-wind chronographs during this period, the 1957 introduction of the Omega Speedmaster profoundly affected the fortunes of both companies. The Speedmaster was powered by the Omega caliber 321 movement, but it was its brilliant horological industrial design that would see it go on to become a timekeeping icon of the 20th century.

The Speedmaster was adopted by NASA for its manned spaceflight program and was informally worn during the latter missions of the Mercury program. It was astronaut Ed White’s spacewalk outside his Gemini capsule that catapulted the Speedmaster to worldwide renown. Henceforth, Omega called it the Speedmaster Professional. With Apollo 11—the first manned landing on the Moon—both Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wore their Speedmasters as crucial timekeeping instruments and made the watch one of the most desired watches in the world—the first watch worn on the Moon—as Omega proudly advertised.

A new chronograph caliber appeared in 1965—the Lémania 1873– and this was the basis of the Omega 861 subsequently used in the Speedmaster Professional from late 1967 onward. Differences from the 321 included the switch from a column wheel to a shuttle/cam chronograph mechanism, eliminating the screws in the balance wheel, increasing the beat to 21,600 bph, incorporating a flat balance spring and changing the shape of the main bridge.

Solid image

The Apollo Moon missions and caliber improvements solidified Lémania’s reputation and its chronograph movements were also employed by Breitling, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Girard-Perregaux and many others and at all price ranges. Of course, Lémania’s chronographs were all manual-wind, 17-jewel movements, and the circumstances surrounding the race to change that and create the first Swiss automatic chronograph is well documented. The first Breitling, Heuer and Hamilton watches with automatics first appeared in 1969, while Zenith also worked on its own automatic chronograph and introduced its El Primero movement the same year.

Lémania, however, was slow to get out of the gate.  Perhaps this is so because Valjoux, its chief competitor in the manufacture of chronograph movements, did not offer an automatic chronograph movement, but eventually Lémania did begin work on an automatic chronograph. This was in the early 1970s and there is little doubt Albert Piquet was also involved with its design.

The subdial configuration he selected was a 12-hour counter at six o’clock, a sweep second at nine o’clock and a 24-hour counter at 12 o’clock. It had central stop seconds and stop minutes counters, with the latter having a swept-wing fighter tip to distinguish it from the second counter. In addition, it displayed date and day at three o’clock.

Lémania worked to lower the cost of chronograph manufacture with its best-known early model, the Caliber 5100. The 17-jewel movement employed pillar construction, meaning the stamped bridges and some other parts were pinned to the main plate with tiny pillars, and as little machining as possible was performed. Numerous parts were nylon, the most prominent being the grey rotor bumper stops which also served to provide support to the rotor in the event of hard shocks. The chronograph module was placed between the dial and the base plate instead of traditionally between the base plate and automatic winding mechanism.  It employed the Kif-Flector shock absorbing system, instead of the industry standard Incabloc.

Piquet wanted a rugged chronograph movement with the 5100 to be used in demanding sports activities and even military use, not simply a chronograph dress watch movement. In this, Lémania succeeded.

The Lémania 5100, introduced in 1978, was adopted by Heuer, Omega, Sinn, Orfina’s Porsche Design, Tutima and many other brands and was manufactured for more than a quarter of a century. The Tutima and Sinn chronographs with the 5100 continued to be supplied to the German military and actually succeeded in prolonging the movement’s production. Production finally ceased in the early 2000s, but ETA revisited the design. It completely re-engineered the movement with all-new tooling and introduced it as the 15-jewel C01.211 exclusively for Tissot in its mechanical chronograph models.

The Electronic Lémania Chronograph

The quartz and electronic movement revolution in Switzerland did not leave Lémania unaffected. In the late 1970s, Nouvelle Lémania embarked on the development of an electronic chronograph. It would be more accurate to say it embarked on the development of an elecro-mechanical movement.

The first Swiss patent application for this movement was filed in December 1981. A U. S. patent was initially applied for in 1982 but was subsequently abandoned while further development went on, and the final patent application was filed on January 2, 1985, and granted on May 13, 1986, for an Electronic Chronograph Watch Having Analog and Digital Display of Measured Time Periods.

In this movement, a micromotor actuated a wheel train that drove the center hour and minute hands, while another motor actuated the chronograph train that operated the chronograph sweep seconds hand, a minute register hand and an hour register hand. The movement actually had a mechanical column wheel which started and stopped the second motor by a lever, and a hammer reset the chronograph gears.  Finally, there was a liquid crystal display at 12 o’clock for the reading in hundredths of a second, up to 99/100ths. When the chronograph was not running, this display showed the date.

This movement apparently never entered mass production, though the late Omega expert Chuck Maddox obtained one example. Omega even advertised one model that used this version.

The Breguet Era

There was a period from the early to mid-1980s when Heuer was actually owned by Nouvelle Lémania, and thus Lémania movements powered many Heuer chronographs. Then, TAG acquired the Heuer brand in 1985. But two years later another brand, Breguet, changed hands (purchased from Chaumet Jewelers by the Investcorp Group) and the new owners formed Groupe Horloger Breguet (GHB), which quickly established strong ties with Nouvelle Lémania for design and manufacture of the prestigious brand’s movements.

Lémania continued to supply its movements to existing customers as well. In 1992, GHB fully acquired Nouvelle Lémania to ensure supply of movements for Breguet in the resurgent high-end mechanical watch market while still supplying movements to select Swiss and German watch companies. A new Lémania Manufacture was built in 1996 in L’Abbaye, a short distance from Lac de Joux.

Nicolas G. Hayek, the late CEO of The Swatch Group, had admired Breguet and its illustrious history for years. In September 1999, The Swatch Group purchased Groupe Horloger Breguet from Investcorp. Hayek was jubilant at acquiring Breguet and planned to use the financial resources of The Swatch Group to further strengthen and expand the brand worldwide. In a 2002 magazine interview, Hayek stated, We are investing SF20 million in Nouvelle Lémania to make a complete Manufacture Breguet.  We will produce 10,500 pieces this year for a total volume of SF150 million. We are selling every complication that we can produce.

Hayek restored the landmark Lémania building at Rue Alfred Lugrin 2 in L’Orient that had been the basis for Lémania for 100 years, and ordered new machine tools and equipment and trained new watchmakers. A new, much larger modern wing was added to this location. Without fanfare, the trademark Lémania sign on the building was replaced with a sign that read Montres Breguet, S.A. Today, the facility in L’Abbaye shares design, assembly and testing of Breguet watches.

Breguet, however, has removed all vestiges of the manufacture’s Lémania roots, but its legacy remains strong in the numerous Lémania watches collected as well as inside the many magnificent Breguets made today.

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