Leonidas Italian Army Chronograph
Vintage & Auctions

Italian army chronographs

In the 1970s, several Swiss brands created chronographs for the Italian army, with the denomination CP-1 and CP-2, for “cronometro di polso”. Here’s what happened.

By Joel Laplace

Chronograph specialist brands such as Breitling, Zenith, Leonidas and Universal Genève were consulted and Roman retailer A. Cairelli distributed some of the models. This added some “exoticism” to watches that are today highly prized by collectors as they all have very similar design. Quite logical as these military watches were all created according to quasi-identical specifications.

Zenith Cairelli AMI or MM CP-2

The Zenith Cairelli CP-2 is undoubtedly one of the most enviable military watches. Produced in 1973, the 43-mm chronograph features a turning bezel and a beautiful lacquered dial with the famous Cairelli signature.

The Zenith Cairelli with its vintage steel bracelet, picture by italian collector The Zenith Cairelli with its vintage steel bracelet, picture by italian collector

It also houses the 146 DP, an interesting movement that was developed by Martel Watch Co, taken over by Zenith in 1959.

It would seem that the brand produced some 2,500 pieces of this model, though rumor has it that some pieces were never even delivered to the Italian army. Instead, it would seem Cairelli sold the remaining stock on its own as the watches’ backs do not feature any military inscription; only the words Cairelli and Tipo CP2.

The Zenith Cairelli movement 146 DP, picture by italian collector

The military version was used until the early 1980s and is engraved with “AMI” (Aeronautica Militare Italiana) and “MM” (Marina Militare). Today, the price of a good-condition Cairelli that was once used by the military ranges between CHF6,000 and CHF7,000. The “civil” version is sold at a lower price but has obviously not been through the same sort of adventures.

Breitling CP-1 ref. 817

The Breitling CP-1 was produced in 1974. It was specifically designed for army helicopter pilots and for the men of the “Battaglione Paracadutisti Carabinieri “Tuscania”, a batallion of elite policemen responsible for the most delicate missions.

Breitling 817 model for italian Army Helicopter pilots, picture by @watchfred

The back was engraved with E.I (“Esercito Italiano”), i.e. Italian Army. The dial features the number 817. The watch is equipped with a Valjoux 236. Among these Italian military watches, the Breitling was one of the rarest as it was produced in approximately 1,000 pieces.

Leonidas CP-1 and CP-2

Based in St Imier and Heuer’s main competitor at the time, Leonidas produced the Leonidas CP in the mid-1960s. The watch came with a technical sheet that listed its main features. The funny thing is that it is certified that “the luminescent parts of this chronograph meet the requirements of non-radioactivity from the Laboratoire de Précision de l’Armée Italienne”. The CP-1 and CP-2 measure 38 mm and 43 mm respectively and they house the Valjoux 222 movement with flyback function.

The Leonidas Cairelli with its certificate "no-radioactivity", picture by @watchfred The Leonidas Cairelli with its certificate "no-radioactivity", picture by @watchfred

Universal Genève Cairelli Tipo HA-1 Valjoux 55

Having reviewed some military watches from the 1960s and 1970s, it is now essential to mention a historical piece that was produced by one of the most appreciated Genevan manufactures at the time. Indeed, the Cairelli by Universal Genève is one of the rarest and most prized military watches.

And I personally think that it is one of the most beautiful. It is a flyback chronograph equipped with the Valjoux 55 movement and a 24-hour power reserve. Its 45-mm case catches the eye at first glance and will most certainly appeal to aficionados.

Universal Cairelli Tipo HA-1 Universal Cairelli Tipo HA-1 sold by Sotheby's for CHF 122,500

Based in Roma, Cairelli was the official supplier of the Italian air force and thus produced wristwatches and various board instruments. In the 1940s, the Roman watchmaker put in an order for a small range of this special chronograph from the Genevan brand. The order was delivered to the Italian air force (A.M.I “Aeronautica Militare Italiana”) and the pilots wore this specially designed model during night flights.

Recently, Sotheby’s auctioned a piece that was sold at CHF 122,500. This was a first for this piece, whose usual price in recent years has been around CHF 50,000. This particular one, however, had been hardly worn; it looked almost new and belonged to the first owner’s descendants.

An interesting fact for you: the Valjoux 55 also equips the legendary 12 pieces of the Rolex chronograph 4113, one of Rolex’s rarest pieces and a delight for collectors.

Rolex ref. 4113 The Rolex ref. 4113, one of the rarest Rolex ever made!

The reference 4113 does not feature in any catalogue of the time and it is believed that the small range was distributed only to famous racing drivers and team owners of the time. The famous auction bid that took place on May 16 2011 at Christie’s in Geneva was a memorable event for collectors as the prized chronograph was sold for CHF 1,035,000. It was the first time a Rolex was sold for over a million Swiss francs in an auction bid!