The Story of A. Cairelli of Roma: An Italian Military Materiel Distributor

While seasoned military watch enthusiasts might reel at describing the CP-2 as “rarely-recalled”, the reasons for this categorisation are quite specific. For one thing, it was – in A. Cairelli-signed form – issued to the Italian forces, so its fame and its original fan base are, or were, restricted to solely Italy. For a second, only 2,500 were produced, with one estimate suggesting that 2000 were issued to the military and 500 sold to the public. Another source has suggested 50/50.

According to Zenith’s official history, it was confirmed that: “The Italian army ordered more than it distributed, so a rather large number of them are on the market, within the limit of the 2,500 pieces that were made. Those with the military markings are in the most demand.”

Although the CP-2 instantly seduces both chronograph and military watch enthusiasts, its rarity has mitigated against it being as well-known in collector circles as the IWC “Mk” models, the Rolex Submariners made for the Royal Navy, the Omegas made for the British services or, most pointedly, the original military-issue Panerais. Even so, the A. Cairelli Zenith has always been hugely desirable to those in the know.

When I was offered one in the late-1990s, the price then was £1,200. While that is only £2,700 in today’s money, it’s not far off what you could have paid for one maybe five years ago. As recently as December of last year, however, Antiquorum offered one with a US $3,000-5,000 estimate. It sold for $11,875 with premium. But more anon about current values.

Pro facilitate

Mention of Panerai is crucial to understanding the almost unique status of watches bearing the name “A. Cairelli” on the dials. Why “almost”? Because A. Cairelli of Roma has much in common with Panerai of Firenze. It was the Italian government’s use of military materiel distributors in the public retail sector that created the dial presence for both the names A. Cairelli and Panerai on the watches both supplied the Italian services. In other words, Panerai and A. Cairelli were, for lack of a better term, sub-contractors, or what the French would call “negociants” in a wine-procuring context.

Information is scarce regarding A. Cairelli, believed to have been founded in 1932, but dogged enthusiasts have uncovered other watches branded by the company. One earlier A. Cairelli watch was a Universal Genève split-second chronograph from 1953, the Type HA-1 for astronomic navigation, and used by anti-submarine reconnaissance aircraft in the Mediterranean. This 45mm timepiece housed a Valjoux 55 and was marked A. Cairelli on the dial. After winding down in the 1960s/1970s, modern A. Cairelli watches reappeared in the 21st century, in a civilian range of diving watches and chronographs with dials that bear only the A. Cairelli name. Also of appeal to collectors of militaria from the earlier incarnation are A. Cairelli bomb-release timers, all based on stopwatches, as well as clocks fitted to cockpit control panels. If you’ll forgive the corny wordplay, the A. Carelli CP-2 is the zenith of its production.

The making of CP-2

Various markings on CP-2s indicate distribution solely to various branches of the military with their own air forces, as well as scientific units, but there are no indications that A. Cairelli produced watches for the Italian Navy, which was Panerai’s turf. “CP’ is Italian for “cronometro da polso” or “wrist chronometer” and this watch was preceded by the similar CP-1 made by and labelled only as Leonidas. The Leonidas CP-1 used the Valjoux Calibre 22-2 movement with flyback and hacking facility. It was, like the CP-2, issued to the A.M.I., for “Aeronautica Militare Italiana” or the Italian Air Forces.

CP-1 differed from the later CP-2 primarily in size: the CP-1 was a 39mm watch, while the CP-2 had a diameter of 43mm. The wonders of the Internet allow us to see photos posted by lucky collectors who own both, shooting them side-by-side. It’s clear that the 4mm difference transforms the watch’s attitude and, for some, its appeal, depending on the wearer’s predilections. Suffice it to say, CP-1s enjoy the rarity value of rocking-horse excreta, as far fewer are believed to have been produced than the number of CP-2s.

Come 1960, and the CP-2 arrived. It featured a three-part polished case with screwed case back. Its most distinctive feature, which would be exaggerated in the models that would follow, was the wide, graduated revolving black bezel. Other details included a dust protecting cap, black dial with tritium-coated Arabic numerals, auxiliary seconds and 30-minutes register dials, outer minutes, seconds and fifth-of-a-second graduation. There are said to be civilian versions with three sub-dials, but this writer has yet to find proof of that, other than the modern A. Cairelli items sold to civilians.

Tritium-coated baton hands were fitted for hours and minutes, with a distinctive chronograph sweep hand terminating in a pointer that looks like a miniature “swept wing” aircraft. Powering the A. Cairelli Zenith CP-2 was the Calibre 146 DP, with 17 jewels, lever escapement, monometallic balance, shock-protection and self-compensating flat balance-spring.

Initially, the Calibre 146 DP was made in the Ponts-de-Martel workshops, powering a watch made by Universal Genève that A. Cairelli handled in the late 1950s. Because it used calibres from Martel Watch, and the brand had been purchased by Zenith in 1959, A. Cairelli carried on with Zenith to ensure that continuity was maintained – crucial when supplying the military. The Leonidas CP-2 from around 1965 used the Valjoux Calibre 22-2.

On the marks

Deciphering the engravings, the military versions are marked on the back, as mentioned before, with “AMI” or “MM”, which stands for “Matricola Militaire”, or “military registration number” according to Italian watch authority Michele Galizia, followed by the inventory number. [Note: “Marina Militaire” is for navy watches, which A. Cairelli did not supply.] With the civilian version, the back inscriptions include only A. Cairelli’s name and CP-2.

Also seen were Universal Genève CP-2s marked A. Cairelli, with the Universal Genève Calibre 265 P around 1966-67, but production was limited because of cost. CP-2s were distributed until early 1970s, and their military use ended in 1985. The CP-2s were replaced with Heuer and Lemania chronographs fitted with automatic movements. Continuing the wide bezel CP-2 concept was the Breitling 817 with Valjoux 236 for Italian Army helicopter pilots, circa 1975, and the Breitling 765, while the ultimate interpretation of this style of watch for many is the highly coveted Heuer “3H” 1550 SG Bundeswehr chronographs.

While the Zenith reissue (read about the new watch here) is certain to elevate the CP-2 to the heights of the pre-1990s Panerais, one cold, hard fact will probably ensure it: after last year’s sale of just under $12,000, this year a Zenith A. Cairelli CP-2 realised SFr.62,500 in May’s Start-Stop-Reset chronograph auction held by Phillips (read full story here). Its value had increased by a factor of five in as many months.

How much was due to natural appreciation and inflation, and how much to insider knowledge that Zenith would reissue the CP-2 is unknown, but one thing seems certain: the CP-2’s time – so to speak – has arrived. The appearance of a reissue always elevates rather than undermines the value of an original. If you already owned one of the Military-issue A. Cairelli CP-2s, your ship has come in. Or should I say, your plane has landed?

Back to Top