Last year, when Zenith reissued the legendary “A. Cairelli” CP-2 chronograph, collectors — appropriately — offered thanks to the heavens. The stunning re-edition reminded them of a rarely recalled chapter in the history of military watches, well-known in Italy but less so beyond the core (or should that be corps?) of military watch enthusiasts.

While seasoned military watch aficionados might reel at describing the CP-2 as “rarely recalled”, the reasons for this categorization are quite specific. For one thing, it was — in A. Cairelli-signed form — issued only to the Italian forces, so its fame and its original fan base are, or were, restricted solely to the home market. For a second, only 2,500 were produced, with one estimate suggesting that 2,000 were issued to the military and 500 sold to the public. Another source has intimated a 50/50 split.

According to Zenith’s official history, it was confirmed thusly: “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 buffs, its rarity has mitigated against it being as well-known in collector circles as the IWC “Mk” models, the Rolex “Mil-Spec” Submariners made for the Royal Navy, the Omega 300s made for the British services or, most pointedly, the original military-issue Panerais — also, coincidentally, Italian. This matters hugely, because Italian collectors are among the most fervent in the military watch community, rivaled only by their former collaborators, the Germans. That said, the A. Cairelli Zenith has always been enormously desirable to those in the know.

Values show a trend that can be likened to those for Heuer Autavias and certain Tudors. When I was offered one in the mid-1990s, the price then was GBP1,200 (then USD1,800), or GBP2,500 (USD3,400) today. That is not far off what you could have paid for one as recently as five years ago. But as of December 2015, when Antiquorum offered a CP-2 with a USD3,000–5,000 estimate, it ultimately sold for USD11,875 with premium. And current values have yet to peak.

Zenith A. Cairelli CP-2 chronograph sold by Antiquorum (Image © Antiquorum)
Zenith A. Cairelli CP-2 chronograph sold by Antiquorum (Image © Antiquorum)

What’s in a Name?

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

It’s a story that encompasses not just the CP-2 watch, the actual subject of the reissue, but its predecessors and the watches that would replace it. Information is scarce regarding A. Cairelli itself, believed to have been founded in 1932, but dogged enthusiasts have uncovered other watches branded by the company beyond the coveted CP-2. Because of this, the collector of A. Cairelli-themed watches has more than just the CP-2 to seek out, but — as with the French military’s Type 20 and Fifty Fathoms watches, and the 12 timepieces collectively known as the “Dirty Dozen” — variants of the CP-2 create a subgenre of their own.

Although the company was wound down in the 1960s or 1970s, modern A. Cairelli-branded models reappeared in the 21st century, in a civilian range of diving watches and chronographs with dials bearing the A. Cairelli name. While these might not have the same allure as original Cairelli products, certain to be of appeal to collectors of militaria from the earlier incarnation of the company are A. Cairelli bomb-release timers, all based on stopwatches, as well as clocks fitted to cockpit control panels.

The 43mm Zenith A. Cairelli CP2 chronograph

The Forerunners

Key to appreciating the story of the CP-2 is the Type HA-1. This split-seconds chronograph from 1953, the Type HA-1 for astronomic navigation, was used by anti-submarine reconnaissance aircraft in the Mediterranean. Type HA-1 was a 45mm timepiece housing a Valjoux 55 and was marked “A. Cairelli” on the dial. It featured a white dial, and showed 24 hours rather than 12. Its hours and minutes hands were Breguet-style “moon-tipped” types, and it sported a 16-minute counter at three o’clock, with real seconds at nine o’clock. Prices for this have shot past CHF100,000, not least because its diameter makes it eminently wearable in the 2000s.

Its replacement was the short-lived CP-1 and the CP-2 that superseded it. 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 certainly 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 labeled only as Leonidas.

Fitted with the Valjoux caliber 22-2 movement with flyback and hacking facility, the CP-1 was, like the CP-2, issued to the Aeronautica Militare Italiana (AMI) or the Italian Air Forces. It 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. For collectors, this is a deal-maker that amps up the CP-2’s contemporary desirability. Suffice it to say, however, the less-common CP-1s enjoy astounding rarity value like that of the proverbial rocking-horse excreta, believed to be far less than the number of CP-2s produced.

Universal HA-1
Universal HA-1
Universal CP-2 A. Cairelli (Image ©Phillips.com)
Universal CP-2 A. Cairelli (Image ©Phillips.com)

The Second Generation

Come 1960, and the CP-2 arrived. It featured a three-part polished case with screwed caseback. Its most distinctive feature, which would be exaggerated in the models that would follow, was the wide, graduated revolving black bezel reminiscent of the watch’s contemporary rival, the Heuer Bund chronograph. Other details included a dust-protecting cap, black dial with tritium-coated Arabic numerals, auxiliary seconds and 30-minute register dials, outer minutes, seconds and fifth-of-a-second graduation. There are said to be civilian versions with three subdials, 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 CP-2 was the Zenith caliber 146DP, with 17 jewels, lever escapement, monometallic balance, shock-protection and self-compensating flat balance spring.

Initially, the caliber 146DP 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 calibers 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.

Deciphering the engravings, the military versions are marked on the back, as mentioned before, with “AMI” or “MM”, which stands for “Matricola Militare”, or “military registration number” according to the eminent Italian watch authority Michele Galizia, followed by the inventory number. (Note: “Marina Militare” 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”.

Zenith A. Cairelli CP-2 chronograph (Image ©Antiquorum)
Zenith A. Cairelli CP-2 chronograph (Image ©Antiquorum)

While the Zenith reissue has elevated the CP-2 to the heights of the pre-1990s Panerais, one cold, hard fact will probably ensure its ascent: after that sale of just under USD12,000, last year, a Zenith A. Cairelli CP-2 realized CHF62,500 in the chronograph auction held by Phillips. 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 was about to reissue the CP-2 is unknown, but one thing seems certain: the CP-2’s time — so to speak — has arrived, for both the new and the vintage models. The appearance of a reissue always raises rather than undermines the value of an original, so, 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?

Zenith A. Cairelli CP-2 chronograph sold for CHF62,500 during the auction held by Phillips (Image ©Phillips.com)
Zenith A. Cairelli CP-2 chronograph sold for CHF62,500 during the auction held by Phillips (Image ©Phillips.com)