Lebois & Co sounds like a brand that has been around for a long time, and it’s simultaneously right and wrong. The brand had quite a successful run from its foundation in 1934 but went belly-up in the early seventies as so many other watchmaking companies did. But, as we’ve extensively explained in earlier stories, Lebois & Co was resurrected a few years ago by Dutch entrepreneur and watch enthusiast Tom van Wijlick. And what’s interesting is that Tom and his team are entirely focused on creating a renewed legacy with the help of the watch community. He’s done it before, and he’s doing it again through his CoLAB program.
The Comeback of Lebois & Co
Lebois & Co was initially founded by Raymond Dodane, a third-generation member of the Dodane watchmaking family. The brand has an up-and-down life until its demise in 1972. In 1940 Italian aircraft manufacturer Caproni buys Lebois & Co chronograph watches to be gifted to Swedish airmen who came to Italy to pick up and fly back their new Caproni aircraft. Following WWII the brand was transferred to the Italian importers with production outsourced to the Dodane watch manufacture. By 1972, after almost 40 years of watchmaking under the Lebois & Co, the brand ceases operations and becomes dormant.
Exactly 80 years after the brand first started in watchmaking, Tom van Wijlick and his wife come across a vintage watch that struck them; a Lebois & Co. It led to a period of extensive research into the brand and its watches and eventually, the duo manages to get approval from the Dodane family to bring Lebois & Co back from the dead. The same year, a plan was drawn up to try and involve the watch community in the project, through a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.
The campaign is successful and leads to the introduction of the Lebois & Co Avantgarde Date. It is a rather handsome, contemporary watch in steel, with a silvery-white dial. Later a second and third configuration is aided, again funded through Kickstarter. The collection now comprises of the blue, white and black (with transparent caseback) Avantgarde Date.
The second model to be introduced by the renewed Lebois & Co is the Venturist. This model is the more sporty, adventurous side of Lebois & Co and has a very clean, robust design. And surprisingly, especially for such a young, small microbrand, it comes with Observatoire Chronométrique+ certification issued by TIMELAB. This means that all watches, not only the movements, undergo a rigorous 21-day testing regime before being delivered to a client. The certification focuses on anti-magnetism, chronometric precision, water-resistance and power reserve. The protocols TIMELAB follows are tighter than COSC certification, just so you know.
And time to bring back Airain
Continuing in the line of community-based watchmaking, this too was created (and funded) using help from the community but not as you might think. During the development of the Venturist, Tom and his team launch a program aimed to raise funds and get people involved as a shareholder. This means a reduced price for the Venturist, a say in future projects and more benefits are granted to investors. And the level of involvement is down to each shareholder’s personal preference.
Besides working on Lebois & Co, a second brand is in the process of being resurrected by Tom van Wijlick. This is again a brand that was launched in 1934 by the Dodane family; Montres Airain. Airain was one of the selected suppliers of the Type 20 pilot’s watch issued by the French Ministry of Defense and used in the 1950s and 1960s. In an effort to bring back Airain as well, Tom managed to pursue the then owner to sell the brand to him, once again bringing Airain and Lebois & Co together.
Let the community speak…
To relaunch the Airain brand, Tom created a step by step program where the community could weigh in on the design and development of Type 20 re-issue. This CoLAB program is a collaborative initiative, inviting people to cast their vote in several stages to reach a final design. This is actually something we see more and more, as evidenced by these recently introduced Seiko “Pogue” and Alpina watches.
The new Airain Type 20 Chronograph is a direct result of this program, and looks quite cool! As a faithful re-edition of the original pilot’s watch, it has the right dimensions and style to commemorate these important watches. Two black dial versions, and a limited brown dial version have been presented. The four-step project is now well on its way and the prototype has been finalized. The watches can be pre-ordered with deliveries expected before the end of the year.
Lebois’ upcoming Chronograph
Considering this concept of community watchmaking seems to work just brilliantly, as you get proper consumer feedback and tie-in potential clients early on, Tom has cleverly used it for the next Lebois & Co Heritage collection too. Aiming to launch a vintage-inspired chronograph watch under the Lebois & Co name, the second CoLAB program started a little bit earlier this year.
Step 1 of the program included picking the right style out of a set of vintage Lebois & Co chronographs, and also the type of movement (cam-actuated versus column-wheel chronograph). The second phase, which is currently running, is selecting the final designs of the case and dial, with the latter being based on the voting results of the first phase. Then it’s on to the next phase, where people can decide between various strap options, which is scheduled to be launched sometime in August. From then onwards prototypes will be made and presented, as currently planned, by November of this year. Pre-orders are expected in December, as is the start of the production. The first watches will likely be delivered in the first quarter of next year.
But where does that leave us for now? Well, as you can see here, Tom and his team gave plenty of options to choose from as inspiration for the new Lebois & Co Heritage Chronograph. Nine different vintage pieces included a whole range of dials to select; black, cream, silver or salmon-coloured dials with various scales and typography. Over 1,800 votes were cast and out of the nine, the salmon dial proved the most popular, followed by the cream dial with multicoloured scales, the off-white sector dial and a black dial with cream printing. For the movement, the column-wheel chronograph took top honours by a landslide; 592 votes over 33.
As said, the current phase for the Lebois & CO Heritage Chronograph is all about the final design for the case and dial. Working with freelance watch designer Mathieu Allègre (Also responsible for the Lebois & Co watches and the Airain Type 20) resulted in three styles for the case, with the differences mainly focusing on the lugs. For the dial, there are four options, with each one having a choice between different types of finishing or contrasting subdials and/or printing. As a surprise, there’s also the option of a pulsation dial. Voting on all of these steps is running right now, so if you’re interested in getting involved in the final design of the watch, if you haven’t already, be sure to check out the program on Lebois & Co’s website.
For now, there’s not much more to share, other than that Tom shares regular updates through a series of virtual Coffee Catch-ups which is perfectly fitting in this digital, home-bound age under the global Covid-pandemic. What we can say, as a final thought on this topic, is that we applaud such creative projects that involve the community in an effort to recreate a historically interesting pair of brands. Using people’s opinions to finalize your next collection is not only smart from a business point of view, but it makes this hobby (or passion for most) all the more fun! Who doesn’t want to say they’ve helped design a brand new watch?