Léon Breitling (1860-1914) shared his Swiss birthplace of La Chaux-de-Fonds with two other men who would go on to define the “modern age” – Louis-Joseph Chevrolet and Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, AKA Le Corbusier. But rather than automobiles or architecture, Breitling's contribution would be the development of the chronograph and, in particular, timekeepers suitable for aviation – a valuable position it retains to this day.
Breitling founded his business in 1884 in Saint-Imier, before relocating to La Chaux-de-Fonds, a purpose-built enclave of watchmaking in the Jura mountains. At the time, competition was growing from the United States and it was Breitling’s idea to aim for the “higher ground”, horologically speaking, hence his focus on chronographs.
Léon died in 1914, leaving his son, Gaston, to inherit. It was Gaston who first introduced the separation of a chronograph’s time-measuring functions from an all-purpose crown to initially one and later two separate pushers. It's this second configuration that is favoured by all sports-derived chronograph producers today.
Following Gaston's unexpected death in 1927, his son, Willy, would have to wait several years before reaching an age at which he could take over. After which, it's fair to say, it's as if he was forever making up for that lost time.
Shortly before the start of the Second World War, Willy unveiled a new department dedicated to building cockpit instruments and, in particular, highly legible chronometers. Named Breitling Huit Aviation in recognition of the eight-day power reserves with which many of the models were equipped, with their oversized, luminescent registers and hands and contrasting black dials, these pieces became the template for many of the wristwatches that followed.
The brand's commitment to aviation did not end there. In 1942 it launched the Chronomat, featuring two logarithmic scales affixed to the dial and a rotating bezel respectively, which greatly enhanced the functionality of a chronograph by offering a wrist-born “slide rule” that could be used in everyday life, from sport to business, aviation to industry.
A decade later, Breitling launched the watch with which this function is most closely associated: the Navitimer. Remodelling the dial and bezel greatly extended the number of calculations achievable and it now included a 12-hour chronograph function perfect for air – and later space – travel. (In 1962, Scott Carpenter would wear a Navitimer fitted with a 24-hour dial during his three-times orbit of the earth.) Still, what's kept the Navitimer in business long after GPS arrived is the distinctive, highly technical appearance of its dial and that sharply responsive bezel.
Automatic for the people
The 1950s had also seen the introduction of the brand’s first world-timer (the Unitime) and its first foray into quartz-controlled timekeeping. But for Breitling, the decade that birthed Mad Men would also mark an important change in its fortunes, partly brought about after an encounter between Willy Breitling and an advertising executive called Georges Caspari.
Focusing on three models – the Navitimer, Chronomat and Unitime – Caspari launched a global campaign aimed at stemming the decline in chronograph sales that had followed the end of the Second World War, at the same time developing a striking, vibrant yellow “visual signature” that would eventually be incorporated into virtually every element of the brand.
By this time, Breitling was the “official timekeeper” of many of the world’s airlines (and a growing cohort of private aviators). So in 1957, to celebrate 25 years at the helm of the company, Breitling launched a model aimed at another emerging professional and leisure market: scuba divers. The SuperOcean boasted the same functionality and fit-for-purpose credentials that had ensured its airborne siblings’ success and was later joined by the TransOcean, a self-winding, shockproof and antimagnetic chronograph offering the same rugged approach.
Breitling’s eighth decade in existence will be remembered for the development (in partnership with Heuer and Hamilton) of the first self-winding chronograph movement, launched in 1969 at the Basel watch fair as the Chrono-Matic. As with all pathfinder products, the Chrono-Matic would go on to define Breitling’s mastery of mechanical chronographs. But by the end of the 1970s, Willy's health was failing and with no one in his family to take over its most dynamic leader was forced to shut up shop and lay off Breitling’s entire staff.
It was Caspari who rescued the company for a second time, when he introduced Willy to fellow watch business owner – and keen aviator – Ernest Schneider. The problems facing the brand at the time were not insubstantial. There was the question of maintaining the many thousands of watches already produced, while countering the threat of quartz then engulfing the Swiss watch industry. Fortunately, Schneider, and later his son Teddy, was committed to doing both.
Breitling was initially incorporated into the Schneiders' existing Sicura watch business in Grenchen, where it worked on a series of “Professional” quartz-powered models (leading to the development of its legendary Emergency model, a quartz chronograph fitted with a powerful transmitter that offered a geo-location service to stricken wearers). However, it was an approach by the Italian army’s aerobatics team, the Frecce Tricolori, that would set the company on course for serious success once more.
As quartz models were unable to offer analogue displays and the pilots preferred to put their trust in old-fashioned hands and registers, Schneider offered to create a new mechanical chronograph model for the team, fitted with a self-winding Valjoux 7750 movement and featuring a modern, ergonomically designed case. Launched in 1984, the new-generation Breitling Chronomat, characterised by four bezel “riders”, would prove a worthy successor to its namesake and the perfect piece with which to celebrate the company’s centenary.
Another success story was its partnership with Bentley, for which it created a dashboard clock to adorn its new GT, followed by a collection of suitably soignée watches inspired by the luxury marque.
But with a new century came a new threat – the gradual withdrawal of third-party movements from the market. At Breitling, the brave decision was taken to “go it alone” and the COSC-certified automatic chronograph caliber BO1 movement was launched in 2009. Honouring Léon Breitling's belief that reliability and accuracy would always reign supreme, the B01 also confirmed the brand's place as a manufacture in its own right.
In 2017, Breitling was sold to private equity house CVC Capital Partners, which installed former IWC CEO Georges Kern to oversee a realignment of the brand around its strong aviation and adventure heritage. Since when, changes at Breitling have been swift – and assured. First on the corporate to-do list was a rebranding, resulting in new store designs reflective of a more lifestyle approach to marketing its watches. These, too, have undergone a streamlining of sorts, with the removal of the (highly successful) Breitling For Bentley lines and a clearer delineation between Bo1- and third-party-powered timepieces. (Although retained for specific Professional models, quartz, too, has been quietly discontinued, the entry-level Colt range having been replaced by the mechanically driven Avenger line.)
Kern's first big announcement came with the launch of the “tribute to Huit” series known as the Navitimer 8, in 2018. Since when, a systematic reappraisal of all lines has been undertaken, with a strong emphasis placed on what the brand recognises as its 20th-century calling card: authentic, everyday luxury for men and women of purpose, action and style.
But you be the judge. Here are our three picks of the current Breitling collection:
Top Time Limited Edition
One of the first things George Kern did when he arrived at Breitling was take a close look at the archive – a process of re-evaluation that has led to some striking re-editions. A case in point: this 1960s model that somehow missed out on the sort of long-life fame enjoyed by other “bicompax” chronographs of the era. This timely revival of a killer dial design features a 41mm steel case and comes on a brown nubuck leather strap. It's powered by Breitling’s chronometer-certified version of the Valjoux 7753 automatic chronograph calibre and it's limited to 2,000. $5125 at breitling.com
SuperOcean Heritage ’57 Limited Edition
Breitling's trawl through the backstory continues with the relaunch of its SuperOcean Heritage collection from 1957 – now supported by its own “Surf Squad” of water-borne ambassadors. Alongside a new “Capsule” collection (designated as watches produced for a limited time only), Breitling announced a boutique-only limited edition series of 250 rainbow-dialled watches, with Super-LumiNova-coated hands and numerals in graduated hues of yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, red and orange. Brightening up the package further is a choice of colourful Nato straps woven from reclaimed “Econyl” yarns. $4988 at breitling.com
Chronomat B01 42
Introduced in 1984, the Chronomat is a bold retelling of the Breitling aviation story, a handsome, hefty chronograph in an age of slimline quartz watches. Adjudged a tad too hefty for contemporary wrists, Breitling has dialled down the dumbbell aesthetics considerably, as demonstrated by the new line of B01-powered 42mm models. Besides a tribute to the Italian acrobatic display team that inspired the original (known as the Frecce Tricolori), Breitling has also produced this racing-green dialled model recognising its long-term alliance with Crewe-based luxury automobile marque Bentley. $8313 at breitling.com