One of the most celebrated brands in watchmaking history is also also partly responsible for one of its most important innovations: the self-winding chronograph. Here we examine its history and pick the replica watches that make Breitling a 134-year-old success story.
Léon Breitling (1860 – 1914) shared his Swiss birthplace of La Chaux de-Fonds with two men who would also 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 was the development of the chronograph and, in particular, timekeepers suitable for aviation – a valuable position it holds today.
Breitling had 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 States, and it was Breitling’s idea to aim for the “higher ground”, horologically speaking, hence his focus on chronographs.
Leon 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 which 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 fake 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 Fifties had also seen the introduction of the brand’s first world-timer (the Uni-Time) and its first foray into quartz-controlled timekeeping. But for Breitling replica, 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 Uni-Time – 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: underwater explorers. 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, shock-proof and anti-magnetic 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 Seventies, 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 replica watches already produced, while countering the threat of quartz that was then engulfing the Swiss watch industry. But 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 (including 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 cheap 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. In 2004, the decision was made to “go it alone” and develop an in-house, COSC-certified automatic chronograph movement. The caliber BO1 was launched in 2009, honouring Léon Breitling’s belief that reliability and accuracy would always reign supreme and confirming 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. Its most recent collection is called “Navitimer 8” in honour of Willy Breitling’s innovative cockpit instruments and features both in-house and third-party mechanical movements across its range of five models.
On the runway: Chronomat B01 Chronograph 44
Bearing the name of the first watch to feature Breitling’s now famous “slide rule”, following its wholesale reimagining in the early-Eighties (for a special order placed by the Italian army’s aerobatics team), the Chronomat is no longer simply for aviators, evinced in a new understated, satin-brushed case capable of being submerged to a depth of 500 metres and a COSC-certified, in-house B01 movement capable of powering the replica watch for 70 hours. £650.
Cleared for takeoff: Navitimer 1 Automatic 38
Probably the most recognisable Breitling of all, on account of its one-of-a-kind “slide rule” bezel and dial layout, this year the Navitimer gets a slightly shrunken look, thanks to a 38mm case size that harks back to the relatively smaller diameter watches favoured in its birth decade. The new Navitimer features a COSC-certified Caliber 17 automatic movement and is also available with a silver dial (with stainless-steel case) and 18 carat red-gold model on an alligator strap. £350.
To infinity and beyond: Superocean Heritage II Chronograph 44
In 2017, it was the 60th anniverary of Breitling’s first foray into the sub-aquatic world – after which it gained a stainless-steel bezel, hefty 44mm case and in the chronograph model here, a tried and tested Caliber 13 automatic movement. It’s also available with a black dial but doubtless purists will prefer this blue version on “Aero Classic” blue rubber strap. £359. Replicabreitlingwatches.co.uk