The February issue of WatchTime, on sale now, features as its cover story a test of the Breitling Transocean Chronograph Unitime, a world-time watch with in-house Caliber B09. In this story, previously unpublished in English, we explore Breitling’s history, its ties to the aviation industry, and how it achieved the goal of producing its own movements.
Breitling has weathered numerous crises in the course of its long history, but if not for the intervention of the Schneider family in 1979, this traditional company, which was founded in 1884, might have become a casualty of the quartz crisis like so many of its competitors. The brand, which celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2009, would not have even reached its 100th. A look in the pages of L’Information Horlogère Suisse, a newsletter for the Swiss watch industry, reveals that Breitling had completely suspended operations in 1978 after laying off 24 workers, 18 in La Chaux-de-Fonds and six in Geneva. The reasons are understandable, considering the turbulence of the era and the serious illness of the firm’s leader, Willy Breitling. His sons Gregory and Alain were too young to take the reins of the business, and weren’t particularly interested in doing so, so he opted for an orderly retreat. In order to avoid filing for bankruptcy, he sold the firm to Ernest Schneider, proprietor of the Sicura watch firm. In April 1979, the two men signed an agreement that allowed Schneider to take over the well-known names “Breitling” and “Navitimer.” Willy Breitling died just one month later, ending one era of Breitling watches and beginning another.
The next phase began on November 30, 1982, when the firm relocated to Grenchen and officially registered under the name, “Breitling Montres S.A.” Schneider, who held a degree in engineering and was an amateur pilot, had not been idle in the meantime. With his extensive experience in microelectronics, he initially decided to apply modern quartz technology to the watches made under the illustrious Breitling brand name. The strategy was successful, ushering in years of growth for the brand, and enabling it to continue its tradition as a supplier for the aeronautics industry. The company has long since been entrusted into the capable hands of Schneider’s son, Theodore, the owner, and Jean-Paul Girardin, the CEO. Together they have presided over Breitling’s most recent milestone, the introduction of its first in-house movement, Caliber B01. This self-winding movement supports the complication that has characterized the firm’s history for more than a century: the chronograph.
Company founder Léon Breitling was born on January 26, 1860 in Saint-Imier, in the Jura region of western Switzerland, to parents of German extraction. A large portion of that town’s population made its living from watchmaking, and many worked at home, so it is no surprise that Breitling became skilled in making mechanical components for timepieces at a very young age. Despite the crises that plagued this era, young Léon discovered an unquenchable love for his craft, which prompted him to begin a watchmaker’s apprenticeship. When he opted for a freelance career in 1884, Switzerland was in the throes of a severe recession and many of his contemporaries were leaving the country to seek a better life in America. But Breitling could not be persuaded to join them. Instead, he opened a little atelier, where he specialized in the construction of modules for mechanical watch movements. The G. Léon Breitling watchmaking firm went on to create its own timepieces, many of them chronographs, which were increasingly in demand for use in sports and military and industrial applications. The numerous medals and certificates that Léon received at trade fairs and expositions confirmed that his product portfolio was warmly received.
The business quickly outgrew its small space in Saint-Imier. In his search for larger quarters, Breitling turned his attention to the up-and-coming town of La Chaux-de-Fonds, which was closer to his suppliers. He purchased a suitable plot of land on Rue Montbrillant and built a new factory building there that was completed in 1892. The business now had a new home and a new name: Leon G. Breitling S.A. Montbrillant Watch Manufactory. The factory employed approximately 60 people, plus additional watchmakers who worked from their homes.
Léon Breitling died on August 11, 1914, at the comparatively young age of 54, and his son Gaston, who was also trained as a watchmaker, inherited the company. Gaston Breitling was also well educated in the commercial aspects of his father’s business. He understood the necessity of continuing to develop new, attractive products, and believed that the brand’s main strength was in making watches that could measure brief intervals of time. Breitling, therefore, decided to focus more on these types of products, creating dials for a wide variety of practical applications. Some were calibrated with scales that enabled their users to determine average speeds or to measure distances based on the different speeds of light and sound. Another was the dial on the patented “Vitesse” stopwatch, which traffic policemen could use to clock motorists who exceeded the speed limit. When Breitling’s first wristwatch chronograph became available around 1915, it was very positively received by military men. These chronographs were also ideal for use in sporting events, to time races and other athletic competitions.
As was customary at the time, many of these dials were left unsigned. A few of them were adorned with the word “Montbrillant.” Others bore insignias like “Sprint,” “Koko” or “Vitesse.” The name “Breitling” first appeared on a dial toward the end of the 1920s.
When Gaston Breitling died unexpectedly on July 30, 1927, there was no appropriate heir apparent in the family to take over the company, so outside managers ran it for the next several years, which included the market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression. Breitling, like practically every other business, struggled to stay afloat during those years of declining demand, but its executives were ultimately able to acquire enough orders to keep it alive until Gaston’s only son, Willy Breitling, came galloping to the rescue in 1932. Willy, with an education in both the technical and commercial sides of the watch business, began steering the family business toward his own vision of its future.
Breitling’s catalogs from the 1930s displayed an interesting spectrum of chronographs, stopwatches and deck watches. The collection included more than 40 different models, and the total number increased steadily. The firm was among the trailblazers of two-button chronographs, and also distinguished itself by introducing and popularizing the 12-hour counter. Even the Catholic church benefited from the inventiveness of the gents on Rue Montbrillant, who gave the name “Unedeu” to a counter with a three-digit tally. A parish priest could keep this device discreetly in his pocket and use it to count the penitents that entered his confessional.
In 1939, Breitling delivered large numbers of chronographs to the British Royal Air Force for use aboard aircraft, which would lead to Breitling becoming one of the world’s best-known suppliers of timepieces for airborne applications. Pilots, aircraft manufacturers and airlines relied on Breitling’s cleverly designed instruments.
In 1941, Breitling introduced a wristwatch chronograph, the distinctively styled Chronomat. Protected by several patents, the watch contained the Venus 175 chronograph caliber, which provided a counter for 45 elapsed minutes and also supported a diverse array of calculating functions. However, wearers needed some practice to become adept at operating the logarithmic scales with the aid of the fluted, rotating bezel. Putting two calibrated stretches end to end was equivalent to adding their logarithms (i.e., it multiplied the numbers); subtracting one from the other yielded the quotient of the two numbers. Once the wearer learned to operate this miniature mechanical computer, he could perform complex calculations in seconds with a flip of the wrist.
A comprehensive catalog, which listed some 250 watches for widely diverse uses, was published in 1946. The focus was naturally on chronographs, and leading the parade was the elaborate Duograph, with its split-seconds function for intermediate time-reading. Classic three-handed wristwatches were, of course, also available. All of the watches contained calibers manufactured by the movement-blank giant Ébauches SA because Breitling did not manufacture its own watch movements.