Flying Through Turbulence: A History of Breitling

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Commercial and private aviation experienced a rapid upswing during the early 1950s. Boeing, Lockheed, Douglas and 25 commercial airlines equipped their fleets with Breitling’s onboard instruments. The era of commercial jet travel began when the de Havilland Comet flew from London to Johannesburg on May 2, 1952. This was the same year in which Breitling developed the Navitimer, a watch that combined a chronograph with a navigational computer. Equipped with even more calculating options for pilots than the Chronomat, its logarithmic scales for flight-specific calculations gave it its name, which fuses the words “navigation” and “timer.”

Breitling added a version of the Navitimer with a 24-hour dial in 1962. In May of that same year, this distinctive “Cosmonaute” chronograph flew into space on the wrist of astronaut Scott Carpenter. It easily withstood all the rigors of outer space and returned to Earth having performed with flying colors.

The Navitimer's dial has scales used by pilots for navigation.

The Navitimer’s dial has scales used by pilots for navigation.

In 1952, the year of the Navitimer, Willy Breitling made a decision that would have far-reaching consequences for his business, dividing his commercial activities between two venues. Breitling et Montbrillant, the production site for watches, remained in the Jura region, while G. Léon Breitling SA, Compagnie des Montres, the firm’s headquarters and sales division, resettled in Geneva, where it was closer to the markets. This decision was prompted by faster-paced times, in which product innovations were necessary for brand recognition and growth. The American market, which Breitling had entered in the 1940s, demanded it. Standing still would have meant losing ground.

Advertisements in Life magazine triggered a steep increase in demand. The moviemaker 20th Century Fox presented the Navitimer in several films, including 1967’s Fathom, which featured Breitling’s Co-Pilot model on the wrist of actress Raquel Welch, and 1965’s Thunderball, in which Sean Connery’s James Bond consulted his Breitling Top Time, a model created primarily for a younger clientele.

Raquel Welch wears a Breitling in the1967 film Fathom.

Raquel Welch wears a Breitling in the1967 film Fathom.

Despite all Breitling’s efforts, sales of traditional hand-wound chronographs declined noticeably in the mid- 1960s. Breitling and its archrival in the Swiss-made chronograph market, Heuer, were hard pressed to cope with this situation. Their mutual predicament impelled Willy Breitling and Heuer’s Jack W. Heuer to collaborate on a special project: the development of an automatic chronograph, a type of watch that had never before been built. Both companies were so-called établisseurs — meaning they produced completed watches but did not manufacture their own movements — so Breitling and Heuer invited two other Swiss firms, the ébauche specialist Büren and the chronograph specialist Dubois Dépraz, to join the partnership. The U.S.A.’s Hamilton Watch Company, which had become the majority shareholder of Büren, became involved at the beginning of 1966.

The first prototypes, which performed well in tests on the wrist, debuted in the spring of 1968. The winding and chronograph mechanisms of the 31-millimeter-wide and 7.7-millimeter-thick Caliber 11, which was known by the nickname “Chrono-Matic,” functioned so well that it was quickly readied for serial manufacturing. The haste was necessary because of competing developments in Switzerland and Japan. The need to order dials, cases, push-pieces and winding crowns from outside suppliers had enlarged the circle of those in the know about the top-secret project, so the developers didn’t want to wait for the 1969 watch fair in Basel to introduce it to the public. On March 3, 1969, journalists were invited to the Hotel Intercontinental in Geneva and to the posh Copter Club at the Pan Am Building in New York for the unveiling of Breitling’s Chrono-Matic watch. The event was sponsored by the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FH), whose president, Gérard F. Bauer, emphasized in Geneva that, “at a time characterized by increasingly severe foreign competition, this innovative product demonstrates that the industrialists have the determination and the ability to remain competitive, and to do so in the most active, most forceful and most aggressive sense of the word. This proves that three watch companies, without giving up their own personalities, can collaboratively achieve a technical feat that none of them could have accomplished on its own.”

One of the first automatic chronographs: the Chrono-Matic from 1969

One of the first automatic chronographs: the Chrono-Matic from 1969

The project had cost 500,000 Swiss francs, which was a gigantic sum at the time. After four years of collaboration, Breitling sent the Chrono-Matic into the market, where it vied with Heuer’s own automatic chronograph. During its first four years, Breitling sold an estimated 300,000 pieces, initially outfitted with Caliber 11 and later animated by the faster-oscillating version, Caliber 12. And 300,000 units was quite a large number in those days.

The era of the world’s first and only modular chronograph, with automatic winding by a microrotor, lasted exactly one decade. It ended much more quietly than it had begun: in January 1979, a year that would prove to be a fateful one for Breitling, the decision was made to terminate production of the caliber. “Electronic” was the new magic word. And here we return to Ernest Schneider, who jumped aboard this bandwagon after the Breitling takeover. For example, in 1983, Breitling launched the Navitimer GMT, a quartz chronograph with one analog and two digital time zones.

Ernest Schneider took over the Breitling brand in 1979 and soon piloted it to new heights.

Ernest Schneider took over the Breitling brand in 1979 and soon piloted it to new heights.

However, when the firm reached its 100th anniversary in 1984, Breitling returned to its longtime tradition of mechanical horology, launching a new version of the Chronomat, revamped to satisfy modern tastes. The model was a success, and provided a base upon which Breitling could build in the ensuing years. That self-winding watch easily withstood accelerations up to 20 Gs, which helped it to become the official instrument of the Italian flying squadron Frecce Tricolori. Breitling followed it up with a divers’ watch, with a helium-escape valve and the ability to descend to 1,000 meters, in 1986. The Emergency watch, which followed in 1988, was equipped with a built-in emergency transmitter that helped rescuers to locate the survivors of a plane crash or shipwreck.

These examples demonstrate that diversity was the basis of Breitling’s strategy after its acquisition by the Schneider family, whose philosophy was to preserve the brand identity without losing sight of modern innovation. Breitling also took a first step toward broadening its watchmaking competence in 1997, when it took over Kelek, one of its important suppliers. But even more important was an unprecedented campaign for quality and precision. This was prompted by complaints from agents and specialized dealers that the quality and reliability of the movements in Breitling’s watches did not always meet the brand’s professional standards. To rectify that situation, the company set up new facilities in La Chaux-de-Fonds at the start of the 21st century. The new guiding philosophy was that no watch would be allowed to leave Breitling’s sparklingly clean and light-flooded ateliers without first having earned an official COSC rate certificate.

Strict quality control applies to all phases of the production. “For example, we use an apparatus that we developed ourselves to check each and every mainspring and its barrel,” says CEO Jean-Paul Girardin. “Although we buy nothing but the best, 11 or 12 percent of the springs and barrels fail to uphold our standards.” Springs whose characteristic curves deviate from the acceptable range are eliminated. “Before we send our movements to COSC for testing and certification as genuine chronometers, they’ve already passed through 10 different control phases.” The percentage of these movements that don’t make the grade at COSC is small. To prevent unwelcome surprises after the movements have been cased, Breitling subjects the completed watches to similarly meticulous testing.

Breitling’s successful cooperation with the British luxury automaker Bentley had essentially already begun in 1998, when Volkswagen bought Bentley Motors Ltd., founded in 1919. The takeover gave Bentley’s designers considerably more freedom than would have been possible under the brand’s previous owner, Rolls-Royce. And thus the paths crossed for two traditional businesses that, by coincidence or fate, each used a winged “B” as its trademark.

The Breitling for Bentley GMT Chronograph introduced in 2008

The Breitling for Bentley GMT Chronograph introduced in 2008

The dialog acquired concrete form in 2002. “Bentley needed financial support for a comeback at the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans, which the brand had won a total of five times — in 1924 and from 1927 to 1930,” Girardin explains. After several rounds of negotiations, a contract with a term of several years was signed in 2002. “Only on this basis does it make sense to invest in an independent line of watches,” Girardin adds. “Neither Breitling nor Bentley wanted merely to market a classical Breitling wristwatch with the ‘Bentley’ name added to its dial. Breitling for Bentley would have to be very special in order to unite the dynamism of the watches and the prestige of the automobile brand.”

The effort was apparent when Bentley presented the Continental GT that same year. The instruments aboard this vehicle showed Breitling’s unmistakable handwriting, and the brand’s insignia adorned the clock on its dashboard. The following year, Breitling served as sponsor of the more-than-600-horsepower-strong Bentley racecars, which sped to a double victory at Le Mans. This milestone inspired a limited-edition chronograph with a 24-hour dial, called the Bentley Le Mans.

“Suddenly our Breitling for Bentley watches appeared in articles written by automobile journalists where we, as an original brand, had almost never before been represented,” Girardin says. As far as distribution was concerned, Breitling continued to rely on its partnerships with watch and jewelry stores.

Breitling’s 125th anniversary year in 2009 coincided with the launch of Breitling’s first manufacture movement, Caliber B01. The movement powers a new version of the Chronomat, the 43.5-millimeter Chronomat B01, which is available in stainless steel, bicolor and rose gold with various dials. Its bezel rotates in only one direction and is engraved with wide minute digits to measure flight and dive times. Thanks to its screwed crown, screwed push-pieces, domed sapphire crystal and massive steel back, the stainless-steel case can resist up to 500 meters of pressure, meaning that it can be worn for diving. Price-conscious watch fans will be pleased to know that the Chronomat B01 is not prohibitively expensive despite having a manufacture movement. The price range begins at $7,075 for the stainless-steel version with calfskin strap.

Connoisseurs will appreciate this high-quality automatic chronograph, with its column-wheel control and friction coupling, both of which are manufactured according to ultramodern standards. And of course, each and every movement is officially COSC-certified as a chronometer. from WatchTime for free! Sign up to our free weekly newsletter and get all the news delivered to your inbox.

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    About Gisbert Brunner


    1. henrique says:

      se não fosse uma pequena empresa (sicura) a breitling hoje era uma memória.é uma lição que
      muitos teimam em escarnecer .o homem é muito teimoso.e leviano.boa noite.

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