When longtime IWC head honcho Georges Kern left his position at Richemont to become CEO of Breitling, some saw it as the latest salvo in the two Swiss brands’ historical duel for horological supremacy in the air. Here we explore in depth how both brands have made their marks on the history and evolution of pilots’ watches.
In contrast to dive watches, pilots’ watches do not have to meet any objective criteria. Good legibility under all light conditions is generally all that’s needed, and good design makes the watches what they are. A pilots’ watch looks like a pilots’ watch. But it’s precisely the design that shows the different approaches to pilots’ watches by IWC and Breitling. Both brands base their own unique designs on their long traditions and histories. In the case of IWC, the company relies heavily on its Big Pilot’s Watch from 1940, which it, and other companies like A. Lange & Söhne, supplied to the German Air Force.
Typical features included the military-style triangle with two dots at 12 o’clock, sans-serif numerals (a plain, unadorned bar for the numeral 1), and dagger-shaped hands. Today these same features are found on every pilots’ watch made by IWC. Even the Mark XVIII follows this same family design – although its predecessor had different numerals and hands (the pilots’ watch Mark 11, built for the Royal Air Force in 1949). The only exceptions are the models dedicated to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his “Little Prince,” in which IWC uses serif numerals, elegant blue or brown dials, silver hands and polished bezels. A conical crown, which makes operation while wearing gloves easier, is found on many other IWC models.
But IWC really unleashes its functions. The collection ranges from a simple hand-wound watch to chronographs with and without split seconds, world-time watches, and perpetual calendars. And with its limited Big Pilot’s Heritage Watch 55, IWC even restores its original 55-mm diameter. It closely approximates the design of the original – with beige luminous material and a matte case – though it has a small seconds display (the original model had a central seconds hand).
IWC can also reveal its modern side. The brand’s Top Gun models have a matte-black ceramic case and a textile strap for a contemporary military look, while still maintaining other traditional features. For this reason, these watches are easily recognizable as IWCs. The Top Gun Miramar line presents another interesting variation of the design: a muted green dial, beige luminous material, a red hour track, a polished ceramic case and an olive-green textile strap come together to create an exciting mix of modern and retro elements.
Breitling can also look back on a long tradition of pilots’ watches. Today, its iconic Navitimer looks much as it did just a few years after its introduction in 1952, when it was given a light-colored dial. These chronographs, with their distinctive rotating slide-rule bezels, are available with numerals as well as markers. Both types are immediately recognizable as Navitimers. Traditionally, one can choose between a black leather strap with a lighter stitched seam and a seven-row metal bracelet with offset links.
Breitling offers its icon in 43-mm and 46-mm sizes. There are also models that offer various additional functions along with a chronograph: a second time zone, world-time indication, full calendar and perpetual calendar. A wide selection of limited editions varies the design – from the re-release of the first models issued in 1952 for the pilots’ organization AOPA and elegant brown or blue dials to the modern look of Blacksteel (matte-black-coated case with black hands and markers on a black rubber strap).
Breitling is also one of the manufacturers that react most strongly to prevailing trends; it introduces new models to the market almost on an annual basis. This is clearly the case with its pilots’ watches, especially in the Chronomat and Avenger lines. Both always have a rotating bezel with raised markers.
The Chronomat – with its distinctively detailed numerals on the dial, round crown, and polished markers, which originally formed a square on the dial – alters its pilots’-watch look with sporty-elegant and modern options. In addition, other bezel numerals and markers are offered in this collection. Black-coated models with black or anthracite-colored markers and hands lend the watches a touch of modern sportiness. The Airborne models represent a timeless military style with more practical-looking numerals and markers and textile straps.
But Breitling’s Avenger line goes still further in this direction. Its stencil-like numerals recall the distinctive look of military equipment. And the crown and pushers are designed with function in mind. In contrast to the Chronomat collection, which features chronographs exclusively, the Avenger line also includes three-hand watches. The look can also be varied with different straps: a polished metal bracelet for classic sportiness, leather for a more retro look, a rubber strap for functionality or a textile strap for military appeal.
Breitling is known as a pilots’-watch brand to an even greater extent than IWC. At Breitling, this means maintaining traditions as well as satisfying the customer by offering contemporary designs. Watches are also produced to meet the demands of today’s pilots. For this reason, Breitling sometimes dispenses with the mechanical movements that have come to be expected in a luxury watch. This results in extremely precise multifunction watches that have countdown, alarm, and additional time-zone functions.
Watches in the brand’s Professional line typically have a functional case and large numerals at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock. Some have rotating bezels for quick calculation of flight routes. The hands are partially skeletonized to permit view of the LCD indications at the top and bottom of the dial. Breitling’s Emergency model attained fame with its integrated distress beacon. The chunky case houses a screw connector for the antenna, which wearers view as a positive feature of the watch, not a hindrance.
The newest addition to the Professional collection is the Exospace B55 for wireless connection to a smartphone. The user can set the time using the phone, as well as reading start and landing times on the phone’s large screen. With its black case and gray or blue hands with matching rubber strap, it has a modern, high-tech look.
IWC and Breitling interpret the pilots’ watch in different ways. IWC uses an iconic model from its past and rolls out a homogeneous collection of pilots’ watches with unmistakable features. Different colors and materials transform the lines and push them in different directions for an elegant or military look.
Breitling chooses another path. This brand continues to offer and produce its pilots’ watch icon, the Navitimer. Variations are offered with special editions in which the company creates a feeling of greater elegance or modernity through its use of different colors and materials. Breitling has also created collections that are inspired by contemporary or military designs. Bracelets and straps also provide numerous possibilities to modify the design.
Both brands rely on distinctive features so it’s always immediately possible to recognize the model as an IWC or a Breitling. But where IWC tinkers with its design and continues to develop its look or make steps toward its origins, Breitling invents itself anew while still leaving its icon intact.
This article originally appeared in the March-April 2017 issue of WatchTime.