Flying Through Turbulence: A History of Breitling

Breitling_dialCU_150The 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. As a complement to the cover story, we offer this exclusive story by WatchTime contributor Gisbert Brunner that traces the history of Breitling.

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. Breitling 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.

Left to right: Willy Breitling (1913-1979), who took over Breitling in 1932 and sold it to Ernest Schneider in 1979; the company's founder, Léon Breitling (1860-1914); Léon's son and successor Gaston Breitling (1884-1927)
Left to right: Willy Breitling (1913-1979), who took over Breitling in 1932 and sold it to Ernest Schneider in 1979; the company’s founder, Léon Breitling (1860-1914); Léon’s son and successor Gaston Breitling (1884-1927)

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  1. R McQueen

    In all my years of collecting watches the only one that has let me down after just 18 months is my breitling its being fixed free of charge under the guarantee im to be without my watch for three months never recomend Breitling

  2. henrique

    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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