This week we will be covering a watch with more than a few ups and downs in its history: the Breitling Navitimer. It has been loved and shunned, shut down and revived, but today stands strong as a modern series of an iconic watch. Launched in 1952 specifically for pilots as an evolution of the 1942 Chronomat, the Navitimer 806 soon became the official watch of the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association), a rather well-known aeronautical association. In 1969, the Navitimer series switched over — along with Heuer (now TAG Heuer), Hamilton-Buren, and Dubois-Dépraz — to one of the most famous movements of all time, Caliber 11, for fully automatic functioning. Years later, towards the end of the 1970s, the Quartz Crisis pushed Breitling out of the spotlight until it was eventually bought by Ernest Schneider in 1978; it would be the mid-1990s when the Navitimer finally began to take off again and eventually return to the popularity it maintains today. (For more on the history of Breitling and the Navitimer collection, click here.)
The watch is one that has moved with the winds of the time — and if not for its usefulness as a tool and its fame as a great watch, it might have never been able to take off. Also, in case you’re worried, that will be the first and last flying pun I’ll make in this article.
The first watch we’ll take a look at is the Navitimer 01 (Ref. AB012012/BB01/435X/A20BA.1), the signature reference in this collection. The piece has a 43-mm stainless steel case housing the brand’s pride-and-joy, the 2009-released Breitling Caliber 01 in-house movement (For more on Caliber 01, click here). The movement powers an integrated chronograph with a red seconds hand, and two subdials for hours and minutes. The watch also has a subdial for seconds at the 6 o’clock hour mark, and a diagonal date display at the 4:30 mark. The dial is black, with the option for either applied steel luminous hour markers or white Arabic numerals. It has an applied gold Breitling corporate logo near the top, and is surrounded by the famous slide-rule scale and bidirectional bezel. This piece is listed by Breitling at $7,965, but you might be likely to find it for less at a local dealer.
It’s worth noting, before I get into the specifics of this piece, that the Breitling Navitimer has very rarely been known as a piece to stay stagnant in its design for more than a few years. Due to this, the modern Navitimer is freed from many of the criticisms other watches sometimes endure for changing too much from their original versions.
With that said, the 01 is still very distinctly “Navitimer.” Compared to the famous 806, the slide-rule bezel continues to be prominent, there is the option for Arabic numerals, and the sense that this thing is meant for flying is made apparent. The clear differences from historical versions are in the steel logo at the bottom of the chronograph seconds hand, more prominent Breitling logo and info printed on the dial, the presence of a date indicator, and lack of a flat, beaded, slide-rule bezel. The modern watch is very clearly a contemporary revamp of a historical model.
The next piece we’ll look at is the limited-edition Navitimer AOPA. This watch is meant to be based more closely on the early variations of the 1950s and ’60s, and accomplishes that with varying success. The watch is steel, measures 42 mm in case diameter, uses the automatic Breitling Caliber 23 movement (a modified Valjoux 7753), and has an all-black dial with a white slide-rule-bezel outer ring. The piece uses applied hour markers, once again has a date wheel at 4:30, and now has a painted gold “AOPA” logo at 12 o’clock. The AOPA is priced slightly lower than the 01, at $7,655.
For all the reasons I find the 01 very much able to stand on its own, keeping in mind the trend of the Navitimer to change rather noticeably over time, I have some issues with the AOPA. Some of its features are great historical nods to past references — the slide-rule bezel, all-black dial, and painted AOPA logo included — but I don’t think these features are enough to make it a true homage to the past.
While the date is nice to have, very few if any vintage Navitimers have ever had that feature. While the slide-rule bezel is great, most vintage variations were both beaded and flat; the AOPA’s is neither. I wonder also why Breitling decided to go with red accents for the subdials, a Breitling “B” logo at the bottom of the chronograph seconds hand, and double tick hour marks at the 12 o’clock, when none of these features were available for the historical version. In my opinion, this variation of the Navitimer is more purposely designed to resemble the modern 01 with a few AOPA boxes checked off, rather than a true vintage re-creation.
There is a reason why the Navitimer has remained relevant for so long, and why it has been able to both survive and take flight (OK, one more), as a modern watch. People think it’s cool, out of the ordinary, and for pilots who like to do things the old-fashioned way, it is still rather helpful. The 01 is a watch that owns up to what made it special and capitalizes upon that to become notable. And while I personally do not think the AOPA has done enough to pay tribute to the rich history of this series, it is good to see Breitling at least attempting to acknowledge the reason the watch is still pertinent to horology today.
For part 11 of this series where I compare vintage and modern versions of the Patek Philippe Nautilus, click here.
Caleb Anderson is the Director of Outreach at the online vintage watch boutique theoandharris.com. Since starting at Theo & Harris, he has garnered extensive knowledge on vintage watches, and spends much of his time sharing his opinions within the field. Currently located near New York City, he is a persistent student in all things historical, a writer on watches, and a casual runner.