Breitling is a brand synonymous with history. Perhaps more than any other.
There’s been a lot of argument and claim in the watchmaking industry over which brand made which kind of watch first. It’s hard to know who’s right.
When man first landed on the moon, he had a wristwatch with him. The first-ever powered flight had a chronograph in the cockpit. The military has always had wristwatches in the trenches.
1884 – The beginning
Breitling has dominated the worlds of land, air and sea. Founder Léon Breitling started the company in 1882. The world was transitioning, thanks to the industrial revolution. Becoming more modern. Science, industry and sport were evolving. Breitling was paying close attention.
He knew these endeavours of progression were in need of the most accurate timekeeping possible.
The craftsman had a desire for incredible feats of timekeeping innovation. He wanted to make something with superior accuracy. Breitling chased patents for everything he could from sports watches to chronographs.
1915 – The sky’s the limit
Breitling’s primary obsession was with aviation. Pilots were flying bigger and better machines. What they needed was a user-friendly timekeeper that gave them the freedom to go hands-free.
Pocket watches were the fashion of the time but having something on a chain was simply too cumbersome and challenging.
Breitling offered a solution. He claims to have made the premiere wrist-worn chronograph which had a separate button to the crown. This was extremely easy in comparison to the pocket watch. It wasn’t just easy to use in the air, those on land saw the benefit.
As planes got more complex, Breitling was there. Whether the evolution of the wristwatch for pilots or navigation tools for timekeeping, Breitling made cockpits more efficient.
Recognition for the brand began to flourish and they gained accolades for their aeronautical time instruments. The RAF contracted Breitling to make chronographs. These devices became known for timing dogfights during WWII.
Defiance in the 1940s
Willy Breitling took over the company his grandfather had forged. Nazis were in Switzerland at this time and blocking product exports. Especially anything that might aid war efforts and that included timepieces.
Willy had his grandfather’s defiance. He was an innovator too. He and a group of friends developed a makeshift aircraft that was used to fly the banned cargo; under the nose of the Nazis.
Willy Breitling needed an alibi during these midnight runs and so he went home via his local bar and had a drink or two. People became used to this and assumed he’d been there a lot longer than he had. He ended up a little tipsy from time to time, but largely he succeeded in getting the watches onto the wrists of the allies.
1949 – Peace at last?
Most people assumed that since peace was achieved then the need for chronographs would fall because the need for the air force was no more. Breitling, the innovator, adapted. He moved the brand with the times and met the new demand on the market – for elegant watches.
People now wanted slimmer and more formal watches that would be worn with elegant evening wear.
Breitling began to focus on women’s watches. At the time, there wasn’t much investment in this area as the view was that wristwatches on women weren’t classy. Imagine! Breitling laughed because he saw the opportunity.
The Breitling Chronomat
Breitling didn’t abandon his roots. By the 1940s the brand was a Swiss giant. They continued to make their famous chronographs. This became the most popular model they would ever produce.
The Navitimer era — 1952
The Navitimer is the single most recognisable pilot’s watch. It has a knurled bezel and slide rule which is used to measure various in-flight timings. It’s an iconic land and key timepiece.
It slipped onto civilian wrists in the early 1950s. The design is so distinctive that it hasn’t been amended a lot over the years. A true icon doesn’t need to change.
The Navitimer was so successful and the engineering so reliable that Breitling instruments found their way into the most intricate of jet aircraft of the time.
The Navitimer Cosmonaute – 1962
At this point in the article, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that we mentioned Breitling conquered land, air and sea. Breitling even went to space. In 1962 Lieutenant Carpenter orbited our earth three times in his bespoke Breitling timepiece from the Navitimer collection.
Not forgetting the sea part, only a few years prior to this, Breitling mastered the waters with the Superocean.
This watch was built for both recreational and professional divers. This design has lasted for years, even against the pressure of innovation and change.
2020 and onward
The current CEO is a chap called George Kern. Breitling is forging another new path in the luxury watch market. Kern is taking on new challenges and pushing innovation like those before him.
He heard the desire for more lightweight, slim and refined watches. Just like the post-WWII era. Kerns has responded and slimmed down the collection. He’s introduced a beautiful simplification to the designs whilst staying true to the traditional design features. No mean feat.
This can be seen in the Premier line which is a nod to the past with a contemporary twist. In fact, if you look closely, you’ll see it’s actually a homage to the history of the brand where, in 1943, Europe was heavily influenced by the jazz era and everything was sleek and sophisticated.
If you’re looking for a luxury traditional watch with a rich history and impeccable engineering, a Breitling will be a truly worthwhile investment.
If you’d like to continue learning about the luxury market, you’ll love this article about Rolex watches.