Breitling is one of the great horological success stories of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In the late 1970s, however, it looked like the Breitling story was over. The firm that had been making chronographs since the 1880s had closed, and looked like it would become yet another casualty of the havoc wreaked on the Swiss watch market by cheap quartz watches from the East, and a devalued dollar to the West.

But at the very moment it seemed that the last rites should be pronounced over this horological corpse, the seeds of its current renaissance were sown. Breitling was taken over by the Schneider family and gradually, during the 1980s, began to reassert itself. It was a remarkable comeback.

Today, Breitling is one of the best-known watch marques in the world. Three decades of prudent family management have built a business focused on communicating a simple message: big sturdy watches, usually chronographs, many with an aviation inclination, all of which are COSC-certified. And, as is often the case with a firm that is strong in current production, there has been an upturn in the prices achieved at auction.

One Breitling watch that exemplifies this, is the Navitimer, which Breitling launched in 1952. The “Navi” prefix, by the way, alludes to the navigational assistance afforded by this watch, and the circular slide rule can convert miles into kilometres or nautical miles, calculate rates of ascent, descent and fuel consumption, as well as solve a whole host of other mathematical problems — and with a great deal more elegance than the quartz calculator wristwatches of a generation later.

You don’t have to take my word for it; Aurel Bacs, the legendary watch boss of Christie’s Geneva, backs me up. “The Navitimer is like the Omega Speedmaster and Rolex Submariner, forever taking a position in the hall of fame of tool watches,” explains the sage of the Place de la Taconnerie.

“The Navitimer is a watch that has gone up in value in the last decade like many other tool watches, being a counterpoint to the dressier ‘gentleman’ pieces made by famous Geneva manufacturers with double-barrelled names,” he says, alluding to the likes of Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin. Its popularity is also helped by Bacs’ observation that “the Navitimer is one of the coolest watches to wear every day”.

And that is what distinguishes the Breitling collector, according to Bonhams watch expert Paul Maudsley, who recently sold two gorgeous time-capsule Navitimers in new old-stock condition with box, papers, etc. Where a collector of another brand might be tempted to stick such an example in the safe and bring it out only for gloved gloating, the Breitling collector straps it to his wrist and goes about his business. And in this, he is only following a noble tradition.

By the early 1960s, the company’s advertising told the world that “Breitling figures on the instrument panels of the 15 leading aircraft manufacturers or airlines”, adding that the Breitling Navitimer was “Specially recommended to airmen by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association AOPA”. The AOPA logo can be seen on many period pieces.

And, of course, as with any really iconic product of the 1960s, it received the ultimate sanction when it starred in the coolest Bond film of the age: Thunderball. A Breitling is both the timepiece of choice of the villainous military pilot who steals the bomb, and of agent 007 himself, who wears a Geiger-counter-equipped Breitling Top Time.

Other Breitlings do crop up at auction from time to time; the Co-Pilot is another ’60s favorite of mine; it’s a clean, classic, three-register chronograph that Raquel Welch wore in the film Fathom. And Paul Maudsley says that older Breitlings are beginning to be appreciated; in particular, he is an admirer of the Breitling Unitime, a world time watch from the early 1950s. “It’s just a really nice classic watch,” he says. “If you put Patek on the dial, you would be looking at £80,000 to £100,000.”

Happily, for those of us who love vintage Breitlings, prices are nowhere near that steep. For instance, Aurel Bacs reckons 10,000 Swiss francs will secure a tip-top Navitimer, which is probably one of the reasons it remains so wearable: prices have risen, but unlike the aviators who made Breitling famous, they have not soared out of reach.

Excerpted from an article by Nick Foulkes in REVOLUTION’s archives.