Breitling, founded in St. Imier by Léon Breitling in 1884, is a brand that has built its name and reputation on purposeful, functional timepieces — predominantly chronographs. Today we explore three of the Flying B’s most iconic families; the Navitimer, the Chronomat and the SuperOcean.
Breitling’s most famous watch is, without doubt, the Navitimer. A catchy conflation of the words’ Navigation’ and ‘Timer’, the watch, which debuted in 1952, is built for pilots. At the core of the enduring appeal of the Navitimer is its unique circular slide rule positioned on the timepieces rotating bezel. This tool makes on-the-fly calculations such as airspeed, rate or time of climb or descent, distance and fuel consumption possible. And while in the modern era, sophisticated instruments and avionics have primarily made the distinctive dial instrumentation of the Navitimer an anachronistic talking point, when the watch debuted it would have served a very real purpose.
The Navitimer was developed for the US Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), and for the first few years, it was available exclusively to members. In 1956 the watch went public and has been a staple for the brand ever since. That’s not to say it hasn’t evolved over time. The movements have changed from the manual Valjoux and Venus calibres to more modern automatics, starting with the 1969 Chronomatic calibre. The 1970s saw a date added, and, as the decade moved on, Breitling even introduced quartz Navitimers. And while today the Navitimer is less of an essential pilot’s tool, it’s still an essential watch in the brand’s collection, offered in a range of sizes and configurations, all with that iconic slide rule. If it’s good enough for John Travolta, it’s good enough for you.
While the name Breitling Chronomat dates back to 1941, the story proper begins some decades later, in a very different age — in 1984. the 1980s were a turbulent time for the watch industry, the impact of quartz technology and quality mass-produced watches were decimating Swiss brands. It was a perilous time for Breitling as well, with Ernest Schneider taking ownership of the company from the Breitling family in 1979. One of the first products Schneider would develop is the completely reimagined Chronomat. Conceived as a modern pilot’s watch, and resolutely mechanical in a quartz-dominated landscape, the Chronomat was announced in 1984, the 100th anniversary of Breitling’s founding.
Except the Chronomat appeared before 1984. The first of this new breed was made as a special edition for the Italian Jet Team, known as Frecce Tricolori in 1983, and bears three arrows in the Italian national colours on the dial.
But what makes the Chronomat stand out? First and foremost, the development of ‘rider tabs’, angular additions to the bezel at 15-minute intervals that serve primarily to protect the glass crystal from accidental bumps. They also gave the Chronomat a modern look and went on to become a defining trait for the Breitling brand.
The other stand out feature of the Chronomat is the Rouleaux, or roller bracelet, with long tubular links that give the watch a streamlined, modern appearance on the wrist. And while the Chronomat alone cannot take credit for helping Breitling emerge from the 1980s as a hot property, the fact that megastars including Bruce Willis and Jerry Seinfeld were fans of the sporty chrono show that it played a not insignificant part.
Breitling is one of the quintessential pilot’s watches — so it might come as some surprise to learn that they’ve been in the business of divers since 1957 when they launched a Reference 1004 and Reference 807; time-only and chronograph models that both bore the name SuperOcean. Distinctive watches with loads of mid-century flair and unusual concave bezels, Breitling recently honoured these designs with the SuperOcean Heritage’ 57. But while that was the first SuperOcean, it was far from the last. Large, funky models — chronographs unusual in that they lacked the traditional registers and stark, contrasting dial designs. A new era of the SuperOcean was ushered in in 1983, with the SuperOcean Deep-Sea, water-resistant to 1000 metres, and with an integrated bracelet and scalloped bezel.
So while Breitling is best known as masters of the sky, never forget that they’re equally accomplished underwater.