Origins: The Type XX Chronograph

Dodane
A contemporary pilot makes use of the re-issued Dodane

Among military watch enthusiasts, there are numerous hero pieces. Most famous are the 12 time-only-with-small-seconds W.W.W. watches commissioned by the British Ministry of Defence, and now known as the “Dirty Dozen”. Of late, Lemania chronographs supplied to the RAF and other services have been shooting up in value. Pre-1990s Panerais have been super-hot for 25 years, assorted Luftwaffe models and US Army Hamiltons all have their adherents. But among the most desirable, with nary a dip in popularity or value since the watch revival began in the 1980s, are the French Aéronavale chronographs, best exemplified by the Breguet XX.

A bit about nomenclature before proceeding: only Breguet uses Roman numerals to identify its versions, and yet the company never featured it on the dials. Everyone else used the Arabic “Type 20” (and later Dodane’s and Seliva’s “Type 21”), many makers printing this on the dial above the 6 and one or two placing it below the company name at 12. To further confound us, many Type 20s were produced with no manufacturer’s name at all on the dial.

Although a post-war design, visually the Type 20 owes much of its layout to Second World War chronographs made by Hanhart, Tutima, Glashütte and others for the Luftwaffe. Mainly with two registers and two pushbuttons, these watches featured white numerals against black dials, a 60-second counter at 9 o’clock, a 30-minute counter at 3 and oversized hands on the latter sub-dial.

Most also featured fluted rotating bezels with a single marker to help indicate elapsed time.

Breguet Type XX, ref. 3807
Limited edition contemporary Breguet Type XX, ref. 3807 Aeronvale, made in 1998

1954, the Type 20 chronographs were commissioned by the French government for the French Air Force, the CEV (Centre d’Essai en Vol) – the country’s state-sanctioned flight testing centre – and most famously for the Aéronautique navale, a.k.a. “Aéronavale.” The air arm of the French Navy, it was created in 1912 at the birth of aviation and it is active to this day, with carrier squadrons and a naval patrol air force. Certain Type 20s have also been identified as being issued to French helicopter pilots. The watches issued to the various services are distinguishable from each other only by the identification marks engraved on the casebacks.

Specifications for a Type 20 included an instantaneous flyback function, reliable stop-start function for at least 300 operations, variation of no more than 8 seconds over 24 hours and a power reserve of 35 hours. From there onward, the variants were numerous. Unlike the Dirty Dozen, which differed only in minor details but were otherwise functionally and visually interchangeable, Type 20s were issued with two or three sub-dials, assorted rotating bezels including engraved, painted and unmarked fluted or reeded types, differing hand shapes, a multitude of crown sizes or shapes and other distinguishing features. And that’s just the Breguets.

Along with Breguet, the other Type 20 manufacturers consisted of Airain, Auricoste, Dodane, Mathey Tissot, Seliva Chronofixe and Vixa. Allegedly, another company – Bouiller – was licensed as well, but this is unconfirmed.

Of the seven, Breguet, Auricoste, Dodane and Mathey Tissot still exist, and the first three of that quartet offer modern versions of the Type 20 or 21, with varying degrees of verisimilitude vis-à-vis the originals.

Enter the Breguet

Breguet itself identifies three generations of its Type 20s, or XXs as they prefer. The first watches cover the 1950s and 1960s and were housed in brushed finish cases with curved lugs. For the 1970s-1980s, the watches featured heavier, polished cases and squarer lugs. The third generation is how Breguet identifies its current range, launched in 1995 and which has been a mainstay of the brand ever since. The latter models have fluted cases, larger diameters, automatic movements and myriad functions.

Breguet Type XXs
Breguet Type XXs
A pair of two-dial Breguet Type XXs showing the bezel, crown and pusher variations

According to a handful of sources, Breguet sub-contracted Mathey Tissot to manufacture some Type 20s for them in the 1950s. When placed side-by-side, a Mathey Tissot Type 20 is indistinguishable from the Breguet save for the name on the dial. Both houses offered Type 20s for civilian purchase as well, so the story is a muddy one. Strengthening the link, only the early Breguets and Mathey Tissots used 15-minute counters at 3 o’clock instead of the more usual 30-minute registers.

For the brand most associated with the Type 20, a watershed moment in its history occurred on 14 April 1991 at the Breguet-only auction held by Antiquorum in Geneva. In that sale were six Type 20s – identified with Arabic numerals in the catalogue entries, not XXs – and all were slightly different from one another. The lots included two made for the CEV from 1956-7, among the rarest of all versions, with no more than 500-600 being produced of all variants.

Both CEVs were three sub-dial models, one with a “tropical” dial in chocolate brown, the other pristine black. Both were fitted with the narrow, stainless-steel bezels with engravings for 12-hour increments, and both were powered by Valjoux 22 movements. The sub-dials included a 15-minute register at 3 o’clock, a 12-hour counter at 6 and regular seconds at 9. Antiquorum’s third three-counter model that day was a 1963 issue, also with the skinny bezel.

CEV Breguet Type XX
A fine example of the three sub-dial, CEV Breguet Type XX on an anachronistic strap

For the trio of two sub-dial models, the first to be offered was dated 1960, and it differed from the three sub-dial models only in that it lacked the 12-hour register. All else was the same, including the slim bezel, Valjoux 22 movement and 38mm case. The remaining pair, although both from 1955, featured unmarked, fluted bezels, but of differing patterns – one finely ribbed, one slightly coarser – while one carried a non-standard hand on its 15-minute register.

Confused? You should be: six Type 20s, all produced in an eight-year period, and no two exactly alike. And yet, common to all six was the Breguet name on the dial and the number on the back: “5101/54.” What that code tells us is that all came from the production runs for the first contract and the year the contract was entered – not the year of manufacture.

Movements included the Valjoux 22, 222, 225, 235 and 720, Lemania 1377, which raises an important point about any military watches, regardless of nationality or era. Such timepieces were/are the property of the state, and were serviced regularly, with parts fitted as available. They were re-issued to personnel, usually with a second set of numbers engraved on the caseback. Does this mean that there might have been hands, movement and dial swaps? Absolutely.

Does it also mean that finding a genuine, 1950s-1970s Type 20 in perfect condition with all-original parts is almost impossible, unless it was a barely used civilian model? Again, absolutely. To alleviate paranoia about this matter, officially serviced Type 20s were clearly marked with relevant case engravings.

Vintage Breguet Type 20s command the highest prices – at least, until some deep-pocketed enthusiast does for the lesser brands’ models what has happened to the Grana amidst the Dirty Dozen – in no small part because it is the most revered of the surviving makers who issued Type 20s in the past. The Breguet name simply resonates with the gravitas of Patek or Rolex.

When the company revived the Type 20 as the Type XX of 1995, it created a family of modern, automatic reinterpretations, all vastly more complicated than the manually wound vintage pieces. Since expanded to include calendars, models with precious cases and other detours from the initial specification, the Type XX is now a “living” range, like all new Panerais and Blancpain Fifty Fathoms. And purists note: its use of XXI does not correspond with the actual Type 21, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Mathey Tissot

If, indeed, Mathey Tissot made the Type 20s for Breguet, it appears that its own branded Type 20s were destined for consumers. The company had supplied watches to the US and British forces in the Second World War, so it was no stranger to military contracts. A handful have appeared in auctions, examples dating between 1954 and 1960, with Valjoux Calibre 22 or 222 movements, 15-minute registers and with hands, dials and cases identical to those of contemporary Breguet Type 20s.

Tissot
Two sub-dial Mathey Tissot

Dodane, Airain and Seliva Chronofixe and the elusive Type 21

Dodane is celebrating its 160th anniversary this year, the company trading as Dodane 1857 and still run by the eponymous family. To mark the occasion, it launched the Anniversary Type 21 at Baselworld 2017, with Dubois-Dépraz movement – its first-ever commemorative model. Aside from the change to an automatic calibre, the watch is identical to the Type 21 that resulted from a servicing issue.

By the late 1950s, parts for the older Lemania, Hanhart and Valjoux movements used in various Type 20s were becoming scarce. To satisfy the French government, which would use Type 20s for another couple of decades, Dodane – one of the major servicing subcontractors, based in Besançon – introduced the Type 21 fitted with more current movements from Valjoux, the 222 and 720.

Dodane Type 21
Early Dodane Type 21 with reverse countdown bezel
Dodane Type 21
Caseback of Dodane Type 21 showing detailed military issuing numbers
Dodane Type 21
The current Dodane Type 21

An oddity about the Dodane Type 21 was the bezel, which counted down from 12 to 1, rather than 1 to 12. This was also seen on the Airain Type 20, available from 1955-1960, with Valjoux 222 movement, and Seliva Chronofixe Type 21, produced in 1960-1965 for French Army Helicopter pilots, both made by Dodane. The current Type 21s from Dodane, ranging from near-exact facsimiles to all-black versions, also use these reverse bezels.

Airain variant
Airain variant
Chronofixe edition minus the Seliva name
Chronofixe edition minus the Seliva name
Super-rare Chronofixe Seliva version of the Dodane
Super-rare Chronofixe Seliva version of the Dodane

Vixa’s Type 20 contained the Hanhart 4054 calibre with Breguet overcoil, the only Type 20 with a German movement. Manufactured by Hanhart, the Vixa Type 20 was most commonly seen with the fluted bezel inspired by the German maker’s Luftwaffe models. At the time, Hanhart was in the French Occupation Zone, and the work for Vixa was part of Germany’s reparations to France. Hanhart still manufactures exact facsimiles of its own 1940s and 1950s Luftwaffe chronographs.

Vixas
Vixas
Two Vixas, showing different crowns and pushers

The Wannabees

With the exception of the new Breguets, all of the current Type 20s and 21s from Dodane and Auricoste sell for less than the originals, yet have provenance to match that of Breguet.

J. Auricoste, also a survivor making a range of modern Type 20s, produced originals with two sub-dials, fitted with the Auricoste Calibre 2040/Lemania 15TL-based movements with Breguet overcoil and shock resistance, 30-minute counters and 38mm cases. Versions have been seen with all the various bezel types, including some graduated 0-24 instead of 0-12.

As distinctive as the Type 20s and 21s may be, the look is now almost generic – there are only so many ways you can create a black-dialled military chronograph. With the Type 20, now a design only two years away from its pension, the lookalikes are legion.

J. Auricoste
J. Auricoste with red pusher a la Hanhart
J. Auricoste
J. Auricoste with black bezel

Most likely to be cited by scholars among these facsimiles is the exquisite and super-rare Girard-Perregaux “Type 20” three-counter model from the 1960s, of which only a half-dozen are known to exist. Inside the 38mm case is the correct Calibre 720 flyback movement. Wishful thinking suggests that Gallet must have made a Type 20, given its history for producing watches for the French forces. Certain Gallet Pilot MultiChrons and Flight Officers of the era do look the part.

From Breitling’s 765 to the Landeron “Type 20” from the 1970s and the Enicar JetGraph, the Type 20 look was clearly influential. This is some relief if the price of a vintage Type 20 is prohibitive, and most of these would cost less than a decent Dodane or Auricoste. Hazarding a guess, one might calculate that all types of pre-comeback Type 20s – those made before Breguet revived the model – add up to around 10,000-15,000. Compared to the total number of watches in the Dirty Dozen, it’s a worryingly small amount, around 10 per cent of the Dozen’s production.

Rare, handsome, desirable, with a story to tell: now you know why the Type 20 is on this writer’s bucket list. Even if it is French.

Images: Antiquorum, Bonhams, Breguet, Cronomania, Dodane, J. Auricoste.