“It is very distinctive, it is very stylish – it is very Louis Vuitton… wherever you go in the world you will see people carrying the distinctive Louis Vuitton brand… whether it is a little bag or a huge suitcase. It talks of distinction and taste” – Cherie Blair at the London Louis Vuitton New Bond Street Maison Opening.
Fashionable, rugged and highly precise: these are just a few of the accolades one might use in describing a Breitling wristwatch. From the very beginning the Breitling Company aimed to produce very accurate timepieces that performed specific tasks. It was its expertise in the development of chronographs that cemented the close association to aviation that Breitling has today. In fact, Breitling is so highly regarded that a wristwatch they created called the “Navitimer” has become the standard watch for pilots around the world. One hundred and twenty years after its founding, and many watchmaking milestones later, Breitling has become one of the best-known luxury watch brands in the world.
The Breitling story begins in 1884, when a 24 year old Leon Breitling founded the company in St Imiez, Switzerland. Breitling’s goal was to specialise in the making of high quality technical watches and precision counters for scientific and industrial purposes. As his business expanded, the young watchmaker moved the factory to the Swiss village of Grenchen and began specialising in chronographs. Today one can find chronograph pocket watches signed Breitling, which are often of, a very high quality.
In 1914, Leon’s son, Gaston took over the running of the firm. His first initiative was to begin the production of wristwatches to provide for the wartime necessity of synchronised military action. These early Breitling watches incorporated a stopwatch and had a luminous dial and hands. These were the very first chronograph wristwatches and provided pilots with the first wrist instruments. Following World War 1 Breitling began the manufacture of chronographs and chronometers for airplanes. They were a pioneer in the field of aviation timekeeping. In 1936, Willy
Breitling, Leon’s grandson, launched a chronometer for instrument panels in aircraft cockpits, and the firm has been supplying them to airline companies ever since.
Another significant achievement by Breitling was the invention in 1934, of the second return-to-zero push button, making it possible to measure several successive short times, with an add function, using the first button, giving birth to the shape of the modern mechanical wrist chronograph. With this new technology and the knowledge of aviation market Breitling began to create chronograph wristwatches which are still famous and very collectable today.
Breitling produced the “Chronomat” wristwatch in 1942. It was the first watch fitted with a circular slide rule bezel. This was most useful for pilots’ in-flight calculations, such as how much fuel remained in relation to miles travelled. With Breitling watches fast becoming the leading choice of pilots worldwide, it was no surprise when the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association named the newly introduced three-register version as its official watch. The watch gained further fame when launched on the retail market in 1952 as the Navitimer. The watch was famous for its “navigation computer”, a slide rule printed with logarithmic scales capable of handling all calculations called for by a flight plan. To this day this watch remains an essential part of flight equipment for most pilots.
Already recognised as a supplier to both the armed services and civil aviation, Breitling developed a wristwatch for another form of flying, space travel. This watch was named the “Cosmonaute”. It was a variation on the Navitimer with one significant difference, the watched featured 24-hour markers on the dial. Since night and day have no meaning in space, there would be no confusion for the astronauts between noon and midnight. Astronaut Scott Carpenter was the first to test the Cosmonaute under real life conditions during his orbital flight aboard the Aurora 7 space capsule in 1962.
In 1969 the company experienced one of its historical highlights. In cooperation with two other watchmaking giants, Buren and Heuer-Leonidas, Breitling invented the self-winding (automatic) chronograph movement named the Caliber 11. This technical feat represented a major breakthrough for the entire Swiss watch industry and for Breitling it made its watches even more practicable, efficient and sophisticated in their technology.
Like many Swiss watch companies Breitling was greatly affected in a negative way by the quartz revolution. In 1979 Ernest Schneider, a former pilot and electronics specialist, acquired Breitling from Willy Breitling when the company was on the brink of bankruptcy. To satisfy market demand Breitling had been producing quartz watches with a military flavour, however Schneider cleverly decided to promote the mechanical chronographs that Breitling was originally famous for. The campaign was a huge success and by the late 1980’s the Breitling wristwatch with its large case and distinctive bezel was a recognisable status symbol all over the world and widely copied by other companies.
As a result of the renewed customer demand for the brand in the mid 1980’s, Schneider sought to bring out a new mechanical wristwatch model. Breitling consulted the Italian air force aerobatic team and together came up with the current design for the Chronomat watch, which we know today. This watch bears no resemblance to the original Chronomat from the 1940’s. Breitling simply chose to reuse a name that they had already registered. This watch was and instant success for Breitling and became the best selling model.
Up to this day Ernest Schneider has continued to keep to the Breitling tradition of producing accurate timepieces that performed specific tasks for the aviation market. The most recent watchmaking accomplishment by Breitling is the release of the “Emergency” wristwatch. Designed for pilots and aircrews, this watch has the chronograph function as well being the first watch with built-in micro-transmitter broadcasting on the 121.5MHz aircraft emergency frequency. Following a crash or a forced landing the “Emergency” can broadcast a signal on which rescuers can home in on. Once again another watchmaking first for Breitling.