Breitling Watches: A Review
One of Switzerland’s oldest and most renowned houses, Breitling is enjoying a real resurgence at the moment.
Originally making its name with a series of groundbreaking innovations which laid the groundwork for the modern chronograph watch, the company thrived post-war and into the second half of the 20th century. Their relationship with the world of aviation produced a number of iconic models, and their cockpit instruments served in innumerable airlines and military units all over the world.
But the quartz crisis of the 1970s and ‘80s hit hard, as it did right across Switzerland, and the recovery was a slow one. More recently however, the appointment of a new and progressive CEO and, just as crucially, the manufacture taking the leap forward into building their own movements, has seen a revitalized Breitling reclaim their seat at the industry’s top table.
Today, their catalog takes in everything from massively robust tool watches with extraordinary abilities, through to elegant dress watches for both men and women.
Below, we go into a little more detail about where Breitling has come from, what makes them one of the most exciting watch brands currently operating, along with adding our selection of some of the best vintage and modern models for you to consider.
Breitling’s story begins in 1884, when founder Léon Breitling set up his workshop in Saint-Imier, a small town in the French-speaking region of the Swiss canton of Bern.
Just 24-years old, and having only recently finished his watchmaking apprenticeship, the German immigrant had significant early triumphs creating precision chronograph pocket watches and scientific instruments.
As the business grew, Breitling changed premises to Switzerland’s main center for horology, La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1892, where it continued to flourish.
By the time Léon’s son, Gaston took over in 1914 following the founder’s death, the company, now named Léon G. Breitling Montbrilliant SA Watch Factory, had 60 employees and was the first port of call for anyone wanting highly accurate chronograph timers.
It was Gaston who came up with the idea of a chrono wristwatch with a separate push piece to activate the starts and stops. The breakthrough greatly simplified the watch’s operation and, in doing so, caught the attention of a new but burgeoning group of admirers.
The early pioneers of aviation found Breitling’s revolutionary timepiece the perfect companion on the flight deck, its straightforwardness and reliability making it far easier to use than the former pocket watches.
By 1923, the brand patented the first model with the start/stop function independent of the reset, signifying one of the most important milestones in mechanical watchmaking and allowing wearers to time multiple intervals.
The family business continued to prosper, and Gaston’s own son, Willy took over at the helm in 1932. Two years later, he created the first ever chronograph with two pushers, the top for the starts and stops, the bottom for the reset, and so formed the basis for nearly every modern chronograph as we know them today.
Breitling In The Modern Age
The Second World War saw Breitling supplying instruments for dozens of international air forces, including the U.K.’s RAF.
Post-war, when many were anticipating the demise of the chronograph, the brand diversified into other areas, creating both stylish dress models as well as dive watches to cater to the fledgling sport of recreational Scuba diving.
However, with more and more people taking to the skies, either professionally or for fun, Breitling set about making the ultimate pilot’s timepiece, and in 1952 released the legendary Navitimer. With its iconic slide rule bezel and dial full of logarithmic scales, it became the official watch of the AOPA (Aircraft Owner And Pilot’s Association) and remains the manufacture’s most famous creation to this day.
Breitling Fall and Rise
Despite some notable successes in the 1960s—a modified Navitimer being worn on the U.S.’s first ever manned space flight, as well as helping to create arguably the first automatic chronograph movement—Breitling were still badly affected by the influx of quartz watches in the 1970s.
Willy Breitling was forced to shut down production and sell off his trademarks in 1979 due to ill health, and the brand wouldn’t be seen again until 1984, under the stewardship of electronics engineer and amateur pilot, Ernest Schneider.
It was the start of the long and tortuous road back to profitability. The company became known for ultra-masculine, military-inspired wrist instruments before changing tack and collaborating with some of the most luxurious marques in the business.
The early 2000s, for example, saw them designing onboard instruments for Bentley cars, and diversifying into the ‘Breitling for Bentley’ collection of watches later on.
The company was sold again in 2017 to CVC Capital Partners, Europe’s largest private equity firm, for the then-record sum of €800m. Installing Georges Kern, former head of IWC Schaffhausen, has led to Breitling emerging as a serious player once again, with a portfolio of superb watches.
Breitling’s Best: Then and Now
The current Breitling collection can be loosely classified into air, sea and land models. The range has been ruthlessly streamlined since Kern came onboard, with some of the most macho pieces discontinued and the catalog as a whole softened and aimed more towards a unisex market.
In addition, and as with many brands at the moment, Breitling has looked to the past for inspiration, with modern reissues of vintage favorites.
Below, we have highlighted a few standouts from past and present.
Breitling is one of the few remaining big Swiss brands to still have a vintage back catalog offering good value for money.
It might well be the sheer variety of models they produced between the 1950s and 1970s keeping the prices down, but it is not a situation many experts foresee lasting much longer.
Already there is some evidence of things being on the increase, so it would be better to get in sooner rather than later.
The Breitling Top-Time 814 Chronograph
One particularly tempting piece is this short-lived addition to the Top-Time collection, only made from 1967 to 1970.
Why it was so fleeting is unclear, but the Breitling Top-Time 814 Chronograph hits that sweet spot of being a vintage watch with plenty of contemporary appeal.
The colorful dial, as you might expect from the king of chronograph-makers, is a perfectly balanced fusion of elements—enough detail and contrast to keep all the information legible, but with no sense of it becoming overpowering.
The 38.5mm square case is nicely arced, a popular style in the late ‘60s (see also the Heuer Camaro and Monaco, among others), and is becoming evermore into vogue again today.
Inside is the manually-winding Venus 178, a very highly regarded triple register, column wheel-controlled movement often spoken about in the same breath as the celebrated Valjoux 72 from the first generation Rolex Daytona.
Best of all, for such a rare model, prices are surprisingly affordable. You should be able to pick up your own Breitling Top-Time 814 Chronograph for as little as $2,000.
The Breitling Navitimer 806
You might think a watch with the sort of heritage as the first ever Breitling Navitimer would be priced beyond all reasonableness.
Yet you can find examples of the truly iconic 806 on the preowned market for around $6,000 with a little patience.
The granddaddy of all pilot watches, the Navitimer came into being in 1952, borrowing the slide rule bezel concept from Breitling’s own Chronomat released 10-years before. This version however was converted to the E6B scale used by aviators to reckon essential flight calculations such as climb and descent rates, airborne times, fuel consumption and many others.
The aesthetics, unique in the world of luxury watches, are obviously pretty busy. The outer dial is awash in numbers used to make all the various arithmetic computations, while the time telling elements and chrono sub dials are confined to a relatively small area in the middle. However, after a settling-in period, the Navi is perfectly readable as well as being one of the most distinctive vintage models available at this price range.
A superb watch with a definite story to tell, it makes a fascinating addition to the collection.
The current Breitling range has been stripped right back from the rather scattershot compendium of models Georges Kern inherited. And while there are a slew of modern new additions, the brand’s focus has clearly been on reviving past successes for the 21st century.
Below we pick out two present-day watches in the Breitling range well worth your attention.
The Breitling SuperOcean Heritage ’57
While less well-known than their aviation models, Breitling’s history as a dive watch manufacturer goes way back as well.
Their first, the SuperOcean released in 1957, was built to go into battle against three of the biggest names the genre has ever thrown out; the Blancpain Fifty-Fathoms, the Omega Seamaster 300 and, of course, Rolex’s Submariner.
But although Breitling’s contribution may have understandably gotten somewhat lost in the shadows cast by that triumvirate of legends, the brand’s initial offering was a fine and highly capable performer.
The SuperOcean Heritage collection revives that original in two ways. The standard production models are more affectionate nods towards that first piece, thoroughly modern watches given just a hint of retro flavor.
But there are also a number of limited editions which are virtual carbon copies of the 1957 model, beautifully recreated three-hand divers dripping in nostalgia.
The SuperOcean Heritage line has been a massive winner for Breitling over the last few years, managing to standout even amongst the tidal wave of vintage-inspired throwbacks emerging from just about every watchmaker in the industry. Definitely one to consider.
The Breitling Premier
Finally, Breitling’s dress watches have always gone under the radar, but the modern Premier collection is an intelligently thought-out and surprisingly comprehensive one.
Comprised of everything from simple time-and-dates, through day-dates, two and three-register chronographs and a handful of intriguing collaborations, there is something for everyone, and at lower prices than their equivalents from most rival manufactures.
Best of all, many pieces in the Premier range are powered by the Breitling B01, the company’s debut in-house movement, and the first in what is now a small but growing assortment of domestic calibers.
They may be a world away from the type of watches that spring to mind when you hear the name Breitling, but these sophisticated formal watches are a joy to behold.