The Breitling Navitimer
As far as luxury aviation watches go, there’s the Breitling Navitimer and then there’s everything else.
In near-constant production since its debut in 1952, the watch, affectionately known as the ‘Navi’, takes all the features of a standard pilot’s timepiece—large size, bold and legible styling, enhanced resistance to temperature and pressure changes—and ramps up its abilities with its quintessential rotating slide rule bezel.
Breitling has perhaps the longest and most fruitful relationship with the world of aviation of all the Swiss brands, and it is one that continues to this day. Their ‘Instruments for Professionals’ collection features the natural successors to the Navitimer; highly evolved digital/analog flight tools for the modern aeronaut. But as far as classically vintage mechanical icons go, the Navi is the beginning, middle and end.
Below, we take a closer look at this vital watch, explore its origins and review the current portfolio.
The Breitling Navitimer: History
After being established in 1884, Breitling (headed up by 24-year old founder Léon Breitling) spent its formative years making pioneering advancements to chronographs.
It was Breitling, or rather, Léon’s son Gaston, who developed the first chrono wristwatch with a separate push piece for starts and stops and later, patented the first with two pushers; the top one for the start/stop function and the bottom for the reset, thus laying down the blueprint for virtually every chronograph watch for the next 100-years.
The brand’s prowess with mechanical stopwatches brought them to the attention of a completely new, and particularly demanding, type of customer. By the 1930s, aviation was nearing its golden age, and Breitling started supplying high precision cockpit instruments to both civilian and military concerns.
When WWII broke out the following decade, the flight decks of most British RAF aircraft housed Breitling instruments, including the Spitfire and Lancaster. Following the end of hostilities, several major commercial airlines—Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed among them—ran on Breitling instruments.
The Navitimer Arrives
By the mid 20th century then, the company’s name was inextricably linked to notions of flight.
In 1952, the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) started beating a path to Breitling’s door, looking for an official watch of their own for their members. Fortunately, there was one almost readymade, which would serve perfectly with a little adjustment.
The Chronomat had been created as early as 1942, and featured an innovative bezel designed by mathematician Marcel Robert, designed for scientists and engineers. The turnable slide rule with its logarithmic gradations was ideal for performing fast sums, and from there it was only a relatively minor job to adapt it to be an invaluable tool for pilots. Robert created a new scale using the three most important units for aviation—NAUT for nautical miles, KM for kilometers and STAT for statute miles. Working in conjunction with the watch’s chronograph, the newly christened Navitimer and its ‘circular navigation computer’ could be used to calculate essential information such as airspeed, flight time, fuel consumption and climb and descent rates, among others.
The debut reference and, in fact, the first few generations of the Navi were all given the designation ref. 806. Earliest run pieces used the Venus 178 caliber (a slight upgrade over the Chronomat’s Venus 176), a hand wound, column wheel controlled chrono movement. But in 1954, another version emerged which would run concurrently with the first for several years, powered by the legendary Valjoux 72, accepted as perhaps the finest chronograph of its era, soon to find its way into the initial Rolex Daytona models.
All Navitimer versions at this point included the winged logo of the AOPA, but the organization wouldn’t adopt the watch as its official timepiece until 1959. However, it was already a huge hit with pilots, professional and amateur, and the AOPA’s patronage only strengthened its appeal.
The Navitimer Through the Ages
During the subsequent decade, a few fine-tuning tweaks were made. The chrono sub dials were changed to white to make a higher contrast Panda dial arrangement; the AOPA insignia was swapped for the famous ‘Twin-Jet’ design; and the bezel moved to a serrated edge instead of the original beaded surround.
In 1962, Breitling scored an out-of-this-world marketing coup when a modified Navi (with the misleading name, the Cosmonaute) became the first watch worn on a mission by an American astronaut. Scott Carpenter, one of the Mercury Seven crew, was already a Navitimer owner, having used his while serving as a fighter pilot during the Korean War. And it was Carpenter who asked Breitling to swap out the standard 12-hour dial for a 24-hour one, to help him tell the time while he was in orbit.
Sadly, that historic model has since been lost. It was sent back to Breitling for repair, having succumbed to water damage during Carpenter’s splash down in the Atlantic. Rather than fix it, the company just sent him a new one, and the original has never resurfaced. (It was a similar story with Buzz Aldrin’s Omega Speedmaster from the first ever moon landing, which went missing on its way to the Smithsonian. This is why we can’t have nice things!)
Up until 1969, all Navitimers had been manually wound models. Actually, every chronograph ever made had been hand wound, because an automatic chronograph caliber did not yet exist. That was put to rights from three directions at once that year, as the triumvirate of competitors (two consortiums from Switzerland and Seiko in Japan) all unveiled their own solutions to the challenge at more or less the same time. Breitling, part of the so-called Chronomatic Group in league with Heuer, Hamilton-Buren and Dubois-Depraz, emerged with the modular Calibre 11.
The Navitimer Chrono-Matic ref. 8806, released on March 3rd 1969, was the first of the new breed, one of a number of automatic chronographs to emerge from most of the Chronomatic Group’s contributors.
As with those, the ref. 8806 differed from the regular manually wound models on which it was based in several ways. Firstly, the crown was now on the left. This was a conscious decision by the Group, used as a tacit nod towards it not being needed everyday to wind the watch. In addition, the dial went from a standard tri-compax layout to a bi-compax, with now a date function at the 6 o’clock.
Later that same year, the somewhat overdue introduction of a waterproof Navitimer came about, with the enormous 48mm ref. 1806, sometimes known as the ‘fried egg’.
The Modern Navitimer Range
Sadly, the Quartz Crisis hit Breitling hard and the last Navi (for the time being) was launched in 1977, with the ref. 2130, complete with elegant lyre lugs. But CEO Willy Breitling, grandson to original founder Léon, sold the brand just two years later due to ill health. It was bought up wholesale by Ernest Schneider, who owned the Sicura watch company, and was an avid pilot in his own right.
Under his leadership, the renamed Breitling Montres S.A. started releasing a number of quartz models in order to stay afloat, but it wasn’t long before mechanical watches started making a reappearance. A new, manually-wound Navitimer was unveiled in 1986 (the ref. 81600) with the first of a fresh wave of automatic pieces coming along in 1988. By the 1990s, the Navi was well and truly back.
These modern versions of the old classic ran on third-party movements, such as the Valjoux 7750 or modified ETA calibers.
But in 2009 Breitling developed their own in-house mechanism, called the Calibre 01. It was a big move for the brand, but it is one which has paid off handsomely. The COSC-certified movement features a vertical clutch and 70-hour power reserve and can be found in a wide variety of the manufacture’s watches, as well as being supplied to Tudor for their Black Bay Chronograph.
These days, the Navitimer collection consists of more than 40 models, ranging in size from 35mm unisex pieces up to 46mm examples. Additionally, along with stainless steel, gold and even platinum models are available. You will also find beautifully realized recreations of the debut ref. 806, as well as a host of limited editions, many of them taking their color scheme from the liveries of famous airlines, past and present.
There’s no doubt that the Breitling Navitimer represents the apex of mechanical pilot’s watch heritage. For nearly 70-years it has set the standard for the genre as a whole, with its innovative, evocative design and genuinely useful complications. As popular now as it has ever been, it is the perfect time to add one to the collection.