Breitling is one of these brands that you have most likely heard about during your collecting journey. And I would bet that the model you know of is the Navitimer, a watch that used to be and still is one of the most precise mechanical chronographs that can be worn on a wrist. (As opposed to being stashed in a coat pocket like in the olden days.) Founded in 1884 by Léon Breitling, the Swiss brand was a pioneer in making mechanical chronographs what they are today. Breitling has several patents up its sleeve, for example, it released its first wrist watch chronograph with a separate pusher apparatus in 1915. However this was not the first mechanical wrist chronograph in the world as the record belongs to Longines in the year 1913.
In this article, we will discuss a few key innovations Breitling patented and that contributed to building the brand’s reputation. From the first chronograph with single crown/pusher mechanism to the most precise movements for this genre of watches.
Breitling Innovations under Léon Breitling
Léon Breitling had set a goal for himself: to create the most accurate and elegant mechanical chronographs in the world. Not a small goal by any measure but one that we know he has achieved. Before chronographs traveled from pockets to wrists in 1913, Breitling had invented and patented a chronograph that had one crown with an integrated pusher mechanism. The benefit was that timing an event and operating the chronograph was easier. The shortcoming of this system was that the chronograph couldn’t be paused and restarted since one button controlled the start/reset and setting the time.
A few years later, in 1893, Léon Breitling created a chronograph that had an eight-day power reserve, and in 1896, he created a chronograph that was accurate to two-fifths of a second. Both innovations were unheard of these days and it’s quite ironic (at least to me) to hear reviewers and journalists mourn watches that “only” have 40 hours of power reserve and that watches with greater power reserve still seem to be pretty rare.) Léon’s Breitling latest innovation was adding a tachymeter scale on a watch dial. This was done at the beginning of cars, during a time when cars did not have speedometers. So, the person driving could use the tachymeter scale on the watch to figure out their speed, so did Swiss cops. The latter are said to have given the first speeding ticket by using a Breitling watch equipped with a tachymeter scale.
Breitling Innovations under Gaston Breitling
Léon Breitling passed away in 1914 and his son, Gaston, took over the brand. Gaston wanted to honor his dad’s heritage and continue making Breitling an innovating brand. That’s what happened in 1915 when the brand released the first wrist watch mechanical chronograph with a separate pusher to actuate the chronograph. While his dad had simplified the operation of the chronograph by integrating the pusher in the crown in pocket watches, Gaston realized it would make more sense to have a separate pusher to start/stop/reset the chronograph. He therefore added this pusher at 2 o’clock.
The other innovation Gaston was responsible for was creating the first pocket chronograph where the chronograph function could be operated with two different buttons. The start/stop function was handled by the pusher and the reset function was integrated in the operation and design of the crown. This was the first time in the history of horology that one could start timing an event, pause to read the time and register it, and either resume timing the event or resetting the chronograph hand to time a new event. That happened in 1923.
Breitling Innovations under Willy Breitling
After that Gaston Breitling prematurely died, his 14-year old son Willy became the new head of the brand. However, Breitling was first managed by an external team of professionals hired by the Breitling family until Willy would be old enough to actually act as the head of the brand. Willy made a splash in the watch world when he unveiled the first wrist watch mechanical chronograph with 2 separate chronograph pushers. One to start/stop the chronograph, and one to reset it. This innovation exemplifies Breitling's deep interest in constantly producing more ingenious timepieces.
Throughout the end of the 1930s and 1940s, and particularly during World War II, Breitling provided flight instruments and cockpit chronographs to the pilots of the British Royal Air Force. The brand’s reputation was so strong that demand for their precision timekeeping devices was on the rise. These timepieces were all powered by movements that came with the famous 8-day power reserve. Willy Breitling focused his attention on developing better pilot watches. His efforts led him to integrate a slide rule as part of the bezel mechanism to make it possible for pilots to calculate air speed, flight time, fuel consumption, and distances to targets—amongst other things.
Over the years Breitling continued to innovate and eventually created the Navitimer, designed at the request of the US Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association in 1952. Willy integrated the slide rule bezel with the then already iconic full-fledged chronographs and made, in a sense, the most complicated watch on earth. (Some now call it the first smartwatch.) But while Breitling did its first foray in dive watches in 1957 by releasing the SuperOcean, a few years later in 1969, Breitling released the first automatic wrist watch chronograph. Meaning, indeed, that until then, chronographs were manual-wound and thinner.
The story of Breitling doesn’t stop in 1969, and although the brand has never stopped innovating, I wanted to highlight key accomplishments that have contributed to building the brand’s outstanding reputation. I’ve personally first heard of Breitling because my dad owned a particular version of the Navitimer—one with a dive time bezel. I’ve never seen that kind of watch since and it speaks to Breitling’s innovative spirit that still lives on in the 21st century.
Featured image: www.fratello.com