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The epitome of a pilot watch
The Pilot Watch Magazine
16 February 2024

Mission with precision and innovation

Hardly any other name stands for the epitome of a pilot’s watch as much as Breitling. And few brands count pioneers and heroes of aviation among their customers as much as conquerors of the sky on their way to the frontier of space – and beyond. Breitling is one of these unique companies.

The brand with the iconic-sounding name was founded in 1884 by Swiss watchmaker Léon Breitling. Breitling is gifted. With his fine watch manufacture in the canton of Jura, Léon focuses on the production of precision pocket watches, the finest timepieces of his time, whose amazing accuracy quickly make him famous beyond national borders.

The birth of the modern pilot’s watch

In 1915, Gaston Breitling, Léon’s son and the new head of the company, presents the first wristwatch with a separate pusher above the crown for starting, stopping and resetting the chronograph functions. Later, the start and stop functions are separated from the reset. Pilots worldwide are thrilled, are now the timepieces even easier to use in flight. The ingenious design with the two pushers at the 2 o’clock and 4 o’clock position is subsequently copied by many manufacturers. It becomes the standard for all modern pilot chronographs – until today.

In 1927, Gaston Breitling dies unexpectedly and the future of the company seems uncertain. For the first time, Breitling is not run by a member of the family until his son Willy comes of age. Later, now of age, Willy takes the helm and continues the family legacy. In the 1930s and 40s, Willy expands the business: Breitling watches are ordered in bulk by the Royal Air Force, supporting crews in the cockpits of their fighters and bombers. In 1940, Breitling patents the Chronomat, a wristwatch with a slide rule integrated into the bezel, allowing pilots to make quick in-flight calculations directly on their wrists for the first time. By the end of the war, the company with the curved B in its logo had established itself as the number one manufacturer of pilot chronographs. In parallel, civilian collections are now rounding out the portfolio.

Worn by astronauts in space and by the world’s biggest stars, the Navitimer is Breitling’s most legendary timepiece and one of the most distinctive watches of all time.


The ultimate watch for all pilots

The famous Navigation Timer, or Navitimer – many pilots also call it the ultimate pilot’s watch – was followed by the next sensation in 1952. A watch as a co-pilot, a watch that can do virtually everything a pilot’s heart could desire. Even in extreme situations, it enables its wearer to perform important calculations in the truest sense of the word in flight – flight time, speed, distance, rate of climb and descent, fuel consumption and much more.

The development of the Navitimer goes back to a commission from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, or AOPA. In search of an official watch for its members, the world’s largest pilots’ association turned to Willy Breitling. The result is history: a chronograph that is associated with aviation like no other and whose dial is still adorned with the winged logo of AOPA alongside the Breitling lettering.

Other chronographic highlights followed, including AVI, called Aviation, a simple pilot’s watch trimmed for maximum readability with oversized luminous Arabic numerals on a black dial. Or Top Time, nicknamed Zorro by collectors because of its special design – a modern timepiece that, in a special version, even serves Sean Connery alias James Bond faithfully in the box-office hit Fireball from 1965.

Bucking the trend with an icon

In the late 1970s, Willy Breitling sells the company to Swiss watchmaker, pilot and entrepreneur Ernest Schneider. Schneider takes over Breitling’s legacy at a time when watches with mechanical movements seem to be completely displaced by the quartz watch, which dominates the market. But instead of following the general trend and also building timepieces clocked by a quartz crystal, Breitling launches a modern reissue of the mechanical Chronomat just in time for the company’s centennial. The timepiece is based on a chronograph previously developed for the Italian aerobatic team Frecce Tricolori, and also bears its logo on the dial – the tricolor arrows. Schneider’s courage is rewarded. The new Chronomat becomes an icon of its time.

A watch saves lives

In 1995, another sensation: the Breitling Emergency. A pilot’s watch with an integrated emergency transmitter. When a small antenna is pulled out of the case back in an emergency, the watch begins to call for help by transmitting a special signal on the international emergency frequency – within a radius of over 150 kilometers. Dozens of lives are saved from extreme danger thanks to a Breitling Emergency on the wrist.

The story continues

In 2017, British financial investor CVC Capital Partners acquired the traditional watchmaker from Grenchen, Switzerland, from the owning Schneider family – and the story continues. To this day, Breitling keeps pace with the latest developments in watchmaking. Whether it’s the most precise self-winding chronograph movement or a smartwatch, the company continues with absolute consistency the mission once started by Léon Breitling: to develop the best timepieces.

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