The Visionary Founder Of Breitling
Originally from Germany, Léon Breitling emigrated with his parents to Switzerland in search of work. He found a job apprenticing in watchmaking and quickly proved to be passionate and extremely talented in the field.
In 1884, at just 24 years old, Breitling founded his own independent workshop in the Jura mountains of St. Imier. This area is in Bern, one of Switzerland’s five famous watchmaking cantons, along with Geneva, Neuchâtel, Solothurn and Vaud.
The Challenge of Making Chronographs
Right from the beginning, Breitling chose a challenging focus within watchmaking – the design, development, and production of chronographs.
Chronograph watches have a “stopwatch” function, enabling the precise measurement of time intervals. You can learn more about chronographs on our “What Is A Chronograph?” page.
Chronograph timepieces used in science, industry, and sports need to be especially precise, accurate, and durable. To create professional-grade chronographs for these disciplines, manufacturers must employ the most highly-skilled watchmakers and the finest materials.
Breitling “Vitesse” Pocket Watch Chronograph
Under Léon’s leadership, Breitling chronographs became widely esteemed for precision and reliability.
By 1892, customer demand for Breitling watches necessitated a move to a larger headquarters.
Breitling then relocated to La Chaux-de-Fonds in Neuchâtel, a booming watchmaking hub both at the time and today.
So, Breitling was already making its name as a trusted supplier of high quality chronographs. However, the company had its sights set on an even loftier goal.
Breitling aimed to truly revolutionize chronograph design for maximum functionality and convenience.
Rise of Men’s Wristwatches
In 1914, Léon Breitling passed away and his son, Gaston, stepped up as head of the company.
Prior to this time, Breitling had produced mainly pocket watch chronographs. But by the early 1900s, a new trend was burgeoning – wristwatches were quickly gaining in popularity among men.
Gaston Breitling, Son of Léon
Though wristwatch use was recorded as early as the 1600s, men vastly preferred pocket watches before the 20th century.
Wristwatches were generally considered to be a feminine accessory, commonly marketed more as jewelry rather than a wearable instrument..
But even back then, soldiers, particularly those in the British Army, found wristwatches essential.
Before wristwatches specifically designed for men became readily available, soldiers would strap pocket watches to their wrists in leather “wristlets.”
In combat, even just a few extra seconds fumbling to reach for a pocket watch could prove fatal.
With so many men joining the armed forces during World War I, public perception of wristwatches finally began to change.
Under Gaston, Breitling managed to be at the forefront of this shift towards tailoring and marketing wristwatches to men.
In his first year as head of Breitling, Gaston released the company’s first wristwatch chronograph.
He also patented a wrist chronograph featuring a central seconds hand and 30-minute counter.
These early Breitling wristwatches held wide appeal in the male consumer market, especially among industrialists and those in law enforcement.
Did Breitling Really Invent The Modern Chronograph?
Then, in 1915, Breitling started changing the face of chronograph design and functionality by introducing chronographs with an independent pushpiece.
Léon’s grandson, Willy Breitling
Before this, a watch’s chronograph portion was controlled via the crown, also used for winding and normal time-setting.
Allocating a separate button for operating the chronograph greatly improved ease-of-use and efficiency.
Breitling further honed its chronograph design in 1923 by making the chronograph start/stop function independent of the reset function.
Before these functions were decoupled, restarting the chronograph always meant resetting the timer back to zero.
An immense milestone in chronograph history, this patented improvement enabled users to record multiple time intervals, one after the other.
After releasing these landmark innovations, Breitling’s growth accelerated even more. By 1930, the firm’s repertoire of successful chronograph wristwatches had already reached over 35 different models.
Gaston’s son, Willy, took charge of Breitling in 1932. Just like his father and grandfather, Willy had a knack for keen innovation.
Willy led Brietling to release the two-pushpiece chronograph in 1934. Here, the first “pusher” (at 2 ‘o’clock) starts/stops the chronograph and the pusher at 4 ‘o’clock resets it. Other watch manufacturers quickly recognized the convenience and utility of a separate reset button and emulated Brietling’s design.
Although some manufacturers still offer single pushpiece chronographs, virtually all chronographs today are 2-pushpiece models, like the famed Omega Speedmaster. This is why Breitling is widely credited as the “inventor of the modern chronograph.”
Breitling’s Takeoff In the Aviation Industry
Aviation was already starting to blossom back when Léon founded Breitling. He saw great potential in the new industry and hoped to play a pivotal role in its development.
Léon’s original ambitions for Breitling would finally be realized through the work of his grandson.
In 1936, Willy introduced Breitling on-board flight chronographs. These sturdy instruments were swiftly adopted by dozens of airlines.
Shortly after, during World War II, these aircraft chronographs would cement Breitling’s historic ties to aviation.
Many armed forces, including the Royal Air Force, equipped their aiplane cockpits with Breitling chronographs.
The company has been designated as an official supplier for the Royal Air Force ever since.
On-The-Fly Calculations With The Navitimer
Breitling launched yet another noteworthy innovation in the 1940s when it started adding slide rules to its pilot chronographs. Before the advent of the electronic calculator, slide rules were the go-to tool for mathematical calculations.
Being able to efficiently perform numerous calculations with precision is absolutely crucial in aviation. For instance, while navigating, pilots must quickly and accurately calculate figures such as airspeed, flight times, and fuel requirements.
It’s not hard to see why the Navitimer, launched in 1952, became such a huge hit among aviators. The legendary pilot’s wrist chronograph was equipped with a handy rotatable circular slide rule on its bezel.
In addition, the Navitimer’s slide rule was logarithm-scaled in order to facilitate essential flight-planning calculations.
Breitling’s sterling dedication to suiting pilot needs was clearly showcased in the Navitimer, and the watch earned many accolades.
For example the Aircraft Owner and Pilots Association (AOPA) named the Navitimer its official watch. The organization proudly displayed its logo on early Navitimer models.
Breitling Goes International
Breitling had already started expanding its clientele base in the 1940s by supplying timepieces for the U.S. Air Force.
Yet it was in the 1950s / 1960s that commercial airlines embraced Breitling, ushering the company into international fame. Soon, Breitling flight instruments became standard equipment for commercial jets.
“Cosmonaute” Navitimer – First Wristwatch In Space
In 1961, NASA astronaut Scott Carpenter asked Breitling to design a Navitimer with a 24-hour dial.
Carpenter was about to make history as part of Project Mercury, the first American manned spaceflight program. In space, he wouldn’t be able to distinguish between night and day without a 24-hour clock.
Breitling readily agreed and created the “Cosmonaute” Navitimer, which Carpenter wore during his 1962 flight upon the Aurora 7.
Thus, Breitling was among the first Swiss watchmakers in space, preceded by TAG Heuer by only a few months.
Bringing Automatic Chronographs To Market
The Swiss watch market suffered a overall sales decline during the 1960s. However, watches with automatic movements were thriving and even gaining in popularity.
Such movements are engineered to be powered primarily by the natural motions of the wearer’s wrist. If the watch is worn daily, it doesn’t need to be manually wound – an incredibly ingenious, convenient innovation.
But at the time, no-one had yet managed to devise a working automatic chronograph watch.
The race to create the world’s first automatic chronograph was a truly monumental event in watchmaking history. Many leading watch brands, including Breitling, worked in secrecy, eager to beat out the competition to become the first.
Major Players In The Race
Such a project was a massive undertaking, even for well-established firms, requiring years of top secret intensive research and development.
Thus, despite being in fierce competition with one another, several companies decided to tackle the challenge by teaming up.
In the end, the race was dominated by 3 major players:
- Swiss watchmakers Zenith and Movado
- Japanese watch giant Seiko
- The “Chronomatic” team, comprised of Heuer, Buren, Dubois-Depraz, and Breitling.
Formation Of “Project 99”
The Chronomatic alliance started when Heuer (now called TAG Heuer) began exploring the prospect of automatic chronographs in the 1950s.
Since such a movement would need to be very thin, Heuer carefully studied ultra-thin movements manufactured by Buren.
Then, Heuer hired Dubois-Depraz, a specialist in watch complications, to conduct research on building an automatic chronograph module.
After Dubois-Depraz confirmed that creating such a module was indeed possible, Heuer approached Breitling to help fund the venture.
Like Breitling, Heuer was a chronograph specialist, and the two brands were longtime rivals.
However, each had established a definite niche in the chronograph market. Breitling dominated aviation and Heuer was foremost in motor racing. Also, Heuer was more prominent in USA and the U.K. whilst Breitling was stronger in European markets.
Nevertheless, all 4 brands recognized such a historic breakthrough would be exceedingly difficult to accomplish alone. Despite being rivals, the fame and recognition from winning the race would only benefit all involved.
After forging this fateful alliance, the Chronomatic group dubbed their joint venture “Project 99.”
Breitling’s Key Role In Project 99
Dubois-Depraz and Buren were mainly responsible for the technical portion of Project 99, developing the chronograph module and movement, respectively. However, Heuer and Breitling were also heavily involving in supervising the technical work.
Breitling provided most of the funding for Project 99. Breitling and Heuer were also tasked with creating new cases and dials worthy of housing the future Chronomatic movements.
Anticipating high demand, Breitling and Heuer also worked intensively developing efficient serial production methods for the new watches.
Who Made The First Automatic Chronograph?
The answer isn’t quite clear-cut, and depends on the inquirer’s precise definition of “first automatic chronograph”:
- Zenith was first to publicly announce its “El Primero” automatic chronograph on January 10, 1969
- The Chromatic team was first in providing pre-production samples at the April 1969 Basel Fair
- First to market was most likely the Chronomatic, in full serial production by Summer 1969.
- It’s possible Seiko‘s Reference 6139 could have been first produced earlier, in Spring 1969, but insufficient records make it unclear.
- Breitling and partners advertise their Chromatics as the first modular automatic chronographs
- Zenith describes “El Primero” as the first integrated automatic chronograph
In any case, through combining resources and expertise, Breitling’s team pushed past the competition where it counted – distribution and marketing. Because the Chronomatic was so quickly brought to full-scale production, it was the first to be sent to major distributors.
This is how the Chronomatic became the choice automatic chronograph in the key markets of racing, diving, and aviation.
Breitling Recovers From the “Quartz Crisis”
December 1969 heralded yet another watershed moment in watch history – Seiko’s unveiling of the world’s very first quartz watch.
Although quartz movements were a revolutionary triumph for watchmaking, their rise to dominance wreaked havoc on the Swiss watch industry. Many top Swiss watchmaking firms, including Breitling, virtually disappeared during the 1970s.
Historic Swiss Watchmaking Dominance
Before the 1970s, Swiss watchmakers held a solid monopoly on the global watch market, receiving about 50% of worldwide sales.
This seems natural, given the firmly-established, age-old traditions behind Swiss expertise in mechanical watchmaking.
But another major factor was the economic ramifications of Swiss neutrality during World War II. Watch companies from non-neutral countries shifted production completely to military equipment. Swiss companies could continue to offer consumer watches and therefore had no market competition during the war.
Left Behind In Quartz Development
The immense potential of the quartz movement wasn’t lost on the Swiss watchmaking industry. Indeed, a number of Swiss watchmakers teamed up to develop a quartz movement in 1970, shortly after Seiko.
However, Swiss firms were reluctant to join the “quartz revolution.” Mechanical watches still dominated the worldwide market. Plus, long-established excellence in mechanical watchmaking was (and remains) a deep source of Swiss national pride.
But by the late 1970s, quartz was king. Watch firms from USA and Japan who’d focused on quartz technologies prospered, and many Swiss watchmakers plunged to economic ruin.
Breitling Reborn Under Ernest Schneider
Shortly after halting production completely and selling his key trademarks in 1979, Willing Breitling passed away from illness.
Former Breitling Head Ernest Schneider
In 1982, Breitling was re-established by Ernest Schneider, an electronics engineer and amateur pilot.
It would seem that Schneider planned to use his microelectronics expertise to help revive Breitling to its former glory.
But instead, Schneider shouldered the risk of staying true to Breitling’s heritage, and resumed its production of mechanical watches.
For instance, Breitling designed a special automatic chronograph watch for the Frecce Tricolori, an elite Italian aerobatic demonstration team.
Breitling took special care to make the watch especially durable. For example, the case is strong enough to withstand accelerations up to a whopping 20 G. But watch enthusiasts also fell in love with its aesthetic features, such as its iconic rider tabs. Though it was powered by a mechanical movement, Schneider also added electronic multi-functions to keep it current.
The Chronomat was originally designed purely as a military pilot watch. But, to Breitling’s surprise, the watch was also readily embraced by the public.
The market success of the Chronomat pointedly marked the revival of Breitling and the automatic chronograph. The line became one of Breitling’s best-selling watch collections and has remained so ever since.
The “Emergency” – A Lifeline In A Watch
Breitling’s next big breakthrough under Schneider was truly a technological marvel – the Emergency.
Schneider was inspired by a conversation with a military officer about parachuting from a plane. Upon landing, the officer found himself stranded, with nothing but his uniform and his watch.
So, even though it seemed impossible at the time, Schneider aimed to make a watch capable of transmitting distress signals.
Creating a radio transmitter small enough to fit on a watch took years of intensive development.
The resulting “Emergency,” launched in 1995, was a huge success. After all, who wouldn’t want a watch that could literally save your life?
Indeed, The Guardian reports in 2003 of two British pilots rescued from a helicopter crash after beaming Emergency watch signals.
The men, who were stranded on a life raft in the Antarctica sea, would surely have perished without rescue.
Some Of Breitling’s Latest Marvels
Ever since Ernest Schneider re-launched Breitling, the firm has solidly thrived. In the 1990s, Ernest’s son, Théodore, took the helm.
Today, Breitling only continues to add to its long list of impressive accomplishments.
Since 1999, all Breitling chronograph watches, both quartz and mechanical, are certified by the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC).
This non-profit organization runs an independent testing institute that establishes an international gold standard for chronograph precision and accuracy.
COSC testing is extremely rigorous and only about 3% of all movements submitted receive certification.
It truly speaks to the exceptional quality of Breitling watches that all of the firm’s chronographs are COSC-certified.
When Breitling finally made the move to developing quartz movements, it made a grand entrance.
The SuperQuartz™ movement, unveiled in 2001, is ten times more accurate than standard quartz.
It’s the only quartz movement capable of passing COSC certification and is widely accepted as the benchmark for quartz.
Breitling For Bentley
Breitling has been expanding its influence, going beyond its longtime aviation associations to forge exciting new partnerships with firms from other industries.
In 2002, the firm partnered with famed British luxury car manufacturer Bentley Motors. Bentley was developing the powerful model it had ever produced, the Continental GT.
Breitling had the unprecedented honor of working with Bentley to design the Continental’s clock and other on-board instruments.
Later, the partners collaborated on “Breitling For Bentley,” a gorgeous line of luxury watches “embodying the quintessence of British chic.”
The collection features some of the most stylish watches Breitling ever produced. The watch cases are artfully designed to celebrate the elegant bodywork of Bentley automobiles.
For instance, Breitling often incorporates Bentley’s distinctive style motifs, such as the “honeycomb” radiator grille, shown on the Bentley B06’s bezel above.
Breitling Jet Team
Breitling sponsors the largest civilian aerobatics team in the world, the Breitling Jet Team. Comprised of 7 renowned professional pilots flying cutting-edge military training jets, the team holds spectacular flight shows worldwide.
These jets perform perfectly synchronized aerial choreography, flying at very fast speeds/accelerations, sometimes within only 10 ft of each other.
Only such a highly-skilled team operating the finest aircraft could achieve these daring feats – a perfect emblem of Breitling’s legacy.
New Ownership Gunning For Global Markets
Breitling was, until very recently, among the last family-owned Swiss watch firms. Earlier in 2017, Théodore sold Breitling to CVC Capital Partners, the largest European private equity firm, for a record sum.
Théodore reports he’s confident CVC will bring Breitling to its “full potential.” For one, the firm aims to increase Breitling’s international clout by strengthening its presence in Asian markets.
Best Breitling Watches On The Market Today
Breitling currently offers 10 main watch collections on its official website. In addition to its legendary pilot watches, Breitling now also offers a varied selection of diving, military, and sports watches.
Let’s take a look at some of Breitling’s latest and greatest offerings:
The SuperOcean is Breitling’s premier line of professional diving watches. First launched in 1957, the watch was readily embraced by professional and leisure divers alike.
For the SuperOcean’s 60th anniversary in 2017, Breitling did a fresh redesign of its SuperOcean Heritage line.
The brand opted to retain most of the much-loved watch’s signature features, such as its distinctive luminescent hands and markers. But this model features useful new innovations, most notably its steel bezel fitted with an “ultra-hard high-tech ceramic ring.”
Overall, the SuperOcean can cost between $3,500 and $4,000 depending on the reference. You can browse Amazon for the models they have in stock. Alternatively, check out Bob’s Watches, our favourite online watch dealer.
The Colt line is one of Breitling’s most popular military watches. The Skyracer, heralded as a “new generation Breitling,” features numerous technical improvements on older models.
For example, the case is made from Breitlight®, a ultra-light and extremely durable proprietary alloy. Breitlight® is 3.3 times lighter than titanium, scratch and corrosion resistant, and even has anti-magnetic properties.
Other impressive features include glare-proof sapphire crystal and an exclusive strap that can be readily removed and used for measuring. The watch is powered by a top-of-the-line Breitling SuperQuartz™ movement.
There are a number of Skyracers that are sold through Amazon. Otherwise, head to Bob’s Watches to see what they currently have for sale.
Avenger Hurricane Military
Another popular military watch line from Breitling is the Avenger. Powered by a Manufacture Breitling automatic caliber, this limited edition was designed in celebration of Breitling’s longtime aviation and military associations.
The Avenger Hurricane also employs Breitlight® and includes a number of useful details, such as “non-slip grip” pushers. Depending on the reference, it tends to retail for about $3,500. Head to Amazon or Bob’s Watches to check out their stocks.
Breitling’s illustrious Navitimer line is still alive and kicking. As one of its best-loved collections, Breitling felt it was only appropriate to introduce its latest technical breakthrough via the Navitimer.
The Rattrapante – the split-second/double chronograph – is an exceedingly challenging complication to manufacture due to high energy requirements..
Yet Breitling managed to produce this Rattrapante entirely in-house with a striking elegant modular approach. Amazingly, the complicated split-second module is comprised of only 28 parts!
Shown above are the two style variations offered – the limited red gold edition at left, and the standard steel case at right. Being a premium model, the Navitimer Rattrapante can cost above $20,000. Nevertheless, a few models are available on Amazon and Bob’s Watches also tends to have some in stock.
Breitling has achieved yet another high-tech triumph with this updated version of its landmark survival watch.
To satisfy new international satellite rescue frequency standards, Breitling had to replace the single frequency of the original Emergency.
Emergency II is equipped with a dual-frequency “Personal Locator Beam” (PLB) and built-in, extendable miniature antennas . The watch can broadcast distress signals for a continuous 24 hours and is operational even at -20 degrees Celsius. It’s also stunningly light, weather-resistant, and comes with a rechargeable battery.
This must-have watch is offered in a wide array of bright, eye-catching colors, as well as in “Night Mission” black titanium versions. The Emergency is available to the public and can be purchased for around $15,000. You can find the occasional model on Amazon as well as Bob’s Watches.
We hope you enjoyed this walk through Breitling’s watchmaking history and latest models. For more information on Breitling’s impressive manufacture, history, model selection, and sponsorships, visit the official website.
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