How Breitling's aviation legacy is helping its new timepieces take flight

By Michelle Johnson | 18 Jun 2019 | Style, Speed

Breitling CEO Georges Kern keeps his eyes on the skies as he looks back at the brand’s unmatched legacy of aviation timepieces

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* The Breitling Jet Team in flight

There are few Swiss watch brands so closely tied to the skies as Breitling. The high-end watch brand was founded by Léon Breitling in 1884, focusing on the creation of simplified chronographs that outstripped his rivals. But it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that the founder’s grandson, Willy Breitling, saw the brand’s time to fly – and make its mark as a pioneer of aviation.

“Breitling has long emphasised its aviation roots, but much of our heritage is unknown to modern buyers,” says today’s CEO Georges Kern. “For instance, Breitling played a key role in the development of the modern wrist-chronograph and was responsible for many of its defining innovations for over a century. We created a separate push-button for the chronograph’s start/stop/reset functions in 1915, and in 1923, separated the start/ stop function from the reset function.”

Willy took over the company at just 19 years old, leading the brand to develop the world’s first two-pusher chronograph, patented in 1934. Just two years later, Breitling had introduced its first Aviator’s Chronograph with black dial and luminescent hands – a watershed moment for aviation watches.

With these innovations on the clock, Breitling’s Huit Aviation Department was soon developing lightweight, luminous and reliable aviation clocks that could be installed in the dashboards of aircrafts – and with the second world war approaching, these were in immediate demand. Willy Breitling’s fledging department secured a contract with the British Royal Air Force to fit its fighter planes, putting them through a battery of tests to prove these timekeepers were as unshakeable as their pilots.

With such remarkable RAF performance, it’s no wonder the brand’s reputation for aviator’s watches continued to grow, and in 1952 this was further solidified with the first Breitling Navitimer. Just 10 years later, Breitling ascended even further with a special-edition Navitimer, featuring a 24-hour dial, which was designed by Mercury-Atlas 7 astronaut Scott Carpenter. Carpenter put the brand’s expertise to the ultimate test by wearing the Navitimer throughout his mission on the Aurora 7 spacecraft in May of that year.

“Breitling has played an important role in various scientific fields and one of our watches, on Scott Carpenter’s wrist, was the first wristchronograph worn in space,” says Kern. “In fact, our watches have found themselves on some very prominent wrists over the years, including those of jazz great Miles Davis, French musician Serge Gainsbourg, and Formula 1 driver Graham Hill.” >>

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* Breitling 2019 Navitimer Re-Edition (left) with the 1959 Navitimer 806

Since then, Breitling has continued innovating within aeronautics as well as submersible timepieces, and served as timekeeper for various sporting events. “In addition to our strong links to aviation, we have also served as the official timekeeper at cycling races and motor sport events. We introduced some outstanding designs and models such as the Premier in the 1940s and the SuperOcean in the 1950s, which were linked to our Land and Sea World collections respectively,” he said.

As well as its technical innovations, Breitling has continued to champion collaborations with charities, brands and intuitions, including the Breitling Jet Squad – the world’s only civilian aerobatic jet team – Ocean Conservancy, and British national treasures including Bentley Motors, Norton Motorcycles and, of course, James Bond.

One of Kern’s favourite anecdotes is that of the unique Top Time wristwatch that Breitling produced for 1965 Bond film Thunderball, starring Sean Connery. The heavily modified watch, provided to British spy 007 by Q (portrayed by Desmond Llewelyn), worked as a Geiger Counter for the purposes of the film. The Breitling watch disappeared after filming, resurfacing at a car boot sale in 2012 where it was purchased for a mere £25. It later sold at a Christie’s auction for a cool £100,000.

“Breitling is a brand with an incredible heritage and amazing stories,” says Kern. “To tell these stories rooted in the history of Breitling in a modern, emotional and engaging way, we use our collaborations with other brands and charities as well as our new #SquadOnAMission campaign.

“One of our most recent highlights was the launch of the SuperOcean Heritage Ocean Conservancy Limited Edition in Bali. This limited-edition model celebrates our partnership with Ocean Conservancy and it also commemorates the commitment that we and our partners have to maintaining healthy oceans and clean beaches.” >>

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* The Breitling Jet Team in action

These initiatives have been supported by the brand’s ‘squads’ of ambassadors. Pilots Jacques ‘Speedy’ Bothelin (see our interview, right), Paco Wallert and Christophe Deukeletare make up the Jet Squad; the Surfer Squad includes surfing champions Kelly Slater, Stephanie Gilmore and Sally Fitzgibbons; the Explorer Squad boasts Bertrand Picard, Inge Solheim, David de Rothschild; and the Cinema Squad consists of actors Brad Pitt, Adam Driver, Charlize Theron and Daniel Wu.

“At Breitling, we believe in the power of a team, and the strength of a group. Our squad members are united by the passion, profession, and commitment they share and as a result, the squad concept perfectly expresses our focus on action, purpose, and style and underscores our identity as an informal and inclusive brand,” Kern says of the teams.

Whether by air, land, sea or silver screen, Breitling remains at the forefront of horological changes – whether that’s precise chronographs, cases that offer extreme protection, experimenting with smart technology, or simply the finesse and delicacy to make ever more detailed embellishments.

“Early this year, we introduced the first of our Re-Editions, which pay tribute to a carefully-chosen selection of iconic timepieces that represent our legacy. Each Re-Edition will be created with utmost attention to detail, giving new Breitling fans, as well as vintage collectors, a chance to own and enjoy their own exclusive piece of our legendary past,” says Kern, adding that throughout these new projects, Breitling’s eyes are firmly on the horizon. “We are focused on our future, but we never forget who we are and where we came from.”

Read more exclusive interviews, news and reviews in Tempus Magazine's Speed Edition, out now

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