Breitling Watches Guide – The Brand, The History

Jun 12, 2023 | Breitling, Watches

Based in Grenchen, Switzerland, the Breitling brand has produced stunning timepieces, such as the Breitling Navigator and the Breitling Aviator watch, for over 130 years. The Swiss watchmaker is responsible for creating some of the most precise time-keeping pieces ever made. Regarded as a major luxury watch brand, Breitling was founded in 1884 by Léon Breitling. The Breitling brand was dedicated to making chronographs which could be used for industrial, military and scientific applications. Breitling is a byword for watches produced using the finest materials, strict quality control and stringent testing.

Breitling’s history charts a story of boundaries that were pushed and new standards set in crafting and creating precision chronographs. Breitling owner, Léon Breitling, began to make watches in his workshop in the Jura mountains and focused on making very intricate complex timepieces. Within ten years of the brand’s inception, Léon’s success took the company to bigger premises, transferring to a factory in 1892.

Léon Breitling continued to make chronographs until his death in 1914, leaving the Breitling watch business to his son, Gaston. Continuing his late father’s work, Gaston developed and produced the Breitling chronograph. War was raging in Europe and the Breitling chronograph became popular with military police forces during World War I. Tragically, Gaston’s reign at Breitling was to be a short one, passing away shortly after the Armistice. This loss rendered the Breitling brand leaderless for a long five years, when Willy, Gaston’s son took the helm and stepped into the leadership role.

Willy picked up where both his father, Gaston, and his grandfather, Léon, had left off. Recognising the opportunities that were on offer in the world of aviation, Willy made some very smart partnerships and positioned the Breitling as a specialist and precision chronograph for pilots. Securing a contract to provide Breitling watches to the British Air Ministry, Breitling aviation watches featured several timing conversion rulers that made them invaluable to pilots who needed to generate in-flight calculations for distance, speed and fuel.

The Precision and Craftsmanship of Breitling Watches

Switzerland is regarded globally as the world’s centre of excellence for watchmaking. Watchmaking came to Switzerland in the second half of the 16th century, when Huguenot refugees brought the manufacture of portable timepieces to Geneva with them. Today, most of the major luxury watchmaking brands in the world are based in Switzerland, such as Omega, Patek Philippe and Rolex. Swiss watch brands carry with them a great deal of prestige. For a watch to be considered Swiss-made, it must house a Swiss movement which has undergone technical development in Switzerland, been inspected by the manufacturer within Swiss borders and generate at least 60% of the manufacturing costs in Switzerland.

Breitling uses only the highest quality of materials in the production of their chronographs. For cases, the brand uses metals, such as 316L antimagnetic stainless-steel alloy, or grade 2 titanium, using a stamping process performed cold for steel and gold and hot for titanium.
Dials are created from brass plates which are then polished and lacquered or electroplated. Hands are also crafted from brass before being pated with either rhodium or gold, and then rinsed and treated with a luminescent treatment. Every Breitling chronograph and watch included a glare proofed sapphire crystal.

Every element of a Breitling chronograph has been precision engineered, from the timekeeping to the look and feel of the watch. Breitling watches were designed to challenge the boundaries of timekeeping, such as their ‘HUIT Aviation’ department, named after the need for aviation instruments to have an eight-day power reserve to its patented slide-rule. In 1940, Breitling introduced a circular logarithmic slide-rule to chronographs which enabled a wide range of mathematical operations with tachymeter, telemeter and pulsometer functions.

Iconic Breitling Collections

Breitling defined timekeeping in aviation with the spectacular Breitling Navitimer. A contraction of the words ‘navigation’ and ‘timer’, the Navitimer is now 70 years old and much more than just a Breitling watch. A chronograph with integrated flight computer, the Navitimer is worn by pilots and aviators all over the world, including many national Air Force pilots. Actor and pilot/owner of a Boeing 707 a Bombardier Challenger 601, John Travolta not only sports a Navitimer, but is also an ambassador of the iconic brand.

The Breitling Navitimer is a natural evolution of 1942’s Breitling Chronomat, which featured the slide rule bezel. The first Navitimer, released in 1952, featured the double wing logo of the “Aircraft Owners Pilots Association” (AOPA) emblem, which paved the way for a working partnership with the AOPA in 1960.

The first edition sold was the 806 – a manual chronograph movement with a Venus 178 column wheel mechanism – which will always perform well at auction as it is highly sought after. The stainless steel models may be more commonly found, but the 18k solid gold models are rarer and can fetch even higher prices. Navitimers 806, made in 1954, featured a Valjoux 72 (as with the vintage Rolex Daytona) and are especially collectable.

Breitling Navitmer watches became the must-have timepieces of the skies – but development didn’t stop there. Working with Lt. Commander Scott Carpenter on the Mercury-Atlas 7 mission, Breitling adapted the Breitling Navitimer to replace the standard twelve-hour clock with a twenty-four-hour one. Towards the end of the 1960s, Willy Breitling teamed up with Gérald Dubois and Jack Heuer to develop a thin automatic movement with a micro-rotor. This cross-brand co-operation powered the development of the Calibre 11, with left-positioned crown. This forever changed the face of the Navitimer from a tri-compax layout to a bi-compax, with the date at 6 o’clock configuration.

By the 1970s, the Swiss watch industry was in crisis struggling with the flood of cheaper, highly accurate quartz watches from Japan. Breitling was no exception and had to react by issuing a quartz LCD edition of the Navitimer.

Bentley: The collaboration of luxury and performance

Breitling for Bentley brings together the best of two independent luxury companies that share a focus on efficiency, boldness, the quest for perfection. The relationship was born in 2002 when the Swiss watchmaker designed a new Breitling Continental GT. Joining the boys from Bentley for the Le Mans 24-hour race in 2003, Breitling presented a 48.7-millimetre chronograph Breitling for Bentley Motors (A25362) to celebrate Bentley’s success in the iconic race.

With both brands sporting a double-winged logo, the symbiosis between the brands is evident throughout the years. With a winged B-initial found in both logos, it underlines the commonality in values that can be found between the brands.

Driven by function as well as design, Breitling for Bentley watches are equipped with precision time-keeping movements, such as the 30-second chronograph with its sweeping second hand completing a full circle every half minute. Twice as fast as an ordinary chronograph, the 30-second chronograph was created to deliver high accuracy of measurement. The Bentley Motors T was launched in 2005 boasts the same high-quality functionality but with a very specific bezel design.

Following on from the first Breitling for Bentley watch (A25362), subsequent models – including the H25362, the K25362 – are distinctive from other watches because of the impressive 48.7-millimetre case a knurled bezel, inspired by the iconic Bentley radiator grille.

Breitling for Bentley has also turned to the past for inspiration for its collections. The Mark VI line borrows from the Bentley-Limousine Mark VI, one of the most stunning vintage cars ever made. The Mark VI boasts high-quality workmanship that has been created to meet the needs of those looking for exclusivity. The Mulliner Tourbillon is the culmination of years of tradition and excellence for both cars and timekeeping. The Mulliner represents the best of Bentley’s master craftsmen with capabilities tailored to the individual demands of the client.  As with personalising your Bentley, Breitling for Bentley clients can choose between case materials, dial colours as well as the shade of the watch strap. Unsurprisingly, the Mulliner Tourbillon is one of the most expensive elaborate Breitling watches and is known as the highlight of the Breitling for Bentley collection.

Superocean: The diver’s companion

breitling super ocean divers watch

Styled by the Breitling brand as the ‘ultimate sea watch’, watches in the Breitling Superocean collection are attractive but extremely hard-working chronographs. First created in the 1950s, the Superocean reflected both the increased interest in divers’ watches as the scientific exploration of the seas increased, but also the upturn in water-born leisure activities. Launched in 1957 as both a time-only diver watch ref. 1004 and a chronograph ref. 807, both named SuperOcean, these watches reflected both sides of the increased interest in water. While the time-telling watch was developed to be worn to look good, the chronograph was created for diving – although both models a water resistant to 200m.

The Superocean featured oversized circular and triangular hour markers which set the design apart from others but that made the time easy to tell quickly.  A rotating bezel featured a concave design and a 39mm stainless steel case with a thin profile an elongated lugs for comfort and reduced profile.

By the mid-1960s, Breitling placed their emphasis on developing a Superocean that could take on deeper waters. Using the main chronograph hand to indicate diving duration, Breitling developed a bespoke chronograph calibre named ‘Slow Motion’, where the chronograph hand would make one revolution per hour instead of one per minute. Willy Breitling also developed a running indicator, placed at 6 o’clock, to present a yellow disc when the chronograph is launched and returns to black when stopped.

Launched in 1964, the automatic Superocean ref. 2005 featured a clean, sub-dial free design and a 43mm stainless steel case to increase legibility. In 1969, the Chrono-Matic was one of the first automatic chronograph calibres, offering the performance of a chronograph with the wearability of an automatic watch.

In 1983, the SuperOcean ‘Deep Sea’ ref. 81190 was launched, with water resistance set at 1000m – one for the professional diver.

Chronomat: The versatile timekeeping marvel

With the introduction of the Breitling Chronomat in 1969, the world’s first self-winding chronograph, it seemed the brand’s future was secure. But, by 1979, Willy Breitling was forced to close the company. Breitling only just survived as a brand and that was down to Ernest Schneider.

Pilot turned watchmaker; Schneider harnessed the quartz technology that had so damaged the brand. Working alongside professional aviators, Schneider developed the Breitling Jupiter, Breitling Pluton and Breitling Mars. This also led to the development of the Breitling B-1, the Breitling Aerospace and the Breitling Emergency.

Schneider was able to make some key breakthroughs, working with the Italian Jet Team. One watchmaker; trip, he discovered why some pilots were experiencing broken watch crystals. Having spotted that some were knocking the crystals off the metal frame as the opened the aircraft’s canopy after landing. As a solution, he slightly recessed the crystal in the bezel and protected it with four ‘rider tabs’. These then became the Chronomat’s signature marks

One of the most interesting models is the chronograph ‘Frecce Tricolori’, inspired by the Italian Jet team. The black dial bears the patrol’s emblem with three arrows in the Italian colours above the inscription “P.A.N frecce tricolori,” with P.A.N standing for Pattuglia Acrobatica Nazionale.

In 1984, Breitling created the Chronomat ref. 81950, bringing the words chronograph and automatic together. Maintaining the ‘cool’ elements of the Italian jet design, the Chronomat also boasts the rider tabs, a streamlined case and iconic Rouleaux bracelet, alongside an inner tachymeter scale.

Breitling’s Technological Advancements

In 1995, Breitling took a great leap forward, with the introduction of the first wristwatch to have a built-in emergency microtransmitter. The Breitling Emergency operates on the 121.5 MHz international air distress frequency, and enables emergency rescue to home in on pilots or passengers in the wake of a plane crash. Developed for continuous wrist wear, the watch features a built-in personal locator beacon (PLB) which is compliant the Cospas-Sarsat international satellite alert system. The Breitling Emergency both issues alerts and guides search and rescue missions on land, sea and in the air.

The Breitling Avenger GMT is a revolution in watchmaking as it brings together weight and wearability that had not been witnessed before. The Avenger GMT II measures 43mm/12.2mm, but it offers enhanced comfort for the wearer despite the obvious weight of 316L stainless steel and sapphire glass. Named GMT to fall in line with the global time for all airports – Greenwich Mean Time – Breitling’s GMT would tell the wearer with a glance at the wrist the time zone of the take-off and landing location, as well as GMT. This has proved invaluable for frequent flyers.

The Breitling Heritage

Breitling has made a number of intuitive and enduring partnerships over the years, from their initial connections with aviation and diving to brand partnerships with Bentley and the Six Nations rugby.

Not only has Breitling connected with celebrity brand ambassador, John Travolta, but Breitling for Bentley is underpinned by brand ambassador, David Beckham. Carefully chosen to represent the modern man – stylish, with high standards superlative taste – Beckham encapsulates the values that both Breitling and Bentley stand by and for.

Why does Breitling endure? In a market that’s crowded with other luxury Swiss watch manufacturers, how do Breitling watches offer something that others don’t? For Breitling, watchmaking is as much about the practical as it is about the stylish design – and the brand appear to do it because they love it. When SuperOcean ruled the waves, Breitling developed its capabilities for greater depths. While other aviation watches told the time, the speed and supported fuel calculations, Breitling went above and beyond to place a life-saving beacon within the Breitling Emergency. So, absolutely, Breitling understands that their models may not make it of the boardroom, but they equally know that a SuperOcean could grace the wrist of a Board Master, or a pilot that works in extreme and dangerous environments. Breitling is dedicated to delivering for its clients.

Purchasing and Owning a Breitling Watch

There are several options available when buying a brand-new Breitling, with the Breitling website hosting a well-stocked store for you to purchase online. You will be able to browse the latest models and buy directly. Breitling also has a network of Breitling stores globally, with some in-airport locations. As with many Swiss watch manufacturers, Breitling also sell through the Watches of Switzerland brand. Many high street jewellery retailers and independent local jewellers offer the Breitling brand as authorised dealers, with Breitling watches often featuring at auctions.

Other options for purchase include resellers and preowned retailers, such as Suttons and Robertsons. As experts in both buying and selling preowned watches and highly knowledgeable in the luxury watch market, we have a wide selection of Swiss watches on offer, including hard to find, rare models.

Breitling may be best known for models, such as the Breitling Emergency and the Breitling Navitimer, but there are other models that you could explore. The Breitling Classic and Super Avi are timeless aviation chronographs, while the B01 and B09 models offer the opportunity to select according to preferred functionality and look.

Like any valuable object and precision instrument, Breitling watches require particular care in terms of their use and maintenance. The tips listed here will enable you to prolong their lifespan, ensure an optimal functioning and preserve their beauty.

Caring for your Breitling will largely depend on the type of strap that you choose as it requires the more care and attention. Regular cleaning of a steel strap with a soft toothbrush and liquid soap can help to prevent oxidation, while the casing can be polished with a soft cloth. Breitling diving watches may even be cleaned under gently running water, but please do ensure that your model is water resistant. Breitling encourage you to rinse even diving models under clean water when you have been in the sea or swimming pool. Leather straps can be cared for with the Breitling’s care kit, which can be purchased from Breitling stores.


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