The adventurer’s watch
You may have seen the Breitling wing-walkers, hanging off their aerobatic biplanes while the crowd gasps below. You’ll have heard of Yves Rossy, the man with the personal jet-pack – he’s sponsored by Breitling, too.
The first balloon to circumnavigate the globe? That would be the Breitling Orbiter. And then there are the Breitling Jets, roaring overhead in high-speed aerial gyrations that leave you queasy, as well as mightily impressed.
All of this frantic activity has one purpose, of course, and that’s to link the Breitling brand to intrepid high achievement.
This connection with speed and the world of aviation isn’t new, however. Breitling has been the pilot’s watch since the early 1930s, when their onboard chronographs were fitted to many cockpits, including those of the Royal Air Force’s Spitfires and Hurricanes.
In 1952, Breitling launched their legendary Navitimer wrist chronograph. Its bezel was a slide rule that performed all the essential airborne navigation calculations. Find groundspeed from airspeed, allowing for a 20-knot crosswind? Use your wristwatch!
Such calculations are carried out automatically these days, of course, by fancy electronics on the aircraft’s instrument panel, but the Navitimer has become a cult object and is still in production, and still with that circular slide rule, should you have a multiple instrument failure while aloft.
In 1961, Scott Carpenter, one of the original astronauts in the Mercury Space Program (the one that first put an American into orbit around the earth) asked Breitling if they could make a Navitimer with a 24-hour dial, because there’s no day or night when you’re in orbit. The company agreed and Carpenter wore a 24-hour Navitimer on his 1962 space flight.
You can buy a 24-hour Navitimer today – a special edition of just 1,962 watches to mark the 1962 flight – and if you searched the world, you might even find one of the original Navitimer Cosmonaute models that were made at the time. You’d probably have to sell the car if you wanted to buy it, mind.
Incidentally, the Navitimer is the world’s oldest mechanical chronograph model, still in production after more than 60 years.
The 1950s and ’60s were a boom time in commercial aviation and Breitling played a key role. Its chronographs were fitted as original equipment by Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas and Lockheed as their turbo-props and then jets revolutionised travel, bringing foreign holidays within the reach of millions.
Today, Breitling sponsors the team that maintains and flies one of the last airworthy Lockheed Super Constellations.
One particular Breitling model is especially handy for adventurous aviators – the Emergency. This watch contains a radio transmitter that broadcasts on the international distress frequency when activated by the wearer and can be picked-up at a range of 90 miles over land or by a search-plane flying at 20,000 feet.
In January 2003, two British pilots crashed their helicopter in Antarctica and were rescued after activating their Emergency watches. Both pilots on the Breitling Orbiter balloon were also wearing Emergency watches when they circumnavigated in 1999.
Breitling produced a commemorative Orbiter 3 version of the watch, limiting production to just 1,999 pieces.
So where did it all begin? Well, we must travel to Switzerland, of course, back to 1884, where we meet Leon Breitling, a skilled engineer who specialised in chronographs and timers – precision industrial and scientific instruments rather than personal timepieces.
As it happened, however, Leon was in at the beginning of the aviation and automotive ages, and he soon saw applications for his work in the new-fangled machines that seemed to be changing the world on land and in the air.
Today, it’s still a family business, and one of the last remaining independent Swiss watch brands.
Browse our collection of beautiful pre-owned Breitlings and you’ll see some mechanical automatic models as well as watches with a quartz movement.
So is it just any old quartz movement? Of course not! Breitling use only thermocompensated SuperQuartz™ movements that are ten times more accurate than standard quartz.
The brand has powerful connections. They are partners with Bentley Motors and sponsored Team Bentley during their Le Mans 24 Hours campaigns from 2001 to 2003. In the 1965 movie Thunderball, James Bond (Sean Connery) was given a specially modified Breitling watch that contained a Geiger counter. Bond used the watch to track down two stolen nuclear warheads.
The watch disappeared after the movie was made, only surfacing 47 years later at a car boot sale in England, where it was bought for £25. It was later sold by Christie’s for £100,000!
So how’s your spirit of adventure? Are you intrepid enough to sport one of these watches on your wrist? Or would you just like to give the impression of devil-may-care daring?
It has to be said that most Breitlings don’t often fly upside down or leave the earth’s atmosphere. Few are called upon to exceed Mach 2 or to really test their accuracy at temperature extremes.
But that’s not the point, of course. The reason you choose a Breitling is because you love the fact that it’s engineered to sail through these challenges. That someone cares enough to specify a quartz movement that’s ten times more accurate (when ordinary quartz is perfectly accurate already). That Spitfires used to have Breitling chronometers on the instrument panel, and that the people at Breitling are crazy enough to sponsor a man who straps a jet engine to his back and flies over the Grand Canyon wearing a kind of onesie with wings.