Watch Directory

Breitling: The pilot’s companion

It’s the brand those who take to the skies actually wear but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have maximum civilian appeal too

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He may have had the aviators, the leather bomber and the arrogance, but one thing LT Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell didn’t have was a Breitling. Despite being one of Top Gun Miramar’s most famous fictional pilots, he just wasn’t wearing the requisite wrist candy.

There have been many names in Swiss watchmaking that has engineered a pilot association, but Breitling is one of the few that those who take to the skies, whether on military manoeuvres or the scheduled 18.20 flight to the Maldives, actually wear.

Founded in 1884 in Switzerland cradle of watchmaking, La Chaux de Fonds, by the eponymous Leon, Breitling always had a knack for the complicated and for chronographs; the latter being a key part of a pilot’s watch.

Despite having a reputation for making robust, G-Force resistance and extremely accurate cockpit clocks and pilots’ watches, it wasn’t until the 1952 Navitimer that the relationship became special. Because the Navitimer had a slide rule. For those of us who didn’t go to school when Charles Dickens was still alive, a slide rule is completely incomprehensible.

At its most basic it’s a bit like Lyra’s aletheiometer, but with more numbers and less Dust. You set markers next to certain numbers depending on what equation you want to do and read off the result. For pilots, who know about this sort of thing, it has the three most important units for flying: STAT for standard mileage, KM for kilometres and NAUT for nautical miles. These three combined allowed pilots to easily do complex calculations, such as average speed and fuel consumption. It wasn’t just practical – it had plenty of sartorial swagger too; so much, in fact, that the Navitimer has changed very little since 1952.

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As with so many brands, the Quartz Crisis had a detrimental effect and it was only the purchase by Ernest Schneider, conveniently a recreational pilot as well as an electrical engineer, that saved it from extinction.

Schneider cannily kept Breitling dormant while he waited for the Quartz fever to dissipate, but finally, after the success of its quartz B-One in 1998, it started to ramp up production again. It revived the Chronomat from the 1950s, gave the previously military-only Colt a civilian spin, formed a partnership with Bentley in 2003, for which David Beckham was once poster boy, and unveiled the most amazingly practical watch you could own – the Breitling Emergency. Should you find yourself stranded up a mountain, lost in a dessert, unable to get out of Westfield White City, simply pull an antennae out of the case to activate an emergency signal that is broadcast on either 121.5MHz or 406MHz, which you can select using the crown. Then sit back and wait for the rescue party. Literally.

Following its sale to private equity firm CVC and hiring of ex-IWC frontman Georges Kern, the brand has streamlined its collection, focusing on land, air and sea, and unearthed such gems as the long-forgotten Premier. It has redecorated some of its boutiques to look like “hipsterified” lofts and ditched its slightly sexist, male-oriented image in favour of sleek-looking squads populated by rugged explorers, buff surfers and, for the added star wattage, Adam Driver, Charlize Theron and Brad Pitt.

Breitling is now based in Grenchen, has a mix of quartz and automatics; some of which are from the likes of ETA and Valjoux, while a few are in-house.

It doesn’t have the greatest selection of female-oriented watches, but Mr Kern has been dropping hints that this might change. After all, Georges, women fly planes too you know.

Which watch should I buy?

Given Breitling’s history it has to be a Navitimer. However, if you’re worried about this very manly design looking a bit too butch, consider this lovely rose-gold version. You’ll have to learn to use a slide rule (if only to stop the inevitable mansplaining), but it’s an elegant yet sporty style that is just on the right side of feminine. And Charlize Theron wears one - you can’t get a better endorsement than that.

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