If you love vintage aviation watches, you most likely are familiar with the Swiss luxury watch brand Breitling.
But how much do you know about the history of Breitling? In this guide, we will explore some of the milestones achieved by this company, exploring its history from its foundation before the turn of the 20th century through to today. We will also take a look at some of the most famous Breitling vintage watches.
Léon Breitling Founds Breitling SA in 1884
Breitling SA was founded in 1884 by Léon Breitling in Saint-Imier, Bernese Jura. At the time, he was just 24 years old. Indeed, he had interned as a watchmaker when he was a teen. So by the time he founded the company, he already had substantial knowledge and experience. Originally, he called his company “G Leon Breitling.”
He relocated in 1892 to La Chaux-de-Fonds, because he needed access to larger facilities. The name of the business changed at that point to “Leon G. Breitling Montbrillant SA Watch Factory.”
Léon passed away in 1914, at which point his son, Gaston, took over the business. By that time, the company had established a reputation for producing high-quality chronographs. Indeed, one of the company’s major innovations took place in 1896, when it put out a couple of chronographs that included reset buttons. But its story had really just begun.
Breitling Takes to the Skies
While Léon was still running the company, he put Breitling’s focus on aviation. When his son took the helm, he continued that legacy. During his time in charge of Breitling, the company came out with a wrist chronograph that featured a stopwatch function button next to the crown. This ease-of-use innovation was extremely helpful to pilots.
Just as Gaston inherited the company from his father, so did he pass it down to his son Willy in 1932. It was under Willy that the company started making watches with a chronograph reset button under the crown. Moving beyond wristwatches, Breitling started manufacturing airplane dashboard chronographs as well.
The 30s were a pioneering time for aviation, and the days of war were fast approaching. So, the company’s timing could not have been better. Indeed, they became a supplier to the British Royal Air Force.
Getting Around Nazi Blockades
The RAF continued to rely upon Breitling to supply the chronographs when World War II started. Naturally, this put Breitling in a problematic position once the Nazis closed in on the border of Switzerland.
If Breitling were to stop sending out its chronographs, it would have hurt the war effort. But the Nazis were putting up export blockades. Getting products across the border had become dangerous.
But Breitling did not give up. Willy worked with the RAF to come up with a plan for secret rendezvous. He went to a field with his chronographs at night, and there he would wait in the dark with his friends. They would switch on the headlights of their automobile to guide in an RAF aircraft. When the airplane landed, he would hand off his products.
He knew there was a chance that the Nazis would catch on. So he came up with a plan of hiding in the open. After the rendezvous was over, he would go to a nearby tavern and pick a fight. He would then be under arrest. He counted on this as his alibi. If anyone came asking questions, he reasoned they would be unlikely to suspect the person who prominently got into a bar fight that night and wound up with the authorities.
Now you know how Breitling played an important role in WWII. But what became of Breitling after the war?
If you have read up on the history of other vintage watch companies such as Omega or Enicar, you know that this was a time when brands had to race to adapt. Companies that focused on supplying chronographs to the military needed to start serving the civilian sector.
Breitling was not deterred by fears that chronograph demand would dwindle. Based on its market research, the company began to specialize in thin watches for civilian men and women. At the same time, they continued to engineer high-quality chronographs. These included wristwatches for civilian pilots as well as instruments for aircraft dashboards.
Although the company continued to focus on watches for aviators, it also delved into diving watches. A Breitling watch made it to space as well (the Navitimer Cosmonaute, worn by Lt. Commander Scott Carpenter in orbit in 1962).
So, even after the war, Breitling’s place in the world of watchmakers did not fade. Indeed, the company is still thriving today.
Iconic Breitling Watches
Now that you know more about the history of Breitling, let’s take a look at some of this brand’s most innovative vintage timepieces.
The Breitling Navitimer: Early Designs
The most famous of all Breitling vintage watches is no doubt the Navitimer. This series of watches launched in 1952, and still exists today (we selected the Breitling Navitimer as one of the most famous watches of the 1950’s, feel free to check out that article!).
It probably comes as no surprise that the Navitimer is an aviation chronograph. Willy Breitling came up with the original version in 1952 in response to a request from the US Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA).
The Navitimer was more than just a watch. It was more akin to a computer. Breitling explains, “At that time, calculations required a logarithmic slide rule. Willy Breitling therefore adapted the original logarithmic slide rule of the 1940s Chronomat for aviation purposes and integrated it into a rotating bezel, surrounded by small beads to make it easier to manipulate.”
The result was a watch that pilots could use to calculate average speed, fuel consumed, distance travelled, and more.
In terms of appearance, the Navitimer was designed with practicality in mind. Large, radium-filled Arabic numerals stood out against a black backdrop, making for excellent readability. The 41-millimeter case diameter and large dial offered plenty of space. Indeed, considering how information-dense the dial is, the hefty size was completely necessary. On the back of the case was the reference “806.” But the front of the watch did not include the company’s logo or name.
It wasn’t until 1956 that Breitling Navitimers started to include the name and the logo on the dial. If you obtain an early Navitimer and see the word “AOPA” on it, then it is a watch that Breitling sold directly to the association. If you do not see the letters “AOPA,” it was a watch that was sold to the general public.
The Breitling Navitimer: Additional Designs
The Navitimer is such a quintessential part of the Breitling catalog that we need some further discussion of some of the additional versions of the watch the company has released.
- Twin-Jet Navitimer: This version of the Navitimer from the 60s looks quite a bit different from the original 50s versions. It still has a black dial, but it features triple white sub-dials. The Twin-Jet Navitimer has graced the wrists of Jo Siffert, Graham Hill and Jim Clark, all Formula 1 champions. Jazz legend Miles Davis also wore one.
- Breitling Chrono-Matic: This was the name that Breitling gave its first automatic Navitimer. The company worked with Heuer-Leonidas and Buren-Hamilton to develop the watch, and released it in 1969.
- Navitimer Cosmonaute: This was the special version of the Navitimer that Lt. Commander Scott Carpenter worse as he orbited the earth in 1962.
If you want to collect old Navitimer watches from the 50s and 60s, you will find that they tend to start at around $4,000 and range up above $10,000.
But the Navitimer line continues today, and you can also consider purchasing new Navitimers. Indeed, Breitling has jumped into the trend of issuing new versions of its iconic watches, and many modern entries in the Navitimer line still capture the nostalgia of the originals, in particular this reissue of the Navitimer Ref. 806. That being said, they also tend to sell in a similar price range.
Another important line of vintage aviator watches Breitling created was the Co-Pilot line in the 50s.
The Co-Pilot was not meant to replace the Navitimer. As the name implies, it was meant to serve as an auxiliary chronograph, a “co-pilot” to the Navitimer itself.
Whereas the Navitimer is an information-dense watch featuring a tremendous amount of information on its dial, the Co-Pilot is much simpler. Indeed, the black dial features a fair amount of blank space between 10 o’clock and 4 o’clock. There are two sub-dials at 6 o’clock and at 9 o’clock. The numbers themselves are large so that pilots can read them at a glance.
On the right at 3 o’clock is what looks at first glance like a date window. But it is actually a 15-minute recorder. The purpose of the recorder was to help time take-off checks.
The first version of the watch hit the market in 1953, with Ref. 765 AVI. The minute recorder was “digital”. But Breitling made an analog version available as well shortly thereafter. This version featured the minute recorder as a third sub-dial.
The 60s “Reverse Panda” version of the Co-Pilot became very popular. Indeed, it made a prominent appearance in the 1967 film Fathom on the wrist of Raquel Welch. Skier Jean-Claude Killy and racer Ken Miles also wore this watch.
Other noteworthy Co-Pilot watches included the Co-Pilot Unitime (Ref. 1765) and the Automatic Co-Pilot, both in the 60s.
Vintage Breitling Co-Pilot watches tend to sell for over $10,000. Re-issues of the Co-Pilot don’t come cheap either. The AVI Ref. 765 1953 Re-Edition, which “recreates to the very last detail one of the early executions of the Co-Pilot Ref. 765 AVI,” sells for $8,600 as of the time of this writing direct from Breitling.
The Breitling 1957 Superocean
As we mentioned before, Breitling did make forays into aquatic watches. Indeed, the 1957 Superocean can refer to either of two watches the company released that year under that name:
- The Ref. 1004 time-only watch.
- The Ref. 807 dive chronograph.
Both watches measured 39 mm, and were designed to be water-resistant up to 200m. They featured similar black dials and simple triangular and circular markers for the hours for a relatively minimalist display. But the chronograph version included a pair of contrasting sub-dials.
The design of the rotating bezel is noteworthy as well. Breitling explains, “Breitling also gives the rotating bezel an elegant look with its avant-garde concave design, which is quite different from the usual flat black disc that is used to time the diving duration.”
The Slow-Motion Superocean
Following up on the original Superocean, the company released another version called the “Slow-Motion” Superocean.
This watch introduced innovative solutions to problems involve readability. Basically, when one is underwater, it is not easy to read diving duration if it is displayed with a minute recorder. It is just too small. So, Willy Breitling came up with the idea of replacing the small, hard-to-read minute recorder with the main chronograph hand.
Breitling says, “For this, Breitling develops a unique chronograph caliber, called ‘Slow Motion,’ that enables the chronograph hand to make one revolution per hour instead of one per minute. The wearer can therefore directly read the diving duration with the chronograph hand and the minute track on the dial without having to look for the minute recorder.”
Although this may sound like an ideal solution, it actually presented another problem. The slow movement of the chronograph hand made it visually hard for divers to detect at a glance from the hand whether it was moving at all. One cannot just take a dive without verifying that one’s chronograph is running.
The solution Willy Breitling came up with was to put a running indicator at 6 o’clock. Depending on whether the indicator displayed a black disc, a yellow disc, or a black disc with a yellow dot, a diver could check the status of the chronograph quickly and easily:
It is not easy to find vintage Superocean watches for sale. If you do, you can expect to pay a pretty penny for one of these iconic Breitling watches. They tend to go for more than $20,000.
As with the Navitimer, there are modern versions of the Superocean that you can purchase. Thankfully, you will not spend nearly as much on a modern Superocean Heritage ’57 reissue as you would on an authentic vintage Superocean from the 50s. The price for one of these watches new is currently just under $4,400.
There are a few different color options for the Superocean Heritage ’57. The most unusual is the limited edition version featuring a rainbow of colors for the hour markers and the watch hands. These colors are a throwback to the bright colors embraced by hippies. Only 250 of these watches were produced, so this is a rare, high-value item.
Breitling from the 90s Through Today
Now that we have shared some of the most iconic lines of Breitling vintage watches, you probably are curious what Breitling is up to today.
Actually, it is worth taking a look at some of the company’s milestones starting in the 90s and continuing through the present, as Breitling has continued to be a groundbreaking innovator.
- 1995: In this year, Breitling introduced a watch called “The Emergency.” Featuring a titanium case, this watch is equipped with a micro-transmitter that broadcasts on 121.5Mhz. That means that if you are in a remote location and are in need of help, you can send a distress signal right from your watch. Indeed, the watch even features an extendable antenna. When it is collapsed, it fits under a safety cap. Jet teams like the Blue Angels have relied on this watch for extra safety. While 1995 is later than the era we normally cover, we are on a constant path into the future. It won’t be long before the Emergency is considered an iconic vintage Breitling watch.
- 1999: In this year, Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones achieved the first flight around the world in a balloon without stopping. Indeed, the name of their balloon was the Breitling Orbiter 3. Both of them wore Breitling Emergency watches on their expedition. In case you are wondering, the balloon itself was manufactured by Cameron Balloons. But the name “Breitling” is displayed quite prominently. And if, by chance, you are ever at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., you can check out the balloon gondola for yourself in person.
- 2015: Breitling introduced the Excospace B55 in 2015, a watch that is compatible with a smartphone app that allows for data transfer in two directions.
- 2020: Just last year, Breitling came out with the Endurance Pro, which the company calls the “ultimate athleisure watch.”
Plus, as discussed, Breitling continues to reissue its vintage watches with modern updates.
Breitling Vintage Watches: Summary
If there is one watch company that is synonymous with vintage aviation watches, for many people, the name is Breitling.
With lines like the Navitimer and the Co-Pilot, Breitling provided pilots with the large, legible, feature-rich watches they needed to fly the skies during war and peacetime. But watches like the Superocean prove that Breitling’s innovations have extended far beyond the skies.
Divers, athletes, pioneers, and celebrities from all walks of life have all joined pilots in sporting Breitling watches on their wrists.
With the watches in our list starting at around $4,000 regardless of whether you want a vintage timepiece or a reissue, a Breitling watch may be a fairly expensive addition to your collection.
But it is one that will offer you tremendous style, practicality and nostalgia, and it should run beautifully for many, many years to come.