Breitling is, regardless of all other milestones, deeply rooted in aviation. With the SuperOcean Breitling conquered the Sea, the TopTime conquered the Land, but it’s the Air that defined this company. And no other model emobodies this tradition more than the Navitimer. Leon Breitling, the founder himself, saw the potential of high-precision timepieces to play a pivotal role in the evolving aviation industry. A niche that was finally filled in 1936 when Breitling introduced their famous on-board flight chronograph

March 08, 2022

Breitling Navitimer - The Figure Head

 


Marcus Siems     Marcus Siems @siemswatches
    Collector, Author, Data Analyst


  

Breitling is, regardless of all other milestones, deeply rooted in aviation. With the SuperOcean Breitling conquered the Sea, the TopTime conquered the Land, but it’s the Air that defined this company.

Leon Breitling, the founder himself, saw the potential of high-precision timepieces to play a pivotal role in the evolving aviation industry. A niche that was finally filled in 1936 when Breitling introduced their famous on-board flight chronograph[1]. Several airlines of the time were quick in picking up this instrument as a cornerstone of their navigation equipment. And in the wake of World War II Breitling became - among others - the official supplier for the Royal Air Force.

 

Vintage Breitling Advertisement - Official Supplier to Aviation“Breitling - Official Supplier To World Aviation (AOPA)” - Vintage ad for the Breitling dashboard clock in cooperation with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association[1].

 

And dashboard instruments quickly appeared on pilot wrists as well. Back in the early 20th century pilots still needed to do a lot of quick computations during the flight: airspeed, fuel consumption, flight time, etc. This all became a lot easier when Breitling patented the rotating slide-rule chronograph in 1941, a watch that would later be known as the original Chronomat of the early 1940s.

Awestruck by Breitling’s contribution to the Allied Air Forces’ success during the war the American “Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association” (AOPA) reached out to the brand in 1952 to develop a wristwatch for the civilian aeronautics as well. Breitling wasn’t shy in adding functionality to the piece that in 1954 would become the now-famous Breitling Navitimer[2-4].

 

1940s Breitling Military ChronographBreitling has always been inseparable with the world of aviation - both civilian and military. Photo @goldammer.me

 

The original Navitimer (806) featured the iconic slide-rule with a beaded rotating bezel, full luminous numerals, on a black dial with syringe hands and a 3 sub-dial chronograph and the winged AOPA logo - a design still featured in modern references. The 806 Navitimer came in at about 41mm case diameter, quite huge for the mid 1950s. Less than 5% of the watches at the time were sized between 40-45mm. However, when you take into account all of the functionality plus the maneuverability in-flight those 41mm appear barely enough. 

 

Distribution of Navitimer Popularity among all Breitling watchesFigure 9. Popularity of the Breitling Navitimer among all of Breitlings vintage pieces from 1940-2000. Advertisement of the early Navitimer 806[1,5].

 

And the watch became a commercial hit. With the help of advertiser Georges Caspari Breitling created a new market for civilian aeronautic chronographs[4]. The watch further gained traction in pop-culture as legends like Miles Davis, Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Jo Siffert would sport a Navitimer on their wrists. A success-story in which the Navitimer would even become one of the first watches to conquer outer space in 1962[4,6-7].

 

Vintage Advertisement Breitling Navitimer in Space

“Watch in Space!” - Vintage ad for the Breitling Navitimer from the early 1960s featuring Astronaut Scott Carpenter[1].

 

Even until today the Navitimer is tremendously successful and probably the figurehead collection of the brand. If you think of a watch that best emulates all what Breitling stands for all throughout its history the Navitimer most likely is the watch to point to. Among all of the vintage watches from the last century the Navitimer clearly defined its epoch. Still today about 50% of 1950s/60s Breitling watches on the vintage market are from this unique lineup of Navitimers.

 

Design Cluster of Vintage Breitling with a focus on the Navitimer

Figure 10. Distribution of Breitling vintage watches from 1940-2000 (734 total watches) grouped by design, highlighting the Navitimer series (159 watches). The dots are color-coded by every watches’ age. 

 

The Navitimer is not only successful, its design is also special among all Breitling watches. Even though the 806 and also many later models have been around for almost 70 years by now, virtually unchanged, not many other models in the brand’s line-up came close in design. Parsing the key design elements apart - black dial, syringe hands, full numeral-layout - this icon actually best represents the early 1940s (Heritage Score maximum - details in next article).

 

1940s Breitling Chronograph with TachymeterThe 1940s, not just black-dial, military-style chronographs... But we'll come to that in a bit. Photo @goldammer.me

 

All in all the Navitimer design is reminiscent of the classic military watches of WWII. And that for a good reason. What has been useful in the trenches of Europe, dark legible dial with luminous numerals, is also useful in-flight. The cockpit can be dark at night and the pilot needs to do several computation with the watch to make split-second decisions. Legibility is key to not loose valuable time deciphering. Functionality is what made this timepiece become invaluable in a time of opportunity, which later turned into a lifestyle piece of the urban youth. A design that has transcended its original target group to become an all-time classic. 

 

 

References

[1] Vintage Breitling Advertisement List; Millenary Watches;

https://millenarywatches.com/vintage-breitling-advertisements/

[2] The Ultimate Wrist-Worn Instrument For Pilots; Breitling;

https://www.breitling.com/us-en/heritage/navitimer/

[3] Breitling Chronomat – a short history, part 1: The Slide Rule Chronomats; Alstro;

https://www.watchuseek.com/threads/breitling-chronomat-a-short-history-part-1-the-slide-rule-chronomats.9103/

[4] The History Of The Breitling Navitimer; WatchTime, Monochrome Watches;

https://monochrome-watches.com/history-breitling-navitimer/

[5] Watches from Chrono24, extracted 2020 Nov. 29th; Karlsruhe, Germany;

https://www.chrono24.com/

[6] Breitling Watch Brand Review & History: Certified Chronographs With Sky-High Precision; Paul Anthony, BespokeUnit;

https://bespokeunit.com/watches/breitling/#chronograph

[7] The history of Breitling – the brand that conquered air, land and sea; Russell Sheldrake, The Gentleman’s Journal;

https://www.thegentlemansjournal.com/article/history-of-breitling/

 

 

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