“…the Beech 18 shuddered as the number two engine spit and coughed its last. He quickly scanned his instruments, his fuel gauge showed 55 lbs of fuel in his tanks and he had 182 nautical miles left to go. After a few twists on his Navitimer bezel and some hastily scribbled calculations on his clipboard, he exhaled in relief. Maintaining a cruising speed of 110 kts, he stood a good chance of making the airfield…”
Arguably, no other watch has had such a storied relationship with the world of aviation as the Breitling Navitimer. This iconic watch became the go-to timepiece of the aviators of yore primarily due to its brilliantly designed bezel that functioned as a slide Rule. It wasn’t that long ago, in the early days of aviation, calculations were performed by hand; fuel consumption, climb rate, time to destination, etc. Computers, with their ability to crunch numbers quickly, were just a gleam in some geeks eye during those heady days. It was this need for a compact tool in the cockpit that gave birth to this wonder of a watch thus the Breitling Navitimer Chronograph became the first computer you could wear on your wrist and it told great time as well!
The Breitling brand was started by Leon Breitling in 1884 at the age of 24. At that young age, Leon was already a seasoned watchmaker. The company started out in the town of Saint-Imier, in the French speaking Jura region of Switzerland. Shortly after, in 1892, it was relocated to La Chaux-de-Fonds. The company’s main product at the time was the manufacture of pocket watch chronographs.
In 1914, as the clouds of war were forming in Europe, Gaston Breitling assumed the reins of the company upon the death of his father. World War 1 was the first time this marvelous new invention, the airplane, was used as a weapon of war.
The first of these airplanes were woefully short of instrumentation and a need was born to develop instruments to help pilots navigate. As aviation took off (pun intended :)), the Breitling company started producing clocks for airplane instrument panels and in 1915, they developed a wrist chronograph for the military that featured central seconds and a 30 minute counter.
In 1932, after several milestone achievements, notably, the addition of pusher buttons in a chronograph that could start and stop a timer, Gaston ceded the responsibility of running the business over to his son, Willy Breitling in 1932.
Fast forward through the great depression, Breitling continued building on its reputation as an excellent watchmaker and a manufacturer of instruments for aviation. Prior to the advent of the Navitimer, the 1942 Chronomat, which featured the first slide rule bezel, was heavily utilized by the United States Air Force.
The original Chronomat utilized an outsourced movement called the Venus 176. When it was replaced with the Venus 178 in 1952, the Navitimer was born. The name Navitimer is a conjunction of the words “navigation” and “timer, appealing to those that didn’t want to pull out charts, graphs, and clipboards in cramped cockpits, while attempting to fly their airplanes.
In 1954, a special edition Navitimer came out powered by a Valjoux 72 which, incidentally, was the same movement used in the original Rolex Daytona. In 1962, a new Navitimer model was released, called the Cosmonaute, it was worn by Astronaut Scott Carpenter in one of the early space orbital missions. It is worth noting that some of these early Navitimer models are highly sought after and command impressive prices.
Eventually, as the Navitimer evolved during aviation’s golden age in the 1960’s, Breitling supplied instruments for the early jetliners of that era. Every major airplane manufacturer utilized Breitling instruments, cementing Breitling’s standing in aviation. Accordingly, the Breitling Watch company leveraged their hold on the industry by heavily marketing its Navitimer Chronographs to pilots and the military. Through their shrewd marketing strategies they cornered a significant segment of this market and continued to innovate technologically, moving from the Valjoux 7740 manual movements to the famous Caliber 11 automatic movement, making it the first automatic chronograph movement used in a watch. It was jointly developed by Breitling, Heuer, Buren, and Dubois-Depraz.
It is important to note that developing a tool watch with the capabilities of a slide rule necessitated some serious real estate in order to be able to cram all the information into an object you could wear on your wrist, and still be able to compute flight time without the need of a magnifying glass. So, the forefather of the 40 millimeter plus watch came to be with a series of Navitimer models, the largest of which boasted a 48 millimeter diameter case size.
This was Breitling’s heyday and the seemingly insurmountable lead Breitling enjoyed in the industry was, alas, undone by the Japanese quartz crisis. The quartz crisis impacted not only Breitling, but every mechanical watch manufacturer in the world. The Japanese watch industry unleashed an innovation tsunami that threatened to upend the global watch community… and it surely did for a period of time. So serious was the crisis that it was thought at the time, the Swiss watchmaking industry would not survive.
The Japanese watch producers introduced high quality watches with electronic movements that were more accurate than a mechanical movement, cheaper to manufacture, and easily affordable by everyone. This soon caused widespread panic in an industry that thought itself immune from technological advances. Many famous watch brands failed. Some sought to survive by consolidating forces and producing their own quartz offerings in hope of retaining or regaining their customers and market share.
The quartz crisis is a story for another time and thankfully, the Swiss Watch industry was able to survive. Unfortunately, it impacted Breitling’s dominance and after struggling for several years, the Breitling company shut down its operations in 1978. The Breitling family saw no choice and sadly, were forced to sell to Ernest Schneider who re-launched it in 1982 in a new location, Grenchen, Switzerland.
Ernest Schneider, an avid Pilot, wanted to retain Breitling’s hold in the aviation industry and at the same time, introduce new models that would appeal to a wider range of tastes. He set about to re-tool the company to remain competitive and the rest as they say, is history.
From those difficult days, the Breitling Phoenix arose and we now see models like the Super Ocean diver series, the Avenger chronometers, Professional, Premier, Aviator 8, and more, keeping the Breitling name relevant and highly desirable. Breitling’s motto after all is “Instruments for Professionals”.
Despite all the newer models, the names Breitling and Navitimer are almost synonymous. It is interesting to note that Breitling has produced 40+ Navitimer models over the years. From hand wound to automatic and even quartz variants. So established it is in the aviation world that It is the official watch of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). The Breitling Navitimer is the oldest continuously produced chronograph in the world. Among its brand ambassadors are Bear Grylls, John Travolta, Brad Pitt, David Beckham, and Buzz Aldrin.
The following pages contain some examples of the many models of this iconic watch, courtesy of Breitlingsource.com:
The Breitling Navitimer Quantieme Perpetuel
This is a Grande Complication, a masterpiece of mechanical watchmaking composed of almost 500 parts (including thirteen hands and pointers). It indicates the day, date, week, month and seasons, leap years and moon phase.
- Production years: 1998-1999, 2004
- Diameter: 43.3mm
- Reference Numbers: H29030, H29330, L29030, L29330
- Production years:1990-1993
- Movement: Breitling 13
- Reference Numbers:A13019, B13019, 81610
Breitling Navitimer 1884
A re-release of the Navitimer Montbrillant Datora in a 46mm case, featuring the standard Navitimer dial instead of the Montebrillant style dial with the classic Breitling Script.
Old Breitling Navitimer I
This was a transitional model made from around 1990 until 1993 and featured a snap-in case back and mineral crystal. The second hand is a straight second hang without the stylized B on the end. This watch also features the older version of the B13 movement that has the 17 Jewel Valjoux 7750.
- Production years: 2016 – current
- Diameter: 46mm
- Reference Number: A21350
Breitling Navitimer 01 46mm
- XL Release of the classic Navitimer. 18K Red Gold version is a limited edition of 200 pieces.
- Production Years: 2014-current
- Diameter: 46mm
- Reference numbers: AB0127, RB0127
- Also known as the Navitimer 2300
- Production years: 1980-1985
- Diameter: 41.5mm
- Reference numbers: 80970
- Also known as the Navitimer 2400
- Production years: 1983
- Diameter: 35mm
- Reference Numbers: 81470, 81490
The Spatiographe is an unusual Breitling model, the modern version of a chronograph introduced by Breitling in the 1950’s. It has a large ten minute digital totalizer for exceptionally legible readouts of short time spans. This watch would be useful for pilots who are timing instrument approaches and holding patterns. Breitling developed the Cal 36 automatic movement especially for this watch.
- Production Years: 1997 – 2002
- Diameter: 41.5mm
- Reference Numbers: A36030, D36030, A36330, D36330
Breitling Navitimer GMT
- Production Years: 2014-current
- Diameter: 48mm Reference Numbers: AB0441, RB0441
Written by Stephen Semenchuk who is the owner of Tidepool Watches
Information sourced from:
Photos and watch descriptions from: