Watches by chronograph specialist Breitling Genève come with a pedigree.
The firm, established by Léon Breitling (1860-1914) in his hometown of Saint-Imier in 1884, was among the first to launch a chrono wristwatch (in 1915), the first to issue a two-pusher chrono (1923) and the first to patent a chrono incorporating a circular slide rule (1940). In short, the firm set the template for modern aviation watches.
It was in wartime Europe that Breitling created the model it calls ‘the smartwatch of its time’.
This was the Chronomat, distinctive for its red and black on white enamel dial and the bezel that with its slide rule register could calculate distance travelled, flight time and airspeed.
A geeky fact is that the minute sub dial is marked at three, six and nine to help time long-distance phone calls. In the 1940s most exchanges charged in three-minute increments so extending a call by just a few second could prove expensive.
Owning one of these is not the stuff of pipe dreams. Early issues aside, most Breitling watches are priced well below the entry level for a Rolex tool watch. A great example might make £5000-plus. A decent one such as that offered by Gardiner Houlgate (22% buyer’s premium) in Corsham, Bath, on February 22 took £1750. It included its original box and papers.
It was the Chronomat that ushered in Breitling Genève’s most famous watch, the Navitimer 806.
The Navitimer was first conceived in 1952 following a collaboration between Willy Breitling and the US Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). Billed as a wrist-sized computer, the bezel, it modified the Chronomat to allow for further calculations including imperial to metric conversions and estimated fuel consumption.
Over the years, the Navitimer has undergone a variety of cosmetic and mechanical changes.
There are a number of dial notes to follow in the search for an early example but, needless to say, it is the earliest iterations that command the greatest interest in the market. Later versions from the 1960s and 70s can be more accessible. Some of these do not bring much more than the ubiquitous ‘heritage’ models.
One of the most popular variants that does command a premium is the Cosmonaute (Ref 809). This 24-hour version of the Navitimer (it has the same movement) was made in the 1960s after a suggestion by Lt Cmdr Scott Carpenter of the Mercury NASA Space Programme. Carpenter, a US Navy test pilot, had flown in the Korean War when a 12- hour Navitimer had been his watch of choice.
A well-preserved example sold for £12,200 plus 25.2% buyer’s premium at Watches of Knightsbridge on November 13, 2021.
A rare 1962 ‘first batch’ variant featuring an all-black dial was sold for $125,000 (£95,400) plus 26/21/14.5% buyer’s premium at Phillips New York in December 2019 – a record price for Breitling at auction.
There is a lot going on in some of these ‘computer’ dials and they are polarising. For those in the ‘way too busy’ camp, there are more than 200 other Breitling references to choose from.
In 1957, in response to the surge in demand for diving watches, Breitling launched two watches named SuperOcean: the elegant recreational time-only diver (Ref 1004) and a ‘performance’ chronograph (Ref 807). Both water resistant to 200m, they were the first to employ white registers against the black dial.
This is one of the brand’s most popular ‘heritage’ models but at the time did not sell in large numbers.
Phillips Hong Kong described the 1961 Ref 807 it offered on November 25-26, 2021, as “most probably one of the rarest dive chronographs to appear in the market”. It sold for HK$320,000 (£32,000) plus 26% buyer’s premium.
The Top Time was introduced in 1964, intended for the younger market and pitched at more affordable price points to the Navitimer, the Chronomat and the SuperOcean.
Its relatively simple dial design and perfect proportions (there are a number of variants) have found many admirers and there is a Bond connection too.
Sean Connery wore a ‘reverse panda’ Top Time Ref 2002 (modified to include a Geiger counter) in the 1965 movie Thunderball. A particularly good example was offered for sale by Burstow & Hewett (20% buyer’s premium) in Battle on November 25, 2022. Complete with original 1966 purchase receipt for £18 14s 6d and service overhaul documents, it took £2700. That is still a fraction of the price of an early Rolex Daytona or a Heuer Carrera.
In line with the general mood of the market there is now more interest in Breitling’s later issues that feature typical design codes from the late 60s and early 1970s and automatic movements.
The sale at Gardiner Houlgate had some good examples including several versions of both the Chrono-Matic and the Datora (with a date window). Sold at £2300 was the watch nicknamed the Chrono-Matic bull head as the pushers are positioned like horns instead of on the side. Viewed from the side the case is also thicker at the top than the bottom, which allows the user to check the time more easily.