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Sometimes there is watch brands who manage to leave their mark on history for generations. This is the case of Breitlingwhich is the source of many timepieces like the iconic Navitimer. The Navitimer is a world-famous watch that has become firmly rooted in the history of watchmaking. This watch is none other than one of the most famous pilot’s watches in the world and today, I will tell you his story from A to Z.
We are going to approach together the beginnings of the Breitling brand then we will concentrate thereafter only on the history of the Breitling Navitimer before seeing the different references, calibers etc … which have built this myth that has become today the Navitimer. Let’s go.
On the origins of the Breitling brand
There Swiss watchmaker Breitling was founded in 1884 in Saint-Imier by Mr Leon Breitling. In its early days, the company specialized in the design of counters and chronographs intended for science, sport and industry such as aviation for example. It is Leon Breitling himself who modifies existing calibers in order to design his own measuring instruments.
Even today we find a large number of vintage advertisements that highlight the first chronographs of the Swiss brand. We find phonotelemeters / rangefinders, which calculate a distance using a sound. Of the heart rate monitors for doctors to determine the pulse of a patient and we also find the famous tachometers which make it possible to calculate an average speed over a given distance, the distance being very often 1km.
In 1892the brand moved into premises in La Chaux-de-Fonds, the cradle of watchmaking. These premises were named building Montbrillanta nomenclature that will be used later for some Breitling chronographs. (see vintage photos)
It’s in 1915 that Gaston Breitling creates one of the first wrist chronographs with an independent push button at 2 o’clock. On this watch, the chronograph pusher (which manages starting, stopping and resetting) has been separated from the classic crown which manages winding and setting the time of the watch. This offers a much simpler use of the chronograph function.
After several years of research and modification, it was in 1934 that Breitling has further improved its system to unveil a wrist chronograph with a crown and 2 pushers. The power on/off function is itself separate from the reset. We therefore discover for the first time the layout of a chronograph as we know it today.
Now that we see a little more clearly on the beginnings of the brand and especially on the beginnings of the arrival of the chronograph at Breitlinglet us now focus on the iconic Navitimera watch dedicated to aviation.
The beginnings of the Breitling Navitimer
Known as being one of the pilot watches the most famous in the world, the Breitling Navitimer is considered a must in a watch collection. Since its creation in 1950there Navigate has continued to evolve until today.
Where does the name of the Breitling Navitimer come from?
Although one might think that the name Navigate has its origins in the maritime world, this is not the case. There Breitling Navitimer was designed to help pilots navigate. “Navi” for browsing and timer because it is a real measuring tool. This mechanical watch incorporates a stopwatch, a tachymetric scale and his famous slide rule bezel.
There Navigate is not the very first watch from the house with a slide rule. This honor goes to the Chronomat, exit in 1942. Breitling’s Chronomat watch was the beginning of the Navitimer. It is these watches with circular slide rules that have allowed Breitling to be recognized as THE horological house of aviation watches.
The origins of the Breitling Navitimer
It was not until 1954 that the iconic Breitling Navitimer arrived in the watchmaking landscape. There is a little debate on the date 1952 or 1954 but after doing several searches it is the year 1954 which seems to prevail.
The Navitimer was developed by Breitling And AOPA : Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association. His goal ? Offer a real wrist instrument to the pilots in order to help them to carry out flight planning calculations. You can’t miss it, the most recognizable feature of the Navitimer it is this famous bezel that embeds a real calculation rule. Pilots can thus calculate speeds, ascent/descent times, flight times, fuel consumption but also make gallon/litre or kilometer/nautical mile conversions.
When the very first Navitimer was launched, it did not yet carry the Breitling brand or logo on its dial. Moreover, reference 806 was not yet stamped on the bottom of the case. This watch was reserved exclusively for members of AOPA and was not distributed to the general public. However, circa 1956, Breitling has made the Navitimer accessible to everyone. This version, now iconic thanks to reference 806, proudly displays the Breitling name above the famous AOPA stylized winged logo.
The different references of the Breitling Navitimer
Navitimers made in the 1950s and 1960s were all designated by reference 806 and equipped with the caliber Valjoux 72. However, this famous engine was replaced by Venus 178 at the end of the years 1955.
In 1968the watches Navitimer say “big case”with a larger diameter were introduced under references 816 and 1806, some working with the Valjoux 72 movement. All of the movements in these early editions were hand-wound calibers, as this was long before the arrival of the self-winding chronograph.
NB: At the same time, the Rolex Daytona was also powered by the iconic Valjoux 72 caliber. A model highly sought after by collectors.
The first automatic Breitling Navitimer
Towards the end of the years 1960, the watch industry is facing a new challenge: young people are no longer interested in hand-wound chronographs and the gradual arrival ofquartz movements threatens the market.
To cope with this, Breitling decided to work on the production of what was to become one of the first self-winding mechanical chronograph calibres. This caliber 11 automatic is developed thanks to Gerald Dubois as well as a consortium of companies that includes Buren-Hamilton and Heuer-Leonidas. March 3, 1969 signs the launch date of the Navitimer Chrono-matic Ref.1806.
Although the Chrono-matic caliber defeated the famous movement El Primero by Zenith of a few days, the noticeable difference is right at the heart of the movement. The real achievement is that the Chrono-matic movement of Breitling is a movement endowed of a micro-rotor. This movement is embellished with a module that hides this small oscillating weight (photo below). By opposition, Zenith’s movement is an automatic movement with a more classic architecture and an integrated rotor.
The quartz crisis disrupts the development of Breitling
The beginning of the years 1970 mark for many aficionados, the end of the “real” Navitimer, in other words, the end of the mechanical models. Indeed, the mid-1970s marks the advent of quartz watches coming straight from Japan. To react to this, Breitling then developed a series of Quartz Navigator, first with LED displays, then with LCD displays. Only the slide rule bezel has always been present even on the quartz versions.
Unfortunately, the quartz crisis is very, very bad for the watchmaking house which is then forced to close its doors. Subsequently, the rights of the Navitimer were acquired by Sicura (an affordable watch brand) and Sinn, while the remnants of Breitling’s stock, consisting mainly of cases and dials, were purchased by Sinn and another company. The Sinn brand has purchased the rights to manufacture the models of Reference Navitimer 806 and 809 with the intention of producing an aviation watch that also incorporates the famous slide rule of the Breitling watch.
It’s because of Ernest Schneider, brand owner sicura and great aviation enthusiast, that Breitling settles at Grenchen to get a second life. The Navitimer reappeared in 1986 in the form of the Ref. 81600 with a movement Lemania 1872 manually wound. In 1990 mechanical watches regained notoriety and a new version of the Navitimer was then introduced on the market, this time equipped with the Valjoux caliber 7750. This movement is a self-winding mechanical chronograph caliber with a classic rotor, no micro-rotor.
To note, in 1986, it’s Mister Serge Gainsbourg, a lover of beautiful things and fine tocante who fell in love with the Breitling Navitimer reference 81600. The singer even brought his personal touch to the watch by wearing it on a “rally” type strap made at his request.
The rebirth of Breitling and the Navitimer collection
In the years 1990, the Navitimer is animated by Valjoux 7750 as well as ETA 2892. The Navitimer Cosmonaut, worn by Scott Carpenter during its orbital flight aboard theNASA’s Aurora 7 capsule is propelled by movements Lemania.
Overall, the design of the Navitimer remained the same, with its slide rule bezel and sub-dials with 3H, 6H and 9H although some models sported a 6,9,12 layout.
It will be necessary to wait 2009 before Breitling spear the B01 caliber, its first in-house movement which currently powers the Navitimer. This automatic chronograph movement “in house” was designed without modules, it offers 70 hours of power reserve and it is COSC-certified. It is THE perfect movement for the most emblematic pilot’s watch.
Today the Navigate incorporates all the iconic features of the first versions while adding a few modern touches, particularly to the materials used, the glass and the caliber thanks to the B01. The only small impactful novelty, the passage of 42mm to 46mm. Personally, I’m not a big fan of very large diameters in watchmaking, but once again it’s a market demand.
Regarding the price, this watch is now available in a large number of variations ranging from steel to rose gold and even platinum. Count at least 8400€ in order to pay you a beautiful slice of history.
With more than 70 years of history, the Navitimer is for me the most emblematic Breitling and it remains to this day the best wrist instrument for airplane pilots.
I hope this article which traces the life of this icon of watchmaking has you more friends and I will try to offer you more blog articles which discusses the history of iconic watches.
See you soon,