02/19/2024
 7 minutes

The History of Breitling – From Tool Watches to Mainstream

By Sebastian Swart
The History of Breitling

The History of Breitling

Breitling has become a household name among fans of Swiss luxury watches. Since its founding some 140 years ago, the brand has reinvented itself a number of times. It first made a mark on the industry with its pilot’s watches, especially from the 1930s onwards. For a long time, it was hard to imagine the world of aviation without Breitling. Today’s legendary models date back to the 1940s and 50s, when the watchmaker was under the leadership of Willy Breitling. He shaped the company like no other.

Since the 1980s and up until recently, Breitling has had the reputation of being a men’s brand through and through, in no small part due to their marketing strategy – think macho, alpha, etc. However, since new management took the helm in 2017, Breitling has been trying to shake this outdated image by making the brand more sustainable and attuned to the feminine aesthetic. The result is a wide-reaching, colorful product range that has something for everyone.

Read everything you need to know about the Breitling brand, from its earliest beginnings to today.

The Early Years – How It All Began

Breitling was founded in 1884 by Léon Breitling as a creative studio. Originally located in the Swiss town of Saint-Imier, in 1892, the company relocated to a larger production facility in La Chaux-de-Fonds around ten miles away. At the time, Breitling specialized in the development and manufacture of pocket watches, including the Pulsograph from 1893, which allowed the user to measure pulse rates. Several years later, Breitling began producing classic chronographs and timepieces with start/stop and zeroing functions. In 1915, Gaston Breitling, Léon’s son, unveiled the first chronograph wristwatch ever. The timepiece’s bicompax layout continues to influence the look of modern chronographs to this day.

In 1932, Five years after Gaston Breitling’s death, his son Willy took the reins at just 19 years of age. In 1938, he founded the Huit Aviation Department, which developed special instruments for both civil and military aviation applications. In a sense, this was the start of the brand’s pilot’s watch era. Now-legendary series like the Chronomat (1941), Premier (1943), Navitimer (1952), and Superocean (1957) made their debut under the direction of Willy Breitling. He was not only a visionary in crafting functional and attractive timepieces, but also a genius marketer. Willy Breitling led the company for 47 years.

Frühe Version der Breitling Navitimer – Referenz 806.
Early version of the Breitling Navitimer – the ref. 806

The 1980s – Toward Modernity

At the end of the 1970s, the Swiss watch industry was in the middle of the Quartz Crisis. Cheap Japanese quartz watches flooded the global market, and mechanical watches suddenly went out of fashion. Many traditional Swiss watchmakers went bust due to plummeting demand for their products. Breitling wasn’t immune, either. In 1979, in the middle of the crisis, Willy stepped down due to declining health.

Leadership was passed to electrical engineer, pilot, and entrepreneur (formerly of Sicura) Ernest Schneider. Mechanical watches were increasingly seen as archaic, and thus the first Breitling quartz watches were released in the early 1980s. It began with a quartz version of the Chronomat that was specifically developed for the Italian Army’s Frecce Tricolori aerobatic team. While the Chronomat still had a purely analog display, the Chronograph Aerospace from 1985 featured both analog and digital displays. Both the Chronomat and Aerospace lines remain successful collections in the Breitling lineup to this day.

Digital- und Analoganzeige – Breitling Aerospace Avantage.
Digital and Analog Display – Breitling Aerospace Avantage

In 1994, Ernest Schneider’s son Théodore Schneider took over leadership of the Breitling empire. Under his guidance, the Emergency model made its debut. This was the world’s first digital watch with an integrated emergency transmitter. By the end of the 1990s, mechanical watches started making a comeback, which prompted Breitling to refocus its efforts on mechanics. Since Breitling didn’t have an in-house caliber at the time, the company relied on ébauche calibers from Swiss manufacturer ETA. These were modified according to Breitling’s specifications and certified as chronometers. It wasn’t until 2009 that Breitling presented its first in-house movement, with the chronograph caliber B01.

Mit integriertem Notsender: Breitling Emergency Ref. V76325221B1S1
Featuring an integrated emergency beacon: the Breitling Emergency ref. V76325221B1S1

Big, solid, and in two-tone or gold: from the 1980s and up until 2017, Breitling had a very macho brand image. They made hefty pilot’s watches for manly men and teamed up with brands like Bentley, further underlining the clientele they were targeting. This led many to consider Breitling the number one brand for testosterone-laden individuals with a hero complex.

New Direction Since 2017

Regardless of whether this image was intentional or not, in our current zeitgeist of sustainability, inclusion, and self-confident women, the macho thing is a bit outdated. Since 2017, Breitling has made a point of moving away from being the brand for white old-timers, and thus a new era began. Of course, confident men wearing 48-mm chronographs are still welcome.

When Breitling was taken over by the CVC Capital Partners investment group, Georges Kern became the new CEO. His modus operandi was to make sure Breitling was being cast in the correct light. Kern isn’t a newcomer to the watch scene. The German-Swiss businessman has been working in the industry for over 25 years and has held lofty positions at numerous renowned brands in the Richemont Group, including serving as CEO of IWC.

Under Kern, Breitling is increasingly turning to sustainable materials and technologies to meet the needs of modern consumers. The introduction of online sales and the brand’s heightened presence on social media are also part of his efforts to reposition the traditional brand in a contemporary fashion. So-called “squads” made up of prominent individuals from different arenas are recruited to promote the brand on social media and across other digital platforms.

Kern himself has described Breitling as an “all-round Swiss watch brand with a cool, casual, and inclusive alternative offering.” What this translates to is a Breitling portfolio featuring lots of classic watches with retro styling for men alongside colorful women’s watches, particularly in the Navitimer and Chronomat lines.

As part of this change, long-standing partnerships ceased; for example, with Bentley and the Jet Team, Europe’s largest civil aerobatic team. Although aviation is still part of Breitling’s marketing for historical reasons, it has noticeably faded into the background. In order to highlight the sustainability angle, Breitling is increasingly relying on sustainable materials. It also is committed to social causes, including South African NGO Qhubeka, which works to distribute bicycles to local regions with poor infrastructure.

To emphasize the brand’s sporty side, Breitling’s teamed up with Erling Haaland, one of the world’s greatest soccer players, while Hollywood legend Brad Pitt adds the requisite glamour. Actress Charlize Theron was brought in to makes some headway with female clientele.

Where does Breitling manufacture its watches?

Breitling has several production facilities in Switzerland. The main locations for both the production and assembly of Breitling timepieces are still La Chaux-de-Fonds and Saint-Imier. Both places are located in the Jura Mountains, an area renowned for watchmaking and the epicenter of the Swiss watch industry. La Chaux-de-Fonds sits in the canton of Neuchâtel. This is the site of Breitling’s main production facility, where various phases of manufacturing, including final assembly, take place. Saint-Imier, located in the canton of Bern, on the other hand, has historical ties to the brand as its original founding place.

Most Famous Breitling Watches at a Glance

Chronomat

The Breitling Chronomat was first presented to the public in 1940. The watch already had a patented slide rule bezel that could be used to carry out a number of mathematical calculations. The watch had, among other things, a tachymeter scale, telemeter, and pulsometer, as well as the ability to figure multiplication, division, and the rule of three. The name Chronomat is a blend of the terms “chronograph” and “mathematics.” One modern variant is the 44-mm stainless steel ref. AB011012/B967/375A.

Breitling Chronomat 44 Blackeye
Breitling Chronomat 44 Blackeye

Premier

In 1943, another now-legendary chronograph entered the scene: the Premier. For the first time, Breitling focused more on form over function. The Premier was intended for private use rather than being aimed at professional pilots. The Premier collection disappeared from the Breitling catalog for many years until its relaunch in 2018. Like the original from the 1940s, the new versions feature elegant designs. One great example is the Premier B01 ref. AB0118371B1A1. This 42-mm stainless steel watch is equipped with the in-house Breitling caliber B01.

Navitimer

The most famous Breitling model is without a doubt the Navitimer, which was first presented in 1952. This iconic model was specifically aimed at professional pilots. The rotating slide rule bezel works like an onboard wrist calculator. Using the bezel and various scales on the dial, you can calculate speed, fuel consumption, and rates of ascent and decent. Countless versions of the Navitimer have appeared over the decades. The new Navitimer ref. 806 1959 Re-Edition, however, comes closest to the original.

The Navitimer ref. A17395F41G1P2 is an appealing choice for women.

Eine Spur kleiner: Breitling Navitimer Automatic 35
A touch smaller: Breitling Navitimer Automatic 35

Superocean

The conquest of the underwater world started in earnest in the 1950s. Professional divers needed reliable underwater instruments to time their dives. Numerous major watch brand like Rolex, Blancpain, and Omega presented competing models. Breitling also entered the fray with the Superocean in 1957. Even then, the Superocean was available as either a three-hand watch or chronograph. Very little has changed about the model. Retro versions like the Breitling Superocean Héritage Chronograph B01 44 ref. AB0162121B1S1, featuring the in-house B01 caliber, are particularly beloved. The Superocean Heritage ’57 Pastel Paradise ref. A10340A71A1X1, on the other hand, makes a great unisex option.

Top Time

The Breitling Top Time was released in 1964 and produced until the mid-1970s. Top Time models were initially released as more affordable alternatives to the otherwise pricey chronographs in Breitling’s range. The watchmaker explicitly targeted young men between the ages of 25 and 30 with this watch. The Top Time re-entered the Breitling lineup in 2020. A historic variant earned itself the nickname “Zorro” in the 1960s due to its striking panda dial. A revamped version is now available as a limited edition of 2,000 units. However, you can’t really consider the new variants to be “economic alternatives.”

Breitling Top Time Limited Edition Chronograph
Breitling Top Time Limited Edition Chronograph

About the Author

Sebastian Swart

I've been using Chrono24 for years to buy and sell watches, as well as for research purposes. I've had an infatuation with watches for as long as I can remember. As a …

Read more

Latest Articles

ONP-929-Donatos-Uhrensammlung-2024-2-1
03/29/2024
 5 minutes

The Best for $24,000: Donato’s Perfect 2024 Watch Collection

By Donato Emilio Andrioli
IWC-Mark-2-1
03/20/2024
 4 minutes

Aviation Heroes: The IWC Mark Collection

By Barbara Korp

Featured

ONP-929-Donatos-Uhrensammlung-2024-2-1
 5 minutes

The Best for $24,000: Donato’s Perfect 2024 Watch Collection

By Donato Emilio Andrioli
10-best-watches-under-2000-1-1-2-1
Top 10 Watches
 5 minutes

10 Best Watches Under $2,000

By Donato Emilio Andrioli
Jorg’s $24,000 Watch Collection
 4 minutes

The Best for $24,000 in 2024: Jorg’s Perfect Watch Collection

By Jorg Weppelink
10-best-watches-under-2000-1-1-2-1
Top 10 Watches
 5 minutes

10 Best Watches Under $2,000

By Donato Emilio Andrioli