Breitling Navitimer: A History

Breitling Navitimer wristwatch with circular s...
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The Navitimer wrist watch was launched by Breitling in 1952 and to this day has accumulated a worldwide following for both the newer and older models.

How did this particular model become so popular as to be worn by Raquel Welch as a skydiving spy in the film Fathom (1967) and by Sean Connery as James Bond in Thunderball (1965)? It all started in 1884 when Leon Breitling established a factory in the watchmaking town of Saint-Imier in the Swiss Jura mountains. Breitling at the time had the intention of turning out timepieces that would be equipped to perform functions well beyond merely imparting the time of day. To start with, he made pocket chronographs – event stopwatches for all kinds of occasions – and they were robust in their manufacture.

As World War I broke out Leon’s son Gaston took over the running of the company. To meet wartime requirements, Breitling manufactured wristwatches with luminous dials and hands, and a chronograph mechanism. After Gaston’s death, it wasn’t until 1932 that his son Willy assumed control over the company. Not long after, Willy was overseeing the production of over forty chronograph models, as well as the first one with two buttons. By this time Breitling had identified the aviation industry as a major growth area. This notion was correct as it was confirmed with a large contract from Britain’s Royal Air Force in 1936 for the supply of chronographs and cockpit clocks.

In 1952 when Breitling launched its Navitimer model, it was quickly adopted by the international Aircraft Owners’ and Pilots’ Association as its official timepiece. The Navitimer was favored for its chronograph timing in hours, minutes, and seconds, and also a slide rule around the outside of the face. This consisted of a mobile outer scale, engraved with numeric scales, actioned by rotating the bezel, for use with a fixed scale marked around the rim.  Such a feature allowed pilots to make in-flight calculations to gauge how much fuel remained in relation to miles already travelled, or at what speed, related to the total journey time, the plane should be flying.

During this period in the 1950s, Breitling was also supplying cockpit clocks to aeroplane manufacturers such as Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed.  At this time, the first civilian jet aircraft  (De Havilland Comet) flew from London to Johannesburg with a Breitling clock on board for guidance.

Eventually, Breitling created a spacegoing version of the Navitimer, the Cosmonaute, which featured 24-hour markers because notions of day and night off the Earth were meaningless. This particular model was used by astronaut Scott Carpenter.

In 1969 Breitling released the first-ever automatic chronograph (the Calibre II, renamed to Calibre 12). This chronograph was the inspiration for the Navitimer Chrono-Matic. In 1976 an LED version of the Navitimer appeared, and this was eventually followed by an LCD model. Both are now collector’s pieces.

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