Breitling: A Brief History of Timepieces

Written by Debbie. Posted in Breitling, watch history

The Swiss luxury watchmaker Breitling SA has a long and storied history of innovation. Founded in 1884 in the French-speaking area of Saint-Imier, Bernese Jura, in Switzerland by Leon Breitling. The 24 year-old Leon Breitling founded his company after deciding to devote himself to the exclusive and demanding watch fields of chronographs and timers with precision instruments intended to for science, sport, and industry. Consistently high quality and devotion to advancement led to several industry-changing innovations throughout the years.

In 1892, after significant growth of the company, Leon Breitling moved operations to La Chaux-de-Fonds, the center of Swiss watchmaking at the time, where the company continued to thrive.

In 1915, a year after the death of Leon Breitling and his subsequent replacement as head of the company by his son, Gaston, came its first major innovation: the creation of the first independent chronograph push piece, effectively heralding the emergence of the wrist chronograph. These watches became the first wrist instruments in use by pilots at the time. And in 1923, the company separated the start/stop functions from the resetting function, seemingly perfecting this system. This made their watches capable of adding several succeeding times without returning the watch hands to zero. This patented innovation became a useful tool to calculate flight times and for timing sports competitions. Their next innovation came in 1934, two years after Gaston’s son Willy Breitling took control of the company, when they lead their competition in the creation of a second independent reset push piece enabling either incremental or cumulative time keeping.

The Breitling Navitimer circa 1952.

The 1952 Breitling Navitimer.

The next couple of decades saw Breitling SA further establish itself as the leading supplier to aviators after more significant developments from the company. They became the official supplier to the Royal Air Force in 1936 and shortly thereafter, in 1942, they unveiled the Breitling Chronomat. This was the first chronograph to be fitted with a circular slide rule and led to Breitling becoming the supplier to the American armed forces as well. In 1952, with the creation of the Navitimer wrist chronograph featuring the circular slide rule to perform all navigation-related calculations, the brand quickly became a favorite of aviators in all fields. in 1962, astronaut Scott Carpenter wore a Navitimer aboard the Aurora 7 space capsule, becoming the first chronograph watch worn in space. During this period in the 1950s and 60s, Breitling’s onboard chronographs became standard equipment aboard commercial airplanes, cementing its status as the top supplier in world aviation.

In 1969, continuing its tradition of leading the world in innovations in the watchmaking field, Breitling SA, in conjunction with Hamilton-Buren and Heuer-Leonidas, created the first self-winding chronograph movement which uses a balance wheel and micro rotor to power the movement as opposed to manual winding. This was a breakthrough in watchmaking and changed the entire landscape of watch manufacturing.

In 1979, microelectronics specialist, aviator and watch manufacturer, Ernest Schneider succeeds Willy Breitling as head of Breitling SA. Under his guidance and later his son Theodore’s, the company would continue in its innovative ways. The first significant innovation was The Aerospace model in 1985 which featured an electronic chronograph crafted in titanium which became an immediate hit with aviators. Ten years later, in 1995, Breitling crafted yet another innovation, aimed at maintaining its standing as the top supplier for aviators, in the Emergency; a multifunction instrument watch designed with a micro-transmitter that broadcasts 121.5Mhz aircraft emergency frequency. In 2001 Breitling introduced the first Superquartz movement, which is ten-times more accurate than standard quartz and became the first electronic movement to meet COSC requirements.

The company continued in its innovative approach to watchmaking when in 2008 it introduced the Breitling Avenger Seawolf Chronograph which through its innovative use of magnets which allows the watch case to remain sealed, thereby allowing this electronic chronograph to achieve depths of up to 1000 meters and maintain functionality. This is yet another example of the myriad of watchmaking innovations that Breitling has created, and will continue to create in the future.

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