When you think of Breitling, which watch comes to mind? My bet is, that most of you will think of the Navitimer or maybe the SuperOcean. If you ask Google, what is the “Best Breitling Watch” or “Best Breitling Watch to buy”, one watch that you won't often find in the top results is the Breitling Chronomat. I’m sure that doesn’t surprise some of you and I have to admit, it’s not a watch that particularly stood out to me either, that is until recently.
When I listened to Georges Kern, the current CEO of Breitling, reveal Breitling’s 2020 releases, it was the new Breitling Chronomat that caught my attention. I’m not sure if that’s just because the new Navitimer and SuperOcean severely underwhelmed me, but I was instantly enamored by the new Chronomat.
The new 2020 Breitling Chronomat "Frecce Tricolori"
There was something about the design and functionality of the watch, that made me want to know more. I haven’t been an admirer of Breitling for very long, but I couldn’t understand how I had missed the Chronomat line and why there was so little information on the internet pointing towards that family of watches.
When I started looking for a more detailed history on the Chronomat there wasn’t a lot of information that I could get my hands on, but one of the first things that I found out was that the Chronomat has been part of Breitling's catalog since the early 1940s in one form or another. I'm not sure if that surprises you as much as it did me, but the way Georges Kern spoke about the Chronomat gave me the impression that the Chronomat was the brainchild of Ernest Schneider in the early 1980s. The fact is however that there is much more to the Chronomat...
The First Slide-Rule Chronograph
Not only is the Chronomat more than ten years older than the Navitimer, but it was also the first Breitling to incorporate a feature that is one of the iconic characteristics of the Navitimer, the slide-rule. The first Breitling Chronomat was a chronograph with a rotating slide-rule and it was patented in 1941 during the earlier stages of WWII.
1940's Breitling Chronomat - Reference number 769
Willy Breitling, the grandson of Leon Breitling, had partnered with mathematician Marcel Robert to create a calculation tool that could perform complex logarithmic calculations. Willy wanted to create a tool for scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Once completed, the watch could be used as a tachymeter, telemeter, and stopwatch, as well as a tool to calculate divisions, multiplications, and percentages. It's fair to say that the Chronomat was the smartwatch of the 1940s.
1945 Breitling Chronomat Advertisement
Unfortunately for Willy, his Chronomat did not garner the attention that he was hoping for, at least not in the way he wanted. Breitling had long been a supplier of military and more specifically pilot instruments. Shortly before the outbreak of WWII, Breitling won a contract with the British Government to supply the British RAF with instruments for their planes. If you had looked into the cockpit of a British Spitfire during WWII, you would have likely found Breitling Instruments.
But it was post WWII were Breitling's icon status was created. After the war, aircraft manufacturer continued to supply planes, but this time to airlines rather than the military. There was also an abundance of former military aviators seeking new employment, which all led to a boom in air travel. As a result the US Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) were looking for tools tailored to the needs of commercial airline pilots.
The Chronomats functionality attracted the attention of the AOPA, but they requested a few modifications. Breitling certainly had the experience and capability to accomidate the request and so Willy begrudgingly agreed to modify the Chronomat's design and create the now famous Navitimer.
1954 Breitling Navitimer (still a strong resemblance to the Chronomat of the 1940s)
Now, most of us would think that this would be the natural end to the Chronomat after it essentially evolved into the Navitimer. But that was not the case. It's not hard to see how strong Willy's attachment was to the Chronomat. Consider that his grandfather, Leon Breitling began making watches, and specifically chronographs during the industrial revolution. He aimed to create precise tools for industry, science, and sport. In 1889 his grandfather began the family's journey, by patenting a simplified design of the chronograph. Willy's father, Gaston Breitling, continued building upon this legacy in 1923, when he patented a chronograph with two pushers, one above and one below the crown. It was a sensation and it's how most chronographs are still built today. I think it is fair to say, that Willy saw the Chronomat as his contribution to the family legacy. Sure, Willy patented the world’s first wrist chronograph with two pushers in 1934, but the Chronomat was that ultimate measuring tool. It is what his grandfather's journey was all about. So, the Chronomat remained in the Breitling's catalog, next to the more prominent Navitimer.
Breitling Chronomats between the 1950 to 1975
Surviving the Quartz Crises
The 1970s saw a transformation in the watch industry, after Seiko introduced the Quartz movement to the world in 1969. Having spent centuries on perfecting mechanical watchmaking and developing ever more accurate timepieces, their legacy was suddenly in jepordy. Quartz watches were more accurate and cheaper to produce than mechanical watches and so the question became, what next?!
Several swiss watch manufacturers shut their doors forever and Breitling was certainly close to the brink. Although they did start producing quartz watches in the 1970s, as can been seen in the image of the 1975 Chronomat Quartz below, the company was struggling to survive. After having led the family business for 47 years, Willy finally decided to sell the company to Ernest Schneider. Willy passed away shortly there after.
Chronomat Quartz 1975- Reference 9108
While it's certainly sad, that Willy sold the family business a few years before it's centenial, Ernest Schneider was the right person to take over the company in the midst of the quartz crises. A former military officer, pilot and somewhat experienced in watch manufacturing, he created focus and believed in the future of mechanical watches.
As Kern mentioned during the Global Summit webcast, Ernest Schneider went on a “courageous path against the increasing dominance of thin quartz watches” and his weapon of choice was the Chronomat.
Ernest Schneider collaborated with with the Italian "Frecce Tricolori" to create a new and modern mechanical pilot watch.
1987 Chronomat magazine advertisement in German
You can see that Ernest's Chronomat is a complete redesign of the watch and looks much like the design we are familiar with today. The slide-rule bezel was switched for a bezel with interchangable rider tabs. These allowed the owner of the watch to count-up (aviation & diving) or count-down (missions & regattas). He also made the watch water resistant and equiped it with the famous Valjoux 7750 movement.
The new Chronomat was certainly a success and in Georges Kern's own words, the 1980s Chronomat became “an icon of style and confidence that made the chronograph cool again”.
Is it any surprise that many of the other sports models that followed such as the Colt or Avenger, share the same design characteristics?
2020 Chronomat B01
While I still don't understand why Breitling doesn't exploit the legacy of this watch as much as it should, it is clear that the company does hold the Chronomat in high regard. It has been choosen over and over again to take the lead when it comes to innovation and change. It has inspired the design and functionality of a large portion of Breitling's catalog over the last 80 years. This remains true even in the last 10 or so years. When Breitling started producing its own in-house chronograph caliber, the B01, in 2009, it was the Chronomat that received it first. Now that Georges Kern is moving the company in a new direction, the Chronomat is one of the models he has chosen to lead the effort.
It is fair to say that although the Chronomat isn't at the front of mind when we think of Breitling, it is certainly a watch that has been and surely will continue to be integral to the brand's success. After researching this post, my eyes have been opened and I know that the Chronomat will be my next purchase. What will yours be?
If you want to find out more about purchasing a Breitling watch, check out our "Breitling Purchase Guide" and if you are considering purchasing your first watch online check out 5 "Things you need to know before buying Watches Online".
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