Breitling are at the forefront of timekeeping within aviation, yet it stands to reason that one watch may stand out more than others. For Breitling, and aviation, that watch is the legendary Navitimer – the chronograph with integrated flight computer – which celebrates its 65th birthday in 2017.
Worn by pilots and aviators all over the world, the Navitimer takes pride of place of the wrists of many national Air Force pilots as well as some very famous faces. John Travolta, actor and pilot/owner of a Boeing 707 and a Bombardier Challenger 601, not only sports a Navitimer but also an ambassador of the iconic brand.
Beginning life in the early 1950s, the Breitling Navitimer is a natural evolution of 1942’s Breitling Chronomat. The Chronomat, with its slide rule bezel, had pushed the boundaries of what was possible during in-flight calculations. Taking this one step further and improving upon this fantastically functional slide rule bezel, Breitling developed the Navitimer in 1952.
From the outset, the very first Navitimer adopted the double wing logo of the “Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association” (AOPA) emblem on the dial, leading the way for a real, working partnership with the AOPA in 1960. The name ‘Navitimer’ is a contraction of the words ‘navigation’ and ‘timer’ and truly represents the dual function of the Navitimer.
The first edition sold was the 806 – manual chronograph movement with a Venus 178 column wheel mechanism. It’s unsurprising that the early Navitimers are much sought after and can reach high prices at auctions. While stainless steel is easier to come across, they are still much sought after whereas the less common 18k solid gold models can fetch even higher prices. Navitimers 806 made in 1954 featured a Valjoux 72 (as with the vintage Rolex Daytona) and are especially collectible.
Clever marketing and branding in the late 1950s helped to make the Navitimer the success that is it today. Willy Breitling, grandson of founder Leon Breitling, worked alongside Swiss advertiser, Georges Caspari, to create a clever advertising campaign targeted at pilots, creating a huge demand for the Navitimer. The Breitling brand was already synonymous with aviation, with their role as official supplier of board instruments to all the major aircraft companies’ testament to their prowess.
Change was around the corner and, by the end of the 1960s, Willy Breitling had teamed up with Gérald Dubois, and Jack Heuer to develop a thin automatic movement with a micro-rotor. This cross-brand co-operation enabled the development of the Calibre 11, with a left-positioned crown. This changed forever the face of the Navitimer from a tri-compax layout to a bi-compax, with the date at 6 o’clock configuration.
By the 1970s, the Swiss watch industry was in crisis and struggling to weather the flood of cheaper and highly accurate quartz watches from Japan. Breitling was no exception and had to react by issuing both a quartz and LCD edition of the Navitimer, but it wasn’t enough to stop the decline in sales.
By the late 1970s, Willy Breitling was forced to sell the company to Ernest Schneider. Schneider was both a pilot and the holder of Sicura, a maker of cheap watches. Moving the Breitling brand to Grenchen in 1982, the Breitling name survived – just!
While it was possible to buy new Navitimers, the models did not bear the Breitling logo yet all the parts were signed with the Breitling signature. Only the dial was labelled ‘Sinn’, the name of the German manufacture, Helmut Sinn, who bought almost all Breitlings spare parts with the company was sold. Schneider held true to his philosophy of bearing with mechanical watches as people tired of technology and returned to traditionally styled timepieces, preserving the Navitimer as one of the most popular and reliable chronographs in the world.