Vintage Breitling Wristwatches

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wikicollecting

2015-06-26 10:31:18

Vintage Breitling wristwatches are aviation-led wristwatches made by the Breitling watch company

Background

Breiting was founded by Leon Breitling in 1884. It began as a diminutive chronograph (a watch that is able to record time intervals, like a stop watch) maker, specialising in scientific and industrial equipment. Business burgeoned in line with aviation technologies and Breitling soon became one of the major watch manufacturers for the aircraft industry.

Leon Breitling’s son Gaston Breitling took over management of the company in 1914 after his father’s death in the same year. Gaston championed the chronograph wristwatch, which became a staple among pilots.

In 1923, Breitling developed the first chronograph with an independent pushpiece, making start and return-to-zero functions simpler and more intuitive. In the family tradition, Gaston’s son Willy continued the refinement of the chronograph when he assumed control of Breitling in 1932.

Two years later, Willy Breitling oversaw the development of a wristwatch with a second return-to-zero pushpiece, making it possible to measure several successive short times, improving the wristwatch’s functionality for pilots.

In 1936, Breitling became official suppluer to the Royal Air Force.

In 1942, in the midst of international world war, the company debuted its Chronomat - the first chronograph wristwatch to be fitted with a circular slide rule on the bezel.

By the decade’s close, Breitling had collaborated with watch makers Buren and Heuer-Leonidas to devise the first self-winding chronograph. It represented a major technical step forward that would benefit not just Breitling but the Swiss watch industry as a whole.

Collecting information

Anyone can walk into a dealer and purchase a new watch. Vintage watches are much more exclusive and elusive, not for their prices, but for the small number of collectors who wear and trade them. Finding a good vintage piece requires hunting, research, and sifting through dozens of examples until you find “the one”.

For highly collectible pieces the price does not reflect the essential value of the piece, it only reflects the rarity.

Being a vintage collector means having a different set of criteria for what you expect from watches. Where many people would gravitate towards a perfectly restored and polished examples, a true collector will scoff at those pristine rebuilds in favour of one that is entirely original (and probably well worn). This means the case was never re-polished, the dial and hands are original and nicely patina’d, and the bracelet is original to the watch.

Breitling models from the 1940s include the Premier, Cadette, Datora, and Unitime, whose dial was surrounded with city, country, and regional names from around the world ("S.Frisco," "Moscou," "Singapour," etc.) so that world travelers could easily compute international times.

One of the most collectible vintage Breitling watches was introduced in 1952. This was the mechanical, heavy-duty Navitimer, a serious wrist chronograph with enough bells and whistles to handle all the calculations called for during a flight — from calculating air speed to checking fuel consumption. This wristwatch proved so popular with professional and amateur pilots alike that during the 1950s and 1960s, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association worked with Breitling to put the AOPA logo on Navitimer dials.

The Navitimer soared even higher in 1962 when Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter wore a version of the Navitimer that he had helped design on a three-orbit flight around the Earth. Carpenter’s tweak was to replace the wristwatch’s 12-hour dial with a 24-hour dial. The resulting Navitimer was called the Cosmonaute, which must have seemed ironical to NASA.

Price guide

A 1960's Breitling 'Top Time' men's chronograph sold for $2,500 at California Auctioneers in January 2013.

A stainless steel quartz gentleman's Breitling brace brought £420 to Fellows in January 2013.

A stainless steel Breitling automatic chronograph sold for £1,600 at Fellows in January 2013.

A stainless steel automatic gentleman's Breitling brought £980 to Fellows in January 2013.

A stainless steel quartz gentleman's Breitling sold for £780 at Fellows in January 2013.

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