The History of Breitling Watches

Breitling enthusiasts know that if you need the perfect balance of precision, state of the art features, and inimitable style, Breitling is the brand to watch.

Breitling has always been an innovative and features-oriented brand. Their slogan “Instruments for professionals” says it clearly. Even a professional diver or pilot can’t go wrong with one of these watches.

But for the non-professionals among us, Breitling still has so much to offer. Breitling watches have travelled the world and beyond, from ocean depths, and into space, in submarines and aeroplanes. 

Travel with us into the history of Breitling, and the attitude of constant innovation that brought the brand to where it is today.

Breitling Superocean ll

A Way Of Life

Breitling’s founder, Léon Breitling, was born and raised in the Swiss Jura region, where watchmaking is a way of life. He fell in love with the craft, and in his teen years he started on the path of apprentice watchmaker. In 1884, Léon opened his own workshop in Saint-Imier.

Breitling put innovation at the heart of its brand, from the very beginning. By the late nineteenth century, as the world changed, the demand for precision timepieces grew. Breitling stepped boldly into the arena in 1889, with his first patent.

At the time, chronographs had a pusher next to the crown that controlled stop, start, and reset functions. Breitling knew the design could be better than that. And so he applied for patent number 927: A watch with the chronograph function integrated into the crown. Breitling’s new chronograph needed fewer components to start and stop, which made it easier to maintain.

Breitling’s invention was soon the talk of the watch community. The company grew enough that Breiling relocated to a brand new facility in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1892, taking its place in the watch making capital of the world along with other world leading watch brands

Breitling Superocean 42

Breitling’s star continues to rise

After their relocation, Breitling watches continued to grow in popularity, until the company grew from a tiny one man operation to a team of over sixty people. 

Léon Breitling kept innovating, giving the world a stopwatch movement with an eight day power reserve. By 1896 he’d also patented a chronograph with two fifths of a second accuracy. These days we’d take a long power reserve and extreme accuracy as standard on a quality watch. But in the late nineteenth century, such power and accuracy was unheard of. Breitling even took a pulsograph (an instrument for measuring heart rate) and incorporated it into models for use by medical professionals.

The early 20th century saw plenty of buzz about the developing motorcar industry. Early models didn’t have speedometers like we’re used to. Breitling solved that problem for motorists by patenting a tachymeter which would measure speed over a fixed distance. Now drivers could track speed using a classy wristwatch. The patent was such a success that police in Switzerland actually used Breitling’s timer to issue the first speeding ticket in the country. Perhaps not popular with that particular driver – but certainly a win for chronograph accuracy! 

Breitling Superocean ll

A fresh look at crown pushers

By the time the company passed to Léon’s son, Gaston, in 1914, many other watchmakers had followed his pioneering idea of integrated crown pushers. Gaston knew that Breitling needed to keep innovating, and keep coming up with fresh ideas to cement their reputation. 

One of Gaston’s first actions was to change the company name to G.-Léon Breitling S.A. Montbrillant Watch Manufactory. This regal-sounding name gave the Breitling company a name that matched the high quality of its timepieces.

Never afraid to revisit their biggest successes and tweak them, Gaston decided that when it came to wrist watches, a separate pusher and crown was actually a better choice. In 1915 he released the world’s first wrist chronograph with a pusher at the two o’clock position for maximum ease of use.

Breitling also created another pioneering chronograph, this time with two pushers. One pusher for starting and stopping, and the other for resetting. This was a significant moment not just for Breitling but in watch making history. For the first time, the elapsed time could be measured, paused and resumed. It was also now possible to measure two separate times in sequence. 

Breitling Superocean 42

A new era for Breitling

After Gaston’s death in 1927, his son Willy took over Breitling. He would remain at the helm for many years, and as the decades passed, Breitling continued to innovate under his watchful eye.

In the 1940s, Breitling released its Duograph, Datora, and Premier lines. The Premier line, established in 1943, was the first Breitling line marketed specifically for civilian use. The robust steel and solid gold Premier models showed the world that Breitling watches married impressive technical specifications with luxury style.

Always on top of trends and alert to new opportunities, Breitling created the Unitime in 1951 to meet the needs of international travellers. As more people adventured across the globe, everyone from professional pilots to leisure travellers wanted a way to reference the time in different time zones. 

The Unitime made life easier for them thanks to a world time complication that featured 24 cities and a 24 hour scale that let wearers see the time in all 24 time zones.

This era also saw Breitling create one of its most iconic watches, the Navitimer. The US Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association asked Willy Breitling if his company could create a new chronograph exclusively for AOPA members. As always, Breitling rose to the challenge, creating a sturdy 41mm pilot’s chronograph with a slide rule bezel.

The Navitimer let pilots measure ascent and descent distances, track fuel consumption, and convert nautical miles to land miles. Not content with conquering the roads and the skies, Breitling turned its attention to the depths of the sea.

Breitling Superocean ll

The year of the Superocean

Ask any Breitling enthusiast to name a classic Breitling watch and there’s a good chance they’ll mention the Superocean. Breitling has created many iterations of this beloved watch, but the original Superocean sailed into collectors’ lives in 1957.

The Breitling Superocean celebrated Willy Breitling’s 25th year in charge of the company. With its rotating bezel, bold luminous hour markers and hands, and water resistance to 200m, the Superocean offered divers a watch they could rely on. The Superocean was available as a standard model or a chronograph – and the chronograph was also resistant down to 200m, which was unheard of in that era. 

Breitling Superocean 42

Under new management

By the time the 1970s drew to a close, Breitling was creating not only pilots’ watches and diving watches, but sports watches too, one of which even featured in the James Bond movie Thunderball.

In 1979, Willy Breitling sold his company to Ernest Schneider. Ernest was a pilot, watch enthusiast, and electronics engineer. Ernest shared Breitling’s love of watches and Aviation, and was a long time fan of the brand. He brought that passion and skill to his new role. 

It was during Ernest’s reign that Breitling adopted its iconic “Instruments for professionals” tagline. At a time when most brands were using quartz movements purely because of the lower cost, Ernest used quartz to develop precise, reliable winning watches. Their SuperQuartz movement is ten times more accurate than other similar quartz movements. 

Breitling Superocean ll

A watch for every situation – even emergencies

The Breitling team never rests on its laurels. Indeed, they’re not content unless they’re creating groundbreaking watches! In the 1980s, Breitling created one of their most innovative models to date: The Emergency.

Working closely with French aircraft manufacturer Dassault Electronique, Breitling developed a micro-transmitter locked to the international air distress frequency. With a 48 hour power reserve, the Emergency helped explorers at sea or in dangerous terrain send out an emergency signal if they ran into trouble. And because it could be worn like any other watch, the Emergency was always with them when they needed it.

This was the world’s first wristwatch to come with an integrated emergency transmitter. In typical Breitling fashion, they kept improving on the Emergency after its release and in 1995 added a unique antenna deployment system. 

Breitling proudly boasts that their Emergency models have never been reported as sending a false alarm. However, with false alarms in general on the rise, the old distress frequency was phased out, starting in 2009. As agile today as when they started, Breitling immediately started work on a replacement Emergency that transmitted on the new digitally encoded frequency. 

Breitling Superocean 42

Breitling watches – chronometers through and through

When Ernest was ready to hang up his hat, he passed the company to his son, Théodore. In 1999, Théodore Schneider set a lofty goal for Breitling. He wanted every movement to be a certified chronometer. This was a daring ambition, even for a company of Breitling’s standing. To become a certified chronometer requires incredible precision and extreme testing. 

But Schneider was determined. The first step was to integrate the creation of its mechanical movements all under one roof. This let the Breitling team take control of the entire process from start to finish, and to this day, Breitling is one of only a handful of watchmakers that manufactures all its own movements.

The effort paid off. Every new Breitling watch is certified as a chronometer by the Contrôle officiel suisse des Chronomètres (COSC), the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute.

There are practical tool watches, and then there’s Breitling. They haven’t stopped innovating in the decades since Léon founded the company in his hometown, and we don’t suppose they ever will. Whatever you need from your watch, there’s a good chance Breitling has a model for you. 

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