Breitling – the entire brand – deserves more respect from watch collectors. Despite a few years in the wilderness, the brand from Grenchen today boasts an appealing combination of competitive products and heritage to measure up against any rival. The current and recent Breitling catalog should command attention from open-minded watch enthusiasts seeking outstanding timepieces at buy-the-dip preowned prices.
For those new to the market and the Breitling brand, it’s important to acknowledge the reasons why this once esteemed house often earns the “beleaguered” label. For a period in the 2000s, Breitling often merited comparison to Rolex and Omega as one leg of a “big three” of mainstream Swiss luxury watch brands. But Breitling in the 2010s failed to recognize the shift of consumer tastes away from the company’s comically huge case sizes, and the watch industry recession of 2015-2016 hit the firm hard. Breitling’s one-note marketing continued to hammer aviation clichés, dated portrayals of women as fetish objects, and um… John Travolta.
A full-brand relaunch arrived in 2017 with a change in ownership, management, and direction.
British private equity outfit CVC Capital Partners bought out the previous Schneider family ownership, ex-IWC CEO Georges Kern was installed at the top, and product development focus shifted to less bombastic designs. Aviation, while still prominent, no longer comprised the entirety of Breitling’s marketing thrust, and attempts were made to promote Breitling’s relevance to land sports, water sports, and vintage collectors. Also important was Breitling’s move to take control of its global distribution; it was the only major international watch brand still reliant on third parties to locally promote and sell its products in regional markets.
Business aside, Breitling’s product offerings have improved. The slow start in February 2018 – nobody was wowed by the “Navitimer 8” – gave way to strong launches from late in that year. October brought a reborn Breitling Premier collection; these watches strike a judicious balance between vintage design cues and modern features. The SuperOcean Heritage II – a late Schneider-era refresh of Breitling’s bestselling line – impresses with a clean design and Tudor watch movements from Rolex’s sister brand. And the Navitimer, which stands as the design icon of Breitling’s brand, received subtle aesthetic refinements including two-tone dials, display casebacks, and pared-down lugs.
Breitling’s French-Swiss era, which received few acknowledgements during Schneider-era production, has become a selling point of the relaunched company. Vintage watch reissues including the Navitimer Reference 806 1959, the Top Time, the AVI 765 1953, and the SuperOcean Heritage 57 show real respect for the originals, court the vintage watch community, and communicate to collectors that Breitling understands and respects its heritage. Hiring watch historian Fred Mandelbaum and ex-Hodinkee vintage watch journalist Louis Westphalen bolstered the credibility of this effort.
No, Breitling has not restored its peer status alongside Rolex and Omega. There remains a ton of work to do; production remains too high; discounting is no worse than Omega but far higher than Rolex; too many models and model lines confuse customers; literally the entire millennial generation soured on the brand while its styles chased late-career Boomers and Gen X-ers for the last twenty years. But for the first time since Hummers were considered cool, Breitling is making an earnest effort to regain lost standing.
In the spirit of the nascent Breitling comeback, these are my favorite current-catalog Breitling watch models:
The SuperOcean Heritage Limited Edition II (1,000 pieces): This was the second run of vintage-style dive watches to be launched in a finite series for 2020. Part one was a limited edition featuring the style of Breitling’s 1957 SuperOcean reference 1004, the company’s first true dive watch. And that initial run also included an ahistorical but jovial rainbow motif on the dial.
Breitling’s Heritage Limited Edition II replaced the black dial and bezel of the first edition with blue units and a noble purpose: supporting the labors of healthcare workers fighting Covid-19 across Europe and North America.
Aside from its new blue features, the Heritage LE II includes the same ceramic-insert unidirectional dive bezel, 100-meter water resistance rating, COSC Swiss chronometer certification, and 42mm stainless steel case. The right-sized case and sub-10mm thickness prove that Breitling’s current management got the memo about its formerly sales-poison case bloat.
The Premier B01 Chrono 42 Bentley British Racing Green: Finally, we have a Breitling Bentley watch that won’t make you blush. After its popularity peaked in the 2000s, the co-branded “Breitling for Bentley” series became something of a punchline during the 2010s; too big, too bling, too much. The Premier Bentley BRG corrects these shortcomings with a reimagined co-branding that feels legitimately premium.
While the previous “Bentley” collection was a standalone model line, the new Breitling Bentley watches are special models within the Premier, Chronomat, and similar core model families. The Premier BRG makes only a handful of changes to the core Premier B01, but they’re sublime. A British Racing Green sunburst metallic dial offers beauty without bombast. And the bolt-fixed Bentley name plate on the nine o’clock side of the case is engine-turned like vintage and bespoke modern Bentley interior hardware. A BRG calf skin strap and silkscreened caseback Bentley logo complete the custom refinements.
Bentley accents aside, the standard Premier B01 Chrono 42 is a valid Omega/IWC rival. Its 42mm steel case is sculpted with attention to handsome details, and the 100-meter water resistance adds versatility unexpected in a dress-style watch. The Breitling caliber B01 automatic chronograph caliber merits Rolex 4130 comparisons given the 70-hour power reserve, vertical clutch and column wheel, and COSC Swiss chronometer certification.
Aerospace Evo. With all respect to the Navitimer and Chronomaster, the Aerospace Evo is the kind of watch a real pilot would wear in the year 2020, and all of that capability works just as well at ground level.
With a perpetual calendar, chronograph, dual time zones, backlight, alarm, countdown timer, digital and analog displays, thermocompensated quartz regulator, and an electronic minute repeater, this is an authentic flight instrument in a market packed with posers. Its 100-meter water resistance puts IWC’s across-the-board 60-meter “Pilot’s Watch” rating to shame, and the unidirectional bezel makes this Breitling flyer’s watch a viable diver for recreational use. The 43mm titanium case is sized effectively for easy reading and is low in mass even when equipped with the optional matching bracelet.
Breitling’s “Professional” series watches have few equivalents at competing brands, and the multifunction digital quartz Aerospace Evo is the best of the lot. Unlike Omega’s impenetrable Speedmaster X-33 and Z-33 quartz pilot’s watches, the EVO is intuitive to use. Moreover, a COSC quartz chronometer certification – virtually unheard of at any price point – gives this high-flier a pedigree that the Omega pair cannot match.