HOW TIME FLIES
BREITLING HAS CONTRIBUTED MORE THAN ONE FOOTNOTE TO HOROLOGICAL HISTORY. AS WEARABLE TECH MOVES TO THE WRIST, GQ STEPS INSIDE THE HIGH-PRECISION WORLD OF THE AVIATION SPECIALIST.
Watches are to timekeeping what foppy disks are to storing data. Like record shops and (actual) blind dates, mechanical timepieces should be consigned to memory. Things made of cogs, gears and springs belong in museums. Weird, then, that Switzerland is pumping out more watches than ever – two billion dollar’s worth in August alone. Jean-paul Girardin, vice-president of Breitling, has a pithy way of explaining the paradox that’s playing out across the luxury watch industry. “Take this landscape,” he says, gesturing to the patchwork of pretty Swiss felds we can see from the pretty 18th-century farmhouse in which we’re having lunch. “You can take a photo of it with a digital camera, in 20 or 30 megapixels. That picture will be very, very precise. But if you want something artistic, then you ask a painter to paint it – you get the same landscape presented in two different ways. And one is not better than the other.” Breitling has been making watches in the Jura Mountains, in the same valley we’re sat, since 1884. Still independently-owned, the company’s a rarity in the luxury watch sector. And having worked there for more than 22 years, so is Girardin. Arriving in the 1990s, Girardin entered a house renowned for precision. Inventors of the frst wrist chronograph (1915), the frst chronograph to feature an independent push-piece (1923) and the frst company to subsequently present a two push-piece chronograph (1934), Breitling spent the frst half of the 21st century conceiving devices that proved especially practical for pilots. The company cemented its reputation as specialists of technical wristwear in 1952, launching the now iconic ‘Navitimer’. As the world’s frst bona fde smartwatch, today, it’s the oldest continually-produced chronograph. “The ‘Navitimer’ defnes everything that Breitling’s about,” states Girardin. “It’s a mechanical chronograph designed by pilots for pilots. Our chronographs are self-winding instead of hand-wound, have in-house movements, use sapphire crystal and are water resistant. But the look of the ‘Navitimer’ has remained the same.” By the ’60s, Breitling had been commissioned to create chronographs and cockpit clocks for the British and American air forces, as well as a host of international airlines, and in doing so appointed itself “authentic partner of aviation”. Then in the ’90s, the Swiss manufacturer became the frst watch company to submit its entire product range to the industry’s most rigorous independent testing facility – the Offcial Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute (COSC). “We took the idea from the aviation industry,” explains Girardin. “And since 1999, every Breitling has been equipped with a Cosc-certifed chronograph movement.” It means Breitling can guarantee every mechanical timepiece that leaves its workshop will be out of time, at the most, by -4 to +6 seconds a day. Only Rolex and Omega also invest heavily in certifcates of accuracy. Up until 2002, Breitling’s approach to production had been a pragmatic one: “We took the best components from the best suppliers.” When it came to mechanisms that powered its timepieces, this meant acquiring base components from Swiss movement-makers ETA and Valjoux, before assembling the parts at Breitling’s Grenchen-based HQ and sending them to COSC for testing. The trouble was, both ETA and Valjoux are owned by the Swatch Group, which meant that in 2002, when Mr Girardin received a letter from Mr Hayek, president of Swatch Group, telling him that his company would be restricting the fow of movements to watchmakers outside its own portfolio (Swatch owns Breguet, Blancpain, Omega, Longines, Hamilton and Tissot, to name a few), Breitling was forced to change its strategy. It proved to be the push it needed. “We had already been facing a recurring question – why is it that Breitling, the chronograph specialist, does not have its own in-house developed movement?” asks Girardin.
“WE TAKE THE BEST OF THE TWO INSTRUMENTS SO THE WATCH IS THE MASTER AND THE PHONE ENHANCES THE WATCH.”
In 2002, the brand opened Breitling Chronométrie, an ultra-modern facility in La Chaux-de-fonds – where Léon Breitling opened his frst chronograph factory 118 years previous – with the precise purpose of producing its own calibres. Inside, every part of every movement is monitored by a computer program that moves it along an assembly line of alternating automated and manual work stations. Each timepiece takes more than a year to complete its ‘pilgrimage’ through the production process. The ‘click’ of pushbuttons is then tested in the same manner Bentley tests the ‘clunk’ of its doors. It’s quite remarkable. By Baselworld 2009, Breitling had equipped all of the 3000 watches on its stand with its frst in-house movement, the ‘B01’. “That was a strong statement,” offers Girardin. “We showed that we weren’t just going to use the movement to produce 1000 limited-edition ‘Navitimers’ – we were going to produce our Cosc-certifed, in-house movements in quantity.” Today, the ‘B01’ sits inside the ‘Transocean Chronograph’ and all ‘Chronomat’ and ‘Navitimer’ models. If horologic discourse in the frst decade of the 21st century centred around the attempts of industry heavyweights to verticalise production processes and obsess over the term ‘in-house’, then dialogue in the second decade is becoming increasingly dictated by the encroachment of the smartwatch. The biggest news at Baselworld 2015 was that TAG Heuer had formed a partnership with tech giants Google and Intel. And brands like TAG Heuer, Bulgari, Montblanc and Frederique Constant claim such moves are less a reaction to the Apple Watch and more about the simple embrace of modern technology. Still, with the quartz crisis fresh in the minds of the industry’s most weather-beaten wardens, the watch world knows it can ill afford to ignore the threat posed by digitally-enabled wristwear, with many brands making moves to combat the threat of a computer manufacturer becoming the world’s largest watch company. (We’ll see the collective results at SIHH and Baselworld next year.) Girardin is, in fact, a fan of what Apple’s done. “I like the watch. It’s a nice piece of equipment. To have email notifcations on your wrist is interesting.” He also believes that the emergence of the smartwatch is positive for the industry at large. “Before [smartwatches] everyone was talking about tablets, ipods and iphones. Now the front page of the Financial Times has a story about watches on it. It’s getting people talking about watches again, it’s getting a younger generation into the habit of wearing something on their wrist.” It’s possible, of course, that the apparent appetite for smartwatches has been exaggerated – that the audience doesn’t actually exist. The Apple watch, to the delight of those who mourn the loss of record shops and actual blind dates, certainly hasn’t been the success story the Swiss watch industry feared it might be. But when the market moves, so does Breitling – one beneft of being independently owned is a short internal decision chain. And so we get the ‘B55 Connected’. If last year’s ‘Cockpit B50’ was Breitling dipping a tentative toe into smartwatch waters, then the ‘B55 Connected’ is the brand hedging its bets and taking the plunge. This being Breitling, the chronograph is the boss of the partnership – the smartphone designed to improve user friendliness, little else. The watch won’t receives texts, phone calls or emails. What it does provide is a 1/100th of a second chronograph, two time zones, a countdown timer, a fight time and lap-time chronograph, an electronic tachometer and a perpetual calendar. It’s powered by the brand new Caliber ‘B55’, a Cosc-certifed Superquartz movement that will remain accurate to within a few seconds per year. Your phone, connected via Bluetooth, can be used for changing the time, setting alarms, adjusting time zones and storing data captured by the watch. Though note the ‘B55 Connected’ watch is not an Apple-inspired pushback – and was never meant to be. “You cannot compete with such an intelligent interface,” says Girardin of Apple’s effort. “It is impossible. So we take the best of the two instruments – the user-friendliness of a smartphone and the functionality of a watch. The watch is the master. The phone enhances the watch.” Admittedly, the number of people who actually use the ‘B55’ to log the time it takes to get between airports will be few – just as no pilot in his right mind would buy a ‘Navitimer’ to calculate fuel consumption. Better to think of the ‘Connected’ watch as part of Breitling’s larger objective of getting young people wearing watches again. In the 100 years since Breitling gave the world its frst wrist chronograph, time has moved from church clocks, to kitchen walls, to the pocket, to the cuff. With mobile phones, there’s a risk that the devices used to tell the time will return to our pockets – though Breitling is on a mission to prevent that from happening. For this watchmaker, things made of cogs, gears and springs – and Superquartz, too – belong frmly on the wrist.
1. THE BREITLING ‘B55 CONNECTED’ SMARTWATCH. 2. BREITLING’S JET TEAM. 3. THE ‘B01’ IN-HOUSE MOVEMENT.
4. THE EXTERIOR AND INTERIOR OF BREITLING CHRONOMÉTRIE IN LA CHAUX-DE-FONDS. 5. THE ORIGINAL BREITLING ‘NAVITIMER COSMONAUTE 1962’. 6. BREITLING’S ORIGINAL ‘NAVITIMER’ WATCH FROM 1952.