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.

GQ (Australia) - - WATCH -

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.

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