At Breitling, no approach is off-limits in the name of self-improvement. In 2016, the aviation watch specialist challenged its watchmakers to reinvent the wheel
By James Gurney
Photography by Gary Smith
You might get a quizzical look should you wander into a Breitling boutique and ask for a pilot’s watch, if only because almost everything that Breitling currently produces counts as a pilot’s watch. So well-established is the brand’s heritage in this niche that it’s not worth going into detail here, save to point out that last year’s Battle of Britain Flight anniversary flypast dropped by a Breitling private event after its flight over London.
The classic Breitling pilot’s watch is the 38mm Navitimer, brainchild of Willy Breitling, one of those characters that pop up in the watch business who had the vision to transform not only their own company, but the entire industry around them.
His technical innovation was to introduce the slide-rule bezel (first seen in the 1942 Chronomat developed for engineers and manufacturing managers) as a navigation tool for pilots.
But the Navitimer had something else going for it when it was unveiled in 1952: the logo of the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilot Association), evidence that Willy Breitling was quite as good at marketing watches as making them – the deal with the AOPA later included their endorsement of Breitling as “the official supplier to world aviation”, not a bad claim to be making at the start of the jet age, though the current rendering of “privileged partner of aviation” doesn’t quite have the same ring.
The Navitimer is still with us, of course (and is still, for me, Breitling’s most desirable watch), though its dimensions have grown, with models ranging from a 42mm AOPA up to 48mm for the 1461 and perpetual calendar versions. But the brand’s aviation strand has evolved far beyond the Navitimer, though even within that strand there are a couple of dozen options.
Three watches in particular capture the flavour of contemporary Breitling: the Chronoworks, the Exospace B55 and the lightweight Avenger. QP has already covered the B55, so suffice to say that the watch is to my mind the best conceived connected watch from the Swiss industry, concentrating its digital firepower on enhancing functions that Breitling watches already perform, rather than competing head-on with the likes of Apple and Samsung.
The Avenger Hurricane first: It’s taken some time for the Breitling in-house movement to percolate down through the collections, the B01 having first seen the light of day in 2009, but it now pops up throughout the collection in various guises, including what are mid-price models by Breitling’s standards.
The B12-fitted Avenger Hurricane has, however, another ace to make the £6,500 price seem good value, and that’s a new carbon-based composite material called “Breitlight”. Being lighter than titanium, and ruggedly black to boot, has allowed (or perhaps tempted) Breitling to go for broke in the size stakes. The Avenger Hurricane is a man-size 50mm in diameter and has a “stealth” colour scheme highlighted with yellow accents, and a very military 24-hour time display shown in stencil, cut-out numerals.
Unashamedly macho it might be (last year we asked if it was the most aggressively-named watch on the market), but there’s lots of less obvious detail to help the cause, including a screw-locked crown; engraved chronograph push-pieces for extra grip, super-luminous hands and an extra-thick sapphire crystal that’s been glare-proofed on both sides. In line with the base calibre, the B12 has a 70-hour power reserve and is chronometer certified by COSC. More interestingly, Breitling seems to have this ground pretty much to itself again, as most of its competitors are reducing testosterone levels, looking to catch the vintage/value proposition Tudor has made so attractive.
The new test-bed
Equally ebullient, though for different reasons, is the Chronoworks; half test-bed, half flagship model. As with the B01, it’s only relatively recently that Breitling has made much of a deal about technical innovations within the case, at least as far as mechanical movements are concerned – it’s been much more active in driving up performance of its movements in fact. But with the decision to develop the B01 came new design teams, who were then let off the lead once the hard work of designing the base movement was complete.
There’s plenty of work designing variants such as the B12 in the Avenger Hurricane, but some of the design capacity has been freed up to pursue more esoteric projects, the results of which see daylight in the form of the Superocean Heritage Chronoworks. Breitling compares this team to the likes of Cosworth or Maclaren, taking a basic engine design, in this case the B01, and up-rating the performance of key parts. We wrote recently about Panerai’s Luminor LAB-ID; there is a lot of common thinking going on behind both of these watches, albeit resulting in very different outputs.
Caliber B01 is already a quite sophisticated and capable engine: it’s a chronograph with column-wheel construction and vertical clutch (both of which contribute to more precise action), and has a respectable 70-hour power reserve. However, the Chronoworks team were tasked to improve efficiency wherever possible and to re-examine the entire movement to root out any loss of energy, unavoidable friction or increase in inertia.
They went on to develop five key improvements using a mix of new materials and improved geometries. The most dramatic is probably the use of ceramic for the baseplate and geartrain bridges. This allows the arbors to sit directly on the plate and bridges without the need for jewels, ceramics having an exceptionally low friction coefficient. Breitling says that this has allowed it to eliminate 11 out of the 47 jewels found in a normal B01.
Breitling’s Superocean Heritage Chronoworks is a hotbed of frontline tech. Significantly, it sees Breitling join the likes of Ulysse Nardin, Breguet and Patek Philippe in using silicon for key parts, including gear train wheels and escapement parts.
Made using deep-reactive ion etching (DRIE), these reduce weight and thereby save energy, while offering improvements in reliability, efficiency and magnetic resistance.
Another ingenious little improvement is the use of “elastic” gear toothing within the clutch mechanism. Made from a nickel-phosphorous structure, this prevents energy loss through more efficient interaction of the gears.
Breitling has therefore become the latest brand to join the silicon revolution. The Chronoworks team introduced silicon for the centre, third and fourth wheels, reducing their weight and consequent inertia by nearly half. Silicon has also gone into the escape system, where the weight loss advantage is more than equalled by the way silicon components can be made both to higher precision, and to flex exactly as the designer requires. This means much less inertia (a 42 per cent gain) and greater security as the parts fit more closely.
Above the escapement, the team developed a new variable-inertia balance adjustable via four tiny gold weights situated around the rim. The balance combines nickel and brass elements to compensate for temperature changes but uses the geometry in a novel way.
The final element is to use the enhanced precision of new manufacturing processes to do away with the friction spring normally found in vertical clutch assemblies, saving another 15 per cent energy loss. All together, the improvements add up dramatically – less energy is needed to run the movement meaning the main spring can be optimised for a longer running time (up to 100 hours from the original 70), and that in turn means a flatter rate profile and better precision.