The History of the World’s Most Famous Pilot’s Watch

There is perhaps no wristwatch still in production that’s more associated with flight and pilots than the Breitling Navitimer.

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Breitling

Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the Breitling Navitimer.

My cousin’s husband used to be a test pilot in the U.S. Air Force. In fact, at one point he ran the test pilot office at Edwards Air Force Base, and retired a full bird colonel. He’s the real deal. Why am I telling you this? Because when he was asked about the prominent Breitling on his wrist, he replied, “I need a Navitimer so I can do my calculations!” (emphasis his).

That brief anecdote may tell you something about how the Breitling Navitimer is viewed by the guys who fly jets for a living. That bit about calculations would be in reference to the Navitimer’s most recognizable feature, the “navigation computer” — a circular slide rule located on the rotating bezel that a pilot can use to handle all the calculations they need to make when planning a flight (airspeed, rate/time of climb/descent, flight time, distance, and fuel consumption functions, plus kilometer-nautical mile and gallon-liter fuel conversion functions). This slide rule bezel has been present on almost every Navitimer Breitling has ever produced and is typically considered at the heart of this tool watch’s incredible popularity.

What’s In a Name

The Navitimer (the name is an assemblage of “navigation” and “timer”) was not the first slide rule watch. That honor belongs to Breitling’s Chronomat, released in 1942. The Chronomat was a worthy forerunner to the Navitimer, and the uninitiated can perhaps be forgiven for believing it’s an early version. To be sure, the circular slide rules of the Chronomat and the Navitimer helped make Breitling recognizable to the public as the pilot watch company.

Sensing a need for a self-contained wrist instrument for pilots, Breitling and the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association (the AOPA) jointly developed the Navitimer chronograph in the early 1950s. It debuted to the public in 1954. (Much of the literature out there says 1952, but there is healthy debate — and a more than reasonable doubt — about that.) The AOPA immediately adopted the watch as its official timepiece, and this combination of endorsement and the watch’s innate functionality quickly made the Navitimer a favorite of pilots around the world.

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When asked about the Breitling on his wrist, a former test pilot for the U.S. Air Force replied, “I need a Navitimer so I can do my calculations!”

The generations of the Navitimer produced through the 1950s and 1960s were given the Reference 806 designation, and the movement in the earliest versions was the Valjoux 72. This famous motor powered the watch for a year and a half before giving way to the Venus 178 in late 1955. Some late 1960s watches had Valjoux 7736 movements, possibly due to intermittent shortages of the Venus. These were marked 806-36 or 806E. In 1968 the so-called “Big Case” Navitimers — Ref. 816 and 1806 — appeared, some returning to the Valjoux 72 powerplant. All of these early movements were hand-wound calibres, being of the era before the advent of the self-winding chronograph.

In 1969 Breitling released the Navitimer Chrono-matic Ref. 1806, one of a family of self-winding chronographs developed by a consortium of companies, including Breitling, Heuer, Hamilton and Buren. The now-famous race to build the first automatic chronograph produced multiple winners. Though the Chrono-matic beat out Zenith’s El Primero by a few days, the feat gets an asterisk for being a modular movement with a micro-rotor, as opposed to Zenith’s full rotor integrated movement. Seiko may have beat them all to market, but that’s another story.

The Navitimer Evolves

The first Navitimer with a date window (tucked away at 4:30) was released in the early 1970s. For many aficionados this marked the end of the true Navitimers. Indeed, in the mid-1970s, the Navitimer debuted a series of quartz versions, first with LED displays and followed later by LCD displays. However, the trademark slide rule bezel was there throughout, keeping the watch true to form as an instrument for pilots.

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There were countless dial versions. The earliest were all black, produced both with and without the AOPA winged logo (both signed and unsigned versions). Later dials of this era were signed with the Breitling imprint, and some had “Geneve,” “Navitimer,” and “Cosmonaute” imprints. Silvery white sub-dials first appeared in 1963. Breitling’s own logo — stylized twin jets flying in close formation — first appeared in 1964. The AOPA logo disappeared from most models of the Navitimer in 1965, while remaining on AOPA-exclusive Navitimers until 1969 and on the Cosmonaute until 1979. Frankly, you need a detailed scorecard to tell what appeared where, and when.

The Quartz Crisis Hits Breitling

In 1978, Breitling fell on hard times due to a combination of factors. Owner Willy Breitling had fallen ill, the Swiss franc had inflated, and the quartz crisis was in full bloom. Willy, grandson of founder Leon Breitling, found a buyer in Ernst Schneider and the Sicura watch firm. The transaction was completed in April of 1979. Adding a seeming insult to the fate of the century-old company, Willy Breitling passed away a month later and his namesake company officially closed its doors three months after.

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Out of the ashes of the old company a new Breitling was born: Breitling Montres S.A. Ernst Schneider, an engineer and amateur pilot, had big ideas for transforming the company with the electronic revolution and he quickly put them into practice. New quartz watches appeared under the Breitling banner, but soon, mechanical timepieces followed. The Navitimer reappeared in 1986 in the guise of the ref. 81600 with a manual-wind Lemania 1872 movement. In 1988, the Navitimer was again equipped with an automatic movement.

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It’s interesting to note that the right to manufacture the existing Cosmonaute and Navitimer models, but not to use the names, passed to Mr. Helmut Sinn when the Breitling assets were sold off in 1979. The firm Sinn, founded in 1961, manufactures a chronograph very similar to the Navitimer to this day.

New Movements

The 1990s saw the Navitimer powered by Valjoux 7750 and ETA 2892 variants while the Cosmonaute was driven by Lemania engines. By and large the look was the same, however, with the familiar slide rule bezel and sub-dials at 3:00, 6:00, and 9:00 — although some models, especially in the 1990s, had the 7750’s more typical 6-9-12 layout. 1993 saw a drastic increase in water resistance from effectively none to 3 bar. Minor updates occurred through the 2000s, but the Navitimer was still fitted with the modified Valjoux 7750.

In 2009 Breitling released the B01 movement, their first in-house movement and the heart of the current Navitimer. While Breitling has backed off their early hyperbolic claims that the B01 is the “best chronograph movement in the world”, its development is a significant return to glory for the company who pioneered the first independent pusher chronograph and then the separate reset pusher chronograph. The calibre B01 is the perfect movement for the most iconic of Breitlings.

The Navitimer Today

At any given point in time over the years, there have been multiple versions of the Navitimer: optional dial colors, straps, bracelets, case material (steel and gold), special and commemorative editions, etc. In 2017, Breitling was acquired by CVC Capital Partners, losing its independent status, and the current CEO Georges Kern took over. Recent years have seen the scope of the Navitimer collection expand. The current collection includes designs that broaden the traditional notion of what a Navitimer should be, including non-chronograph, time-only models. The modern Navitimer 01 is reminiscent of the early 806s, but 2019 saw the release of a historically faithful recreation of the 806 that is accurate down to many details, from its case size to the number of “beads” on its bezel.

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The current lineup features myriad options, but for true Navitimer aficionados and pilots, the original vintage 806s are what really scratch the itch, whether one’s flying an airplane or a desk. That said, it’s hard to discount almost any version of the watch that spawned a genre (the wrist instrument), and contributed to one or two more (the pilot’s watch and the tool watch). In a world where some argue that all wristwatches are anachronisms, this particular watch flips the bird at that notion and keeps getting better and better.

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