Icons – The Breitling Navitimer
Photography by Matthew Shave
Fashion Direction by Ursula Lake
Words by Delwyn Mallett
Hair by Sven Bayerback at Carol Hayes Management using Drybar
Makeup by Sonia Deveney using Clarins
Nails by Trish Lomax
Model: Noelle by Linden Staub
Tool watch to cool watch
For much of the nineteen fifties and sixties, the coolest man on the planet was jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. The notion of ‘cool’ originated in the 1940s jazz world when Davis was beginning his rise to fame but it was his 1957 album Birth of the Cool’ that firmly established the term in the mainstream of popular culture. Miles was a sharp dresser with a passion for fast sports cars from Ferrari and Jaguar and an uncompromising attitude to those he didn’t respect, which seemed to be most people outside the world of jazz. In 1959 his album ‘Kind of Blue’ was a huge hit becoming the biggest-selling jazz album of all time. Perhaps in celebration and at a time when stars paid for their own watches, he splashed out on the latest horological hot potato, a Breitling Navitimer with the just introduced ‘panda’ face – white sub-dials against black. Much in evidence in contemporary photographs of Miles, it was impossible not to notice the Navitimer gleaming in the spotlights as he lifted his horn to blow. He wore it for the next thirty years.
As the ‘Navi’ part of the name suggests the watch was designed specifically as a navigation aid – specifically for pilots rather than trumpeters. Breitling had patented a watch with a revolving slide-rule bezel, the Chronomat, in 1942 allowing the wearer to make complex mathematical calculations. Like the later Navitimer, it featured two ‘pushers’ for stopping and starting the second hand and resetting the sub-dials. It was this watch that inspired America’s Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) to approach Breitling in 1952 with a view to creating a limited edition watch to their own specification exclusively for AOPA members. The result was the classic black face Navitimer (known to collectors as the reference 806) with its three sub-dials and a revolving ‘beads of rice’ bezel – 123 beads in all. The first watches carried the Breitling ‘wings’ logo with a tiny AOPA text superimposed but, strangely, no brand name on the face. At 41mm in diameter, the Navitimer was a large watch for the day, almost a centimeter bigger than the then-average, and was not inconspicuous on the wrist.
The Navitimer was soon appearing in the cockpits of light aircraft and on the flight decks of commercial airliners as pilots started to adopt the new watch as a flying tool and also, one suspects, a status symbol.
Racing drivers were also particularly fond of the Navitimer and they were seen on the wrists of World Champions Jim Clark and Graham Hill, both of whom also piloted their own aircraft.
Breitling were quick to expand its market beyond AOPA members and made the watch available to all. The AOPA letters were eventually dropped and the words Breitling Navitimer appeared below the wings logo. Advertising emphasised its adoption by professional pilots by featuring the logos of the considerable number of airlines that had bought Navitimers.
In 1961 America was upstaged in the Space Race by the Russians when Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth but the US was not far behind. On May 24 1962 40-million television viewers watched as Scott Carpenter, the second American to orbit the earth, blasted into space and one can only wonder how many might have noticed that he was wearing a Navitimer as he climbed into the Mercury-Atlas Aurora 7 capsule. As there is no night or day in space by which to judge the passing of time Carpenter’s watch, at his request, was specially adapted with a 24-hour dial and became the first Swiss wristwatch to enter space, orbiting the earth three times. Unfortunately, after spending five hours in space, Carpenter spent a further three hours bobbing on the Atlantic Ocean after splashdown waiting to be rescued, his watch was irreparably damaged and is now owned by Breitling. To capitalise on the mission a 24-hour civilian version was made available as the Breitling Cosmonaute. Beware, if you are tempted but not planning a trip into space non-cosmonauts will find the 24-hour dial a trifle confusing. A lifetime of reading a conventional watch has to be jettisoned because the hands point at numbers that don’t correlate to those that you have fixed in your head. Combinations like 7 past 19, or 16 to 9 might make less nimble minds stumble.
The Breitling Navitimer has long been recognised as the ultimate aviator’s watch, although in this digital age its analog calculating functions are in a practical sense redundant. The original Navitimer came with a fiendishly intimidating (for the non-mathematical) 21-page book of instructions on how to use the slide-rule facility so a pilot could work out fuel consumption, rate of climb, distance traveled and speed, etc. all of which can now be accomplished on a digital device by the push of a few buttons.
Those unfamiliar with the history of the Swiss watch industry are sometimes surprised to learn that many famous Swiss watch brands did not (and many still don’t) make their own movements (caliber) and Breitling was no different in that respect. The first 900-or-so Navitimers used a Valjoux 72 movement before switching in 1955 to a Venus 178 caliber, both top-notch classic Swiss movements. Today the current Navitimer uses an in-house caliber the B01 and is currently available in a number of options and diameters, 41mm, 43mm, and a very conspicuous invite to muggers at 46mm, manual or automatic, steel or gold with a range of colours for the face including the traditional black or the white face shown here. And it remains just as cool as when Miles Davis bought his in 1959. Oh yes, to save you counting there are now only 93 beads, or teeth, on the bezel.
Watch by Breitling
Watch by Breitling