Amongst the most significant changes wrought within watchmaking’s boardrooms, Georges Kern’s move from group head of watchmaking at Richemont to CEO of Breitling has undeniably been the most gripping. With the backing of the private equity group CVC Capital Partners, which acquired an 80 percent stake in Breitling last year, Kern has great plans for the 134-year-old brand, beginning with a complete overhaul of its image and collections.
Best known for making IWC one of the top performers in Richemont, the astute CEO has clipped Breitling’s famous “wings” with a streamlined new logo and consigned the brand’s notoriously macho, sexist image to history, which means no more pinup girls.
He has also shelved most of Breitling’s quartz offerings to focus on competing in the segment of US$3,500 to US$8,000 segment of mechanical watches. Breitling, according to Kern, had been focusing too narrowly on aviation to the exclusion of all other fields it had historically played in, which includes diving and motorsports. And the variety of minor offerings such as straps was illogically wide, with four different types of rubber straps offered for example. Rectifying this meant reducing the catalogue from an unwieldy 600 model references to nearer 100.
Designed to extend Breitling’s reach beyond aviation, the line-up now consists of four distinct collections that are delineated in terms of style and function – the Navitimer (air), the Superocean (sea), the Premier (land), and the Chronomat (all-purpose) – essentially making it easier for consumers to digest and buy. And watches across the collections will share certain design codes that are easy to comprehend. For instance, chronographs with an in-house movement will have contrast colour registers, while those with ETA movements will single-colour dials.
Naturally, the complication that will continue to define the brand is the chronograph. Breitling played a key role in the development of the modern chronograph wristwatch, having created the first chronograph with a separate push-piece in 1915, and subsequently the separation of the start, stop function from the reset function in 1923. And, that a Breitling Navitimer was actually the first Swiss wrist chronograph to travel to space – accompanying American astronaut Scott Carpenter on his 1962 orbital flight – remains a fact to crow about.
One of Kern’s key hires has been Guy Bove as creative director, who was most recently at Chopard and Ferdinand Berthoud but had formerly worked at IWC for six years with Kern. The designer is just one of an all-star team Kern put together, all lured by an equity-sharing place put in place by CVC, something almost unheard of in the watch industry.
Bove’s attention to detail, knack for fusing vintage elements and eye for typefaces is evident in both the new branding and the watches. The first collection created under their leadership was the Navitimer 8. The “8” comes from the Huit Aviation workshop established in 1938 to focus on cockpit instruments and watches — the name deriving from the eight-day power reserve that was standard for cockpit clocks.
The Navitimer 8 collection consists of five models: the B01, the Unitime, the Chronograph, the Day & Date, and the Automatic. Designed to honour Breitling’s renowned aviation heritage, the new Navitimer also reflects some of the brand’s new objectives. To that end, the Navitimer’s slide-rule bezel, a defining characteristic of its predecessors, has been deep-sixed in favour of a pilot’s watch with a plain bezel with a single elapsed time marker.
The other historical model that formed the basis for the new collection was the historical ref. 768. which served as inspiration for dial elements such as the typeface of the luminous Arabic numerals. All watches feature a notched rotating bezel with its inset arrow and the railway track, which are retro without being studiedly so. The watches are still generous in size – 41mm and 43mm – but are considerably more muted in terms of colour and design. Underneath the hood, the chronographs are powered by either the in-house B01 movement or a Valjoux 7750.
At Baselworld, Breitling added another two models to the Navitimer collection – the Navitimer 1 Automatic 38 and the Navitimer Super 8, as well as the Superocean Héritage II and Chronomat B01. With the Navitimer 1, the brand’s smallest Navitimer to date, Breitling undoubtedly has set its sights on the female as well as Asian market, which heretofore had been massively neglected by the brand, which only opened its first boutique in China this year.
The watch is the first in the revamped collection to feature the “beads of rice” bezel and slide rule, two key elements found on the original Navitimer. But in keeping with the overarching exercise in design simplicity, the watch in turn forgoes the chronograph.
The Navitimer Super 8 is a destro, or left-handed, watch that reaches deep into the brand’s heritage vaults, on which Kern is bent on leveraging. It takes inspiration from an obscure military watch, the ref. 637, a thigh-borne stopwatch used by bomber pilots during the Second World War. At 46mm, it is the biggest watch to be launched under the new leadership.
Previously powered by the Valjoux 7750, the brand’s chronograph diver’s watch, the Superocean Héritage II has now been equipped with the in-house B01 movement while the Chronomat B01 now boasts more “tool watch” styling, with a satin-brushed steel case and more subdued dial colours.
As part of the image overhaul, the retail sector of the brand has also experienced a revamp, with a series of modern and sophisticated “Breitling Lofts” to be rolled out globally. The brand will also be making its e-commerce debut on Richemont-owned Mr Porter next month. And just as Kern relied on a cast of celebrities and sportsmen to give IWC a dose of glamour, he recently announced the Breitling Squad, a line-up of brand ambassadors that includes Brad Pitt and Charlize Theron.
While it remains to be seen if its “Legendary Future” is an achievable reality, the strength of the new direction almost makes it a shoo-in.