Founded in Grenchen, Switzerland in 1884 by Leon Breitling, this company is known for its rugged, precision watches that go the distance both on land, in the sea, and in the air. In fact, during the 20th century, Breitling even had a division that built clocks for airplane cockpits. Known as the brand that makes instruments for professionals, Breitling’s most iconic watches include the Navitimer watch for pilots that features a slide-rule bezel, its SuperOcean watch for divers, and its Emergency watch with built-in dual-frequency emergency beacons that have already been credited with saving lives.
With its roots in Saint-Imier, Switzerland, Breitling is a watchmaker known for producing precision chronometers and pilot watches. Founded in 1884 by Léon Breitling, Breitling has become one of the world’s most respected and recognizable watch companies. Breitling is one of the few manufacturers that does not belong to the three largest watch groups: Swatch, Richemont, and LVMH.
After the death of Léon Breitling, his son Gaston Breitling took over the company. Following the aviation expansion during WWI, he decided to focus on pilot’s watches. Breitling introduced its first chronograph wristwatch with a central second hand and a 30 minute counter in 1915. In 1923 Gaston introduced the first independent chronograph with a separate pusher at 2 o’clock, effectively separating the start and stop functions. In 1932, Gaston left his place as head of the company to his son Willy Breitling.
During the 1940s, Breitling included a sliding calculator on its Chronomat, with three of the most important units for pilots – STAT for standard mileage, KM for kilometers, and NAUT for nautical miles. From 1952 onward, this bezel became most familiar with the launch of the Navitimer, the evolution of the original Chronomat. As the first watch capable of handling all the complex calculations in a flight plan, NASA chose Navitimer as the ideal timepiece for astronauts to wear in space in 1962.
The company survived the quartz crisis in the 1970s, but Willy’s health was declining, and his two sons were too young to take over. As a result, Willy Breitling sold the company to entrepreneur Ernest Schneider, a watchmaker and a pilot. Following the Schneider family’s acquisition, they operated the company until 2017, when the family sold 80 % of the majority stakes to CVC Capital Partners. The following year, in 2018, CVC Capital Partners also purchased the remaining 20 %, gaining total control of Breitling.
Breitling has long been known for its world-class timepieces, but it didn’t introduce its first caliber, the B01 chronograph movement, until 2009. Before that, the company only used calibers from suppliers like ETA, Valjoux, and Venus.
Breitling watches maintain a high quality and reputation by having all of their timepieces Chronometer certified by the COSC, the Swiss Official Chronometer Testing Institute. This testing process takes 11 days and includes measuring the watch’s deviation rate, which allows for a maximum deviation of -4 to +6 seconds per day.
In 1995, Breitling introduced the Emergency I watch, which featured a radio transmitter activated with the push of a button. This feature has saved dozens of lives since its introduction, including when two British pilots crashed their helicopter in the hostile wilderness of Antarctica in 2003.
Breitling released the Emergency II watch in April 2013. A notable update was the transmitting frequency with the Emergency II watch. The wearer can send their coordinates with a frequency of 121.5 MHz, which satellites can monitor.
Breitling is owned in majority by CVC Capital Partners, a British private equity and investment advisory firm, and a significant minority stake was sold to Partners Group in 2021.
Sean Connery, aka James Bond, wore a Breitling Top Time modified by gadget master Q in the 1965 film Thunderball. The watch features a Geiger counter that Bond uses to track stolen nuclear bombs. The watch was auctioned in England in 2012 for around 130,000 USD.