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Review: Breitling Navitimer 8

As a watchmaker, Breitling has changed its direction a few times over the years, trying—and in some cases failing—to keep up with the demands of consumers in an ever-changing environment. One thing has remained true through all of it, however, and that’s the Navitimer, the meat and two veg of the Breitling diet. It’s good, it’s wholesome—and now it’s been changed to something completely different. Has Breitling finally lost it?

It may seem like the Navitimer has been a staple part of Breitling’s collection since time immemorial, but the truth of the company’s most famous watch is that it was in fact built—rather begrudgingly, I might add—as a custom order. Having inherited the company at the sprightly age of nineteen, Willy Breitling took the opportunity to step out from the shadow of his late father by casually patenting the double-pusher chronograph. That’s, you know, just the template for virtually every modern chronograph ever since, no big deal.

As if that wasn’t enough, Willy also spotted a golden opportunity within the burgeoning aviation industry, and so he established the ‘Huit Aviation Department’, specialising in aircraft cockpit instruments fitted with his eight-day movement—hence the ‘Huit’, meaning ‘eight’, in Huit Aviation Department. His instruments earned Breitling a contract with none other than the RAF, and just ahead of World War II, no less. Again, no big deal.

But this still wasn’t enough for Willy. It wasn’t enough to invent the chronograph as we perceive it today, or enough to supply an entire air force with aircraft instruments ahead of the largest aerial conflict the world had ever seen; Willy Breitling didn’t want to build the ultimate chronograph function, or the ultimate chronograph instrument—he wanted to build the ultimate chronograph, full stop.

His vision was like nothing else ever seen before, ambitious to say the least. This ultimate chronograph would be so because the chronograph would not be the premier function but would aid the calculations of the watch’s on-board computer. This was a smart watch long before smart watches existed, before even the first electronic watch. It was an analogue smart watch, and at the core of its limitless usability was the patented slide rule calculator.

First shown to the public in 1941, Willy Breitling’s new Chronomat claimed to do it all—and it could. Advertisements demonstrated the Chronomat’s far-reaching capabilities, pitched to the fields of science, sports, commerce and industry, hailing athletes, military tacticians, doctors, sports officials, mathematicians, engineers, scientists—and pretty much anyone who needs to calculate anything—as the target audience for this watch. Speed, distance, rates of change, frequency, multiplication, division, percentages—you name it, the Chronomat did it. It really was the ultimate chronograph.

And so he did it. Willy Breitling achieved his goal of creating a chronograph to end all chronographs. You would think all’s well that ends well, but the story’s not quite done yet. As post-war commercial aviation boomed, demand from the AOPA, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, for Willy to transform his beloved Chronomat into a version calibrated specifically for pilots, grew. The Chronomat had not been the widespread industry success Willy had hoped it would be, and so he begrudgingly created a version of the Chronomat customised just for aviation, which he called the Navitimer.

The irony is that, for all of Willy Breitling’s achievements, it was the Navitimer, the watch he’d been pressured to make, that became intrinsically linked with the brand his grandfather had founded. His work not only with the chronograph but with the aviation industry as a whole had paved the way for this milestone timepiece and the direction of the brand for decades to come, but ultimately his contributions became overshadowed by the legend of the watch itself. But has that legend been shattered?

Breitling has had a rough time of it for a while now. Where some brands, like Rolex, have taken to this new era of handmade luxury like a duck to water, others, like Breitling, have struggled to find a groove. Having been purchased at the brink of bankruptcy in 1979 by pilot, watchmaker and businessman Ernest Schneider and purchased again in 2017 by private equity firm CVC Capital Partners, the winds of change are starting to whistle through the brand’s Grenchen headquarters as new CEO Georges Kern instigates a period of total transformation.

I think you’ll agree that Breitling has suffered from a case of clutter in recent years. As Kern describes it, “too much choice is no choice at all”, and part of his mandate is to simplify Breitling to make it more approachable. Well, it seems that attitude has been taken rather literally with the new Navitimer 8, because it’s gathered up the famed complexity of the classic Navitimer and, well, thrown it all in the bin.

Granted, the original instruction manual that came with the Navitimer describes the watch as requiring “a little time and patience to master”, which sounds a bit like a parent politely apologising for a difficult child, but has the attention span of the average watch owner shrunk so much that decades of heritage can simply be ignored? And it’s not just a case of giving the watch a little bit of a tidy-up; not only has the slide rule gone, but the bezel has been left with nothing more just a triangle marker at the top. There’s simplification and then there’s obliteration.

At this point it’s worth noting that Breitling hasn’t been foolish enough to rid its catalogue of the Navitimer completely, the Navitimer 8 entering in alongside to complement it, but if the aim of the game is to reduce clutter, adding more watches doesn’t seem to be right way to go about it—unless it’s all part of a phased transition.

And the confusion continues with the name: Navitimer 8. The “8” is a nod to the Huit Aviation Department, so-called because of the eight-day power reserve found in all the instruments—but neither the in-house calibre B01 or the ETA 7750-based calibre 13 variants—yes, you can choose from both—has an eight-day power reserve. The B01 comes closest at less than halfway, extracting just under three days from its single, large barrel.

So, what gives? That depends on your point of view. Like Willy Breitling himself, it’s easy to get tunnel vision focussing on what we want Breitling to be doing, without any consideration to what Breitling needs to be doing. Market factors dictated the existence of the Navitimer the first time around, and once again we’re in a position where the company needs to shift. The Navitimer 8 is new and different and unexpected, yes, but it should be in good faith that we observe the changing of the guard from the old to the new.

Maybe Georges Kern will get it wrong, and maybe he’ll get it right; either way, at least he’s doing something to try and make Breitling exciting and inspiring again. It’s a company born from a pioneering spirit of invention and adventure and risk-taking, and with the help of Georges Kern and the Navitimer 8, perhaps it will be once more.

Once again, the story hasn’t yet quite reached its conclusion. Willy Breitling had his Chronomat, when really what he needed was the Navitimer, and now we have the Navitimer 8, when perhaps what we really need is a new model name altogether. And that’s happened, because the Navitimer 8 collection has since been renamed the “Aviator 8”, and with it the sparse bezel updated to include some more usable hour markers. A lesson learned, perhaps, and a step forward. Let’s see where it takes us next.

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