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Review: Breitling Navitimer 806 1959 Re-edition

The decade gone marked the occasion of the Breitling Navitimer’s sixtieth anniversary, and as that decade drew to a close, Breitling released what is an almost exact replica of that original reference, the 806. It seems now is as good a time as any to get on board the Breitling train and treat yourself to this prototypical pilot’s watch—but should you?

The Navitimer Did It First

Given that aeroplanes have only existed since the early 1900s, it stands to reason that pilots’ watches didn’t start appearing until then as well. There’s foresight and then there’s predicting the future, and you’d have to be a pretty clever sort of person to think ahead on the whole flight business and make a watch specifically for pilots.

Really, it’s the other way around. As flight became possible, the limitations revealed themselves, and for keeping time, there was a big one. People weren’t wearing wristwatches back then; they were wearing pocket watches. Now imagine straddling the Kitty Hawk, basically a glorified kite with an engine bolted on, and it’ll soon become clear that fumbling around for a pocket watch whilst trying not to plummet to the ground and die is not ideal.

It took only a year after the Wright Brothers’ maiden flight for things to change, and it was eccentric pilot Alberto Santos-Dumont who ushered in that change. He was a keen competition pilot, and for him, timekeeping had the edge over survival, and so his main concern was making sure he was winning. For that he needed a watch he could check without letting go of his contraption, and so he asked friend Louis Cartier to come up with something. The solution? The wristwatch.

Breitling was founded by Leon Breitling in 1884, St-Imier, Switzerland

Breitling was founded by Leon Breitling in 1884, St-Imier, Switzerland

For a long time, the simple act of strapping a watch to a wrist was convenience enough for pilots, with the watches simply getting bigger and clearer. For almost fifty years there was no real advancement—that is, until Breitling decided to release the Navitimer.

It was no moment of lucid enlightenment—the Navitimer was the culmination of three branches of specialist knowledge that only Breitling had available. First was the manufacture of chronographs, of which Breitling invented the typical twin-pusher layout we’re so familiar with today; second was experience in avionics, an industry Breitling supplied cockpit instruments to; and thirdly was a platform to build upon, the slide rule Chronomat, previously designed as a calculator tool for scientists, engineers and mathematicians. Put all that together and what do you get? The Navitimer, the first watch truly designed for pilots.

It’s A Proper Pilots’ Watch

What separates the Navitimer from the pilots’ watches before it is plainly evident on the dial; it looks as busy as an aircraft cockpit. Pilots need to know the time of course, and for half a century that was all the manufacturers of watches were willing to concede, but Breitling knew better. The Navitimer was to be a true pilots’ watch—not just a watch that’s more convenient to read without having to let go of the flight controls, but one that offered functionality beneficial specifically to pilots.

As I said, the design was borrowed from the earlier Chronomat, a watch that added simplicity to the complex calculations undertaken by professionals during the course of their daily work. Multiplication, division, rates of change, rule of three—it could do it all. Quite simply, Breitling was aiming for the stars with the Chronomat, intending for it to become the smartwatch of its generation, a wrist-worn computer in the true sense of the term that it hoped would become a must-have tool in industry.

It didn’t quite work out like that, but there was an alternative: use the company’s knowledge of aircraft instruments to recalibrate the Chronomat into a navigation timer—or Navitimer. Now it could be used to measure speed, rate of climb or descent, fuel consumption, distance—exactly the kinds of things a pilot might need to calculate in flight.

The Breitling Navitmer was first introduced in 1952

The Breitling Navitmer was first introduced in 1952

To say it was a success is an understatement. The watch was released exclusively through the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association—who actually urged Breitling to make the thing in the first place—as a must-have for in-flight problem-solving. No more loose slide rules, no more tables—a pilot could trust on their watch to make sure they got where they needed to go, all with a twist on the smoothly knurled bezel.

So, although the Navitimer is a long way off being the first watch made for pilots by some fifty years, it is the first watch made exclusively for pilots, that offers an inventory of functions that are not only useful in the air, but imperative. This is before smartphones, before digital computers, before a cockpit was festooned with screens and when the calculations were done in the pilot’s head. The Breitling Emergency’s built-in distress beacon may save a pilot if they crash, but the Navitimer stops them crashing in the first place.

It’s An Instantly Recognisable Icon Of Design

The reason the Navitimer is such a popular watch today isn’t because of its origin story, but quite simply because there’s nothing else that looks anything like it. It’s a landmark in design, completely unmistakable—and every single part of it is functional. Some like the way it looks, and others really don’t—but there’s no denying that the reason it looks like it does is anything to do with anything but pure functionality.

Especially here with this 806 1959 Re-edition, matched perfectly to the original—including the snap-on case back hiding the in-house calibre B09 and the plexiglass crystal replacing modern sapphire for the authentic look—there’s not a line or a number that’s superfluous. It may seem busy—and that’s because it is—but just like the inordinate mess that is an aircraft cockpit, it’s all there to do a job. The branding, including the winged Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association logo, is squeezed in as an afterthought, offering no compromise to what’s really important.

And that’s because, in a situation where the wrong calculation could result in disaster, there’s no room for frippery. The dial is jet black with clean white hands over clean white markers, the rotating bezel inverted to find the divide instantaneously. It may be cluttered, but it’s organised clutter. In fact, strip away the calculator functionality, and the basis of the design is the same as the later Omega Speedmaster, a watch lauded for its forward-thinking approach.

Since 2009, Breitling has used in-house movements for its watches. This Navitimer uses the in-house calibre B09

Since 2009, Breitling has used in-house movements for its watches. This Navitimer uses the in-house calibre B09

Remarkably, this Navitimer, like the Speedmaster, denotes a moment in history when humanity took a significant step forward. For Omega, that was of course the moon landings, but equally important was Breitling’s part in the progression of air travel. The forties and fifties, after World War Two, saw enormous leaps in trans-continental flight, and the Navitimer was there to facilitate the professionals of this new industry.

It’s like a freezeframe in time, a capsule of information and experiences that date back to the promise of the 1950s, the hope of what was to come after such a long period of depression and war. It was as important in its day as the Apple Watch is today—if not more so—and it’s both the functionality of the watch and the way that drives its look that sealed its fate in the halls of legend.

Like the Speedmaster, like the Submariner, the Navitimer is an icon of its industry, the watch that made waves and brought about a new future for aviation. Perhaps that seems like hyperbole, but the Navitimer really was cutting-edge technology for its time, a revolution in thinking after a stale fifty years of limited progression. The 806 1959 Re-edition celebrates that breakthrough by offering a facsimile of what that time might have been like to live first hand—and if you’re thinking a Navitimer might be the watch for you, this is perhaps the perfect place to start.

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