Breitling: A Perfect Premier
Impeccable style meets purpose and substance in the Breitling Premier B01 Chronograph 42.
The origin of the Breitling Premier
Breitling is a brand that has been built, in its modern era at least, on a bedrock of tough, no-nonsense tool watches made with professionals in mind. But as a brand with nearly 140 years of history, there’s more to Breitling than fan favorites like the Navitimer and the Superocean. Within its archives, there’s also plenty of elegance to be found. In fact, you don’t need to look any further than the elegant Breitling Premier, which was unveiled earlier this year in an attractive six-pack, offered in a 42mm case and powered by the impressive Breitling Manufacture Caliber 01.
The history of the Premier goes back 80 years to 1943. But before we look at the storied past and bright future of this most prestigious chronograph, we need to lay the groundwork of why Breitling is so intrinsically linked with the chronograph.
The early years of the Breitling Premier
While Breitling as a brand has a catalog full of distinctive, exceptional watches, if you had to distill the essence of the maker down to one word, it would be — chronographs. From its earliest days, Breitling has specialized. In 1884, Léon Breitling opened his first atelier in Saint-Imier, Switzerland and, in less than a decade, had turned it into a fully-fledged manufacture in La Chaux-de-Fonds, the ticking heart of the Swiss watch industry. Even at this time, Breitling had excelled at producing stopwatches and chronographs, developing patented innovations that set the tone for the future of the brand. In 1914, Léon’s son Gaston took the helm of the family firm, and with an eye on the world’s changing relationship with timekeepers, created one of the first chronographs worn on the wrist with an independent pusher at two o’clock. This feature allowed a more practical way of interacting with the complicated watch, and also minimized the risk of accidental actuation. The impetus for this innovation was the then newly emerging field of heavier-than-air flight, marking the first of Breitling’s many forays into the world of aviation.
However, Gaston Breitling’s tenure at the head of the company was relatively short — he passed away in 1927, leaving his young son, Willy Breitling, as the sole heir of the family business. In contrast, Willy would manage the company for more than 50 years, shepherding it from success to success. An early innovation from 1933, which Willy oversaw, was the addition of a second pusher at four o’clock, which separated the start/stop functionality (at two), from this new, dedicated reset function. This layout, formative in defining the modern chronograph both in terms of form and function, was but one reason why Willy Breitling and the brand he led are synonymous with this singular complication.
Willy Breitling, King of The Chronograph
A central figure in the story of Breitling — and the pivotal character in the origin of the Premier — is Willy Breitling. The third generation of the Breitling family to run the company, Willy’s tale is as remarkable as the man himself. He took over the reins of the family company at the tender age of 19. Breitling’s official brand historian and author of Premier Story — the definitive history of the collection — Fred Mandelbaum explains, “Willy Breitling was 13 years old when his father died. He was a boy in school. From family history, we see that for him it was clear what he would do. There was never a doubt that he would lead Breitling.
Breitling’s CEO at the age of 20
There was actually a law in Switzerland at the time that said that you cannot be the General Manager of a corporation before the age of 20. So he joined the company before his 19th birthday, took over management internally, and convinced his mother that he was ready. There are stories of him going through the books and discovering all kinds of shenanigans, and pushing out the General Manager whom his mother had employed, taking over the company when he was 19, and being officially registered as CEO on his 20th birthday.” Now, it would be reasonable to expect that someone of Willy’s age would lack the experience and skills typically associated with running a business, but in this particular instance, Willy confounded expectations, rapidly proving himself an effective and even visionary leader of his family brand. When it comes to Willy’s vision and direction for the company, Mandelbaum notes that in the early years of his tenure, there was a scarcity of documentation in terms of strategy or business direction. For the 1930s at least, the best measure of Willy’s effectiveness in the role was how well the business performed overall.
Breitling: The chronograph company
“Very shortly afterward, we see in an Austrian magazine, he lays out chronographs — you have to understand Breitling’s core positioning was always the chronograph — this is where the patents and innovations came from. It was a chronograph company. Back then, chronographs, like wristwatches in general, were a niche product. Men didn’t wear watches; men had waistcoats, and men laughed at wristwatches to begin with. Willy saw that the wristwatch had to win, and you see him looking at strategies as to why everyone would need a chronograph.
Kodak’s influence on Breitling’s strategy
This was in 1935. In an interview he looks at marketing, and cites the example of the Kodak Brownie camera, which was a mass-market, easy-to-use camera that changed the market completely. That was hugely important; photography for everyone was a game changer, and Willy cites this in an interview. He says we need to look at Kodak, we need to standardize a product, give it an appearance that people will want to win, and then we need to look at the pricing of course. He defined the ‘popular’ line, which brought people in, and then a high-end line that defined the brand. So he was 20 years old and had it all worked out: we’re going to define the form; we’re going to define a product line from entry-level to high-end; we’re going to specifically brand it; and we’re going to make sure — and this was in 1935, when nobody talked about it — that everyone will want a chronograph on his wrist.” Willy’s gamble on the chronograph paid off, as the market for these specialized timers boomed in the 1940s.
How to make chronograph watches desirable again?
The 1950s, however, saw the business of watches head in a different direction. Mandelbaum explained, “In the 1950s, the popularity of diving, speared on by Jacques Cousteau, led to a boom in dive watches. So everyone who ‘needed’ a chronograph in the ’40s now ‘needed’ a dive watch. Chronograph sales dropped dramatically.” But Willy had a plan. “Willy was the head of the association of chronograph manufacturers during the 1950s, and they put together hundreds of pages of strategy, market research, etc, looking at how to reposition the chronograph and make it sexy again. This is what happens in the early 1960s, with all the sports chronographs that we know and cherish today, like the Breitling Top Time. They actually all came out of that strategy paper where they defined a new marketing approach for chronographs. We see sales rising tenfold during the ’60s, with the craze where everybody needed a sports chronograph. This is all documented — he was very influential.”
From Purpose to Style with the sports chronograph
The seeds of the sports chronograph success that would sprout in the 1960s were planted decades earlier, in the early 1940s. The world in the ’40s was, of course, a world at war, and Breitling’s precision timekeepers and aviation chronographs were tools with a critical purpose, destined for use by the RAF and others. What’s perhaps startling then is that, during this time of conflict and confusion, Breitling was looking to the future, and saw that it looked bright. Willy Breitling sensed the war was ending, and, while the company was supporting the war effort, he was planning for peace. Mandelbaum describes how Willy’s sophisticated marketing sensibilities laid the groundwork for decades to come.
The meaning behind the Breitling Premier name
“Willy was like a very gifted chess player, planning his moves 12 moves ahead. You see him designing technology, casing, appearance, etc., and then in the 1940s, he defines a marketing strategy. Each of the lines gets their own names, which was very unusual back then. Very few watchmakers, and none that covered multiple market segments, named their collections. So the first one to appear with its own family name on the dial was the Chronomat. Then the Duograph, the Datora and the Premier appeared concurrently during the years of 1943 and ’44. That 1943 is defined as the birth year of the Premier, is because this was when it got its name.” Mandelbaum goes on to explain, “The name came from what the watch is about. Willy didn’t mean for Premier to mean first; he meant it to be the best — like a Premier Cru wine. This was his concept of what Premier was. The best movements and the best functionality as the basis of course, along with the best quality assurance and using the best casemakers, the best dial makers, etc.
Heading to Hollywood with Paramount to market the Breitling Premier
Alongside this, with the launch of the Premier, you see the language of the companies’ positions (through advertising, etc,) dramatically change. Willy signed a contract with Paramount in Hollywood. Cesar Romero was the Latin heartthrob of the times, and he was signed for an advertising deal. You see hope as the core of his strategy. He knows the war; he feels it will end quite soon, so he repositions his watches into the civilian markets. The luxury, exuberance and optimism — those characteristics are what really make the Premier. It is a watch of hope and joie de vivre.”
Specialist suppliers helped Breitling in building a fantastic chronograph
It’s worth noting that while today Breitling’s in-house caliber 01 is amongst the best chronograph movements on the market, the landscape of the watch industry was dramatically different during Willy’s time. Breitling, like the rest of the industry, used a network of specialist suppliers, rather than producing them internally. For the Premier models, Breitling used nothing but the best. That’s true for the cases, and also for the calibers. At the time, the best were the movements made in Moutier, by a young company called Vénus SA. From 1937/38 onwards, Vénus assembled the caliber 170 for Breitling; the brand used it in their entry-level chronograph line. But for the Premier, it was the higher-specced Vénus calibers like the 175 and the 178. These movements were impressive for the time, with a column-wheel chronograph design, Incabloc shock protection and Breguet hairsprings. These calibers were legendary chronographs in their own right, and fitting powerhouses for the Premier.
The Legendary Premier watch
Born out of hope, the promise of those first Premier models paid off. Mandelbaum notes that measuring the success of specific models from 80 years ago is challenging, with the only real data available being production batches. But even based on this limited understanding, the numbers paint a picture. If you look at production batches of specific models, it starts in quantities of 100s and moved to batches of 2,000. From the early ’40s through to the mid- ’40s, production rose eightfold.
The reference 765 and 777
While the first wave of Breitling Premier chronographs was offered in a wide array of configurations and designs, a few specific references stand out to collectors. First, the twin references 765 and 777 must be mentioned. The former is a triple-register chronograph, in a 38.1mm case, powered by the Vénus 178 caliber that is notable for the long, slender and tapering lugs that came to define the Premier ‘look’. The 777 is the twin-register version of the same watch. Interestingly enough, these watches were developed prior to the Premier becoming an official collection in 1943, but they certainly lived up to the values of the name, and remained a staple of the lineup until the 1960s. Most ref. 765 models were cased in steel, and the rare fully-gold cased versions are exceptionally rare and highly sought after by collectors today.
Breitling’s forgotten heritage
Speaking of collectors, Mandelbaum points out that in terms of communicating about their heritage and history, the brand has some catching up to do. “One of the problems that we hope to change, and we’re very open about it, is that Breitling neglected their heritage. There’s a lot of discussion about why the [Ernest] Schneider-era Breitling ignored the past. There’s a funny story — so Willy Breitling’s son, Gregory was living in Geneva and working for Harry Winston. Not even once did the Schneiders contact him. The first person to contact him was Georges Kern when he took over company management. Whatever the reason, for a long time Breitling ignored their heritage and did not support the collectors’ community. This led to something that I hope the book is going to change: a huge percentage of the Breitling Premier watches offered in the past were fake. It’s actually quite easy: you took a generic Swiss chronograph, produced a fake Breitling dial, and tried to sell it for more money. This has changed over the last few years, and the book will help even more, as there’s a collectors’ toolbox section that will allow you to immediately tell if a Breitling Premier is real or not.”
The Breitling Premier returns in 2018
Until only a few years ago, vintage was the only way for Breitling fans to get a Premier on their wrist. But that all changed in 2018, when the Premier made a triumphant return to the catalog and Breitling was once again in the business of dressy chronographs. This initial release was followed in 2021 by the Premier Heritage B09, a 40mm contemporary retro take on the classic, powered by the manually wound B09 movement and featuring a model with an especially striking pistachio dial. Sylvain Berneron is Breitling’s Creative Director, and he’s been involved with the Premier project since its earliest days. We caught up with Berneron, and got him to talk us through the process of updating an 80-year-old icon into a watch ready for the 21st century. “We originally drew the revamped collection based on the vintage pieces we had from the ’40s and ’50s,” he explained. “I’m responsible for the design team, so from the first sketch basically until we finalize the tooling and send the product into production.”
Community Feedback and inspiration
In 2018, only 12 months after Georges Kern assumed management of Breitling, they debuted the first evolution of the modern Premier, in 42mm chronographs and 40mm time-only and day-date versions. Berneron explained the response to this elegant debut: “The feedback we received in 2018 was really good. We had a lot of people reaching out and saying, ‘Oh thank you, this was such a long winter for us’. The only choice people who wanted this sort of watch had was to collect vintage examples, and now they can actually have one they can comfortably wear in daily life, and which offers the same aesthetics. It was a bold move. Growing a vintage design by three, four or five millimeters is not the easiest thing to do while retaining proportion and elegance.”Of course, while proponents of vintage watches might lament the increase in size of modern interpretations of classic designs — watch designers included — there’s usually a very good reason for it. Berneron explained: “To me it’s mainly the size of the pieces — in the vintage watches from the ’40s and ’50s they were mainly 36, 37 or 38mm cases. Movements were only manual wind, and the pieces were certainly not waterproof. Overall, the performance of the calibers was inferior to what we offer now (this might change in the future if the technology improves), but the biggest difference between the vintage and the modern versions is the size of the package. Because now we have automatic movements with longer power reserves that are way more precise, chronometry with waterproofness, and a screw-down caseback. We’ve added a whole host of modern attributes to the Premier that made the whole package grow — significantly. The minimum size we can offer these days is 40mm. These Premier pieces are 42mm because of the automatic winding system.” Of course, with a small size increase comes a whole range of contemporary improvements. Berneron goes into detail as to the elements of the new Premier models that really honor the spirit of the past. “Firstly, I think the overall proportions.
Capturing elegance as the main goal
We really wanted to capture the elegance and the finesse of these pieces. The goal was really targeted toward elegance and what I call ‘substance’ in terms of watchmaking. We have good movements, good case finishing and the same goes for the dial. We’ve done our homework with regard to the typography as well. We really reframed these designs to make sure they’re directly linked to Breitling’s heritage of the ’40s and ’50s, and I think we’ve managed that quite faithfully. The other side of the coin, compared to the vintage ones, is that you can wear these watches on a daily basis and not have to be worried. You have to be very careful with a 70- or 80-year-old watch. They’re not very versatile.”
For Berneron, the appeal of the Breitling Premier is about more than it being an elegant chronograph reminiscent of a bygone era — it speaks of something more fundamental about Breitling, and about contemporary taste in watches. “For the last 10 years, we’ve seen an extreme domination of sports watches, and sporty integrated steel watches specifically. I think this has to do with modernity — we don’t have to be so formal these days, and we like to have one watch that can do it all. I understand that. But one specificity of Breitling that I like a lot is the width of its portfolio. We can make a gold Premier with a manually wound caliber, all the way up to a titanium Emergency, which is a professional device. This is, in my opinion, one of the main points of difference between Breitling and other watch brands; we really offer a wide spectrum, and it is very important for us to keep this legacy alive. At the moment we keep developing the Premier collection more for the love of the game than for commercial purposes. I might be dreaming, but I like to believe that the market operates like a pendulum. We’ve gone so far toward the integrated steel sports watch, and perhaps everyone has one in their collection — so perhaps we’ll see the return to slimmer pieces with more watchmaking substance involved.”
The Latest Additions
There’s no doubting the substance of the latest members of the Premier collection. Eighty years after the initial debut of Breitling’s seminal chronograph, we’re treated to the latest incarnation: the Breitling Premier B01 Chronograph 42. The first flush of this elegant update is six new models, all powered by one impressive movement, the Breitling Manufacture Caliber 01.
Debuting in 2009, this purpose-built, integrated chronograph caliber is one of the most well-respected chronograph calibers currently in production, built with reliability and robustness in mind. What’s more, the Caliber 01 has been subtly improved over the years. The latest iteration redesigned in 2022 is slimmer than ever before, thanks to the more compact oscillating weight. What’s more, every aspect of the movement has been subjected to Breitling’s grueling 16-year testing regime, which simulates a lifetime of shocks (approximately 60,000 500G impacts), crown wear (more than 100,000 winds), chronograph pusher testing (approximately 5,840 starts, stops and resets), as well as testing the reliability of the weight itself (with nearly 3.5 million oscillations of the rotor). All this is backed by a five-year warranty, adding up to a movement that you can confidently wear day in and day out. Of course, it’s got the power reserve to match — offering 70 hours of autonomy off the wrist. And while the dials of the latest Premier models are the talking point, Breitling has been careful to show off their top-of-the-line chronograph movement too — you can get an uninterrupted view, thanks to the sapphire caseback.
Breitling has favored the classics for this debut collection, offering black, blue, salmon, green and cream dials — all with tonally matched subdials and applied dial hardware. The dial design is classical and restrained, with finely printed numerals, an outer tachymeter scale, a well-integrated date at six, and polished Arabic hour markers. Dial construction is quite technical too, with a multi-layered construction, and a mix of finishes to add richness and texture. A similar level of care has been applied to the handset too. The main hour hands are in the syringe style, elegantly pointed, and generously filled with luminous material. The cream and black dials are the most traditional, while the blue and green have a more contemporary flavor. However, the standout for many will be the salmon, a warm and pleasing hue that only accentuates the vintage flair of the Premier. As befitting the dressy nature of these 42mm Premiers, they come on rather dressy alligator leather straps, in colors matched with the dial. In case you’re looking for something a little more hardwearing or casual, there’s also the option of a steel bracelet, in Breitling’s famous seven-link pattern.
Special mention needs to be made of the red gold model, offered with a cream dial with matching red- gold toned hands and hour markers, and fitted on a glossy brown alligator strap. This particular model really exemplifies the values and spirit of the Premier. Every element of this watch is of the finest quality, just like the very first Premier watches released by Willy Breitling 80 years ago. And while today, this dressy chronograph bucks the trend for sporty steel watches somewhat, good taste never goes out of style.
Breitling Premier Tech Specs
Breitling Premier B01 Chronograph 42 In Steel
Movement: Self-winding Breitling Manufacture Caliber 01; 70-hour power reserve
Functions: Hours and minutes; date; chronograph
Case: 42mm x 13.6mm; stainless steel; water resistant to 100m
Strap: Alligator leather in a range of colors with folding buckle or a seven-row steel bracelet with a butterfly clasp
Breitling Premier B01 Chronograph 42 In Red Gold
Movement: Self-winding Breitling Manufacture Caliber 01; 70-hour power reserve
Functions: Hours and minutes; small seconds; date; chronograph
Case: 42mm x 13.6mm; 18K red gold; water resistant to 100m
Strap: Brown alligator leather with an 18K red gold folding buckle or 18K red gold seven-row bracelet with a butterfly clasp
FROM THE SHOP
|Movement||Manual winding caliber Vulcain V-10 alarm; 42-hour power reserve|
|Functions||Hours, minutes, seconds, alarm|
|Case||39mm × 12.7mm 316L stainless steel case; water resistant to 50m|
|Dial||Two-tone semi-matte dial with black printing and polished silver indexes|
|Strap||Brown calf leather strap; stainless steel pin buckle|