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Feature: How The Navitimer Almost Didn’t Happen

For many watchmakers, the design process and public reception of its watches isn’t always plain sailing—that much can be said for Breitling’s iconic Navitimer. This is a story of a stubborn watchmaker who, after some badgering, eventually gave in to some audience feedback to create the classic timepiece we know and love today.

Resistance To The Aviation ‘Box’

The Navitimer is first and foremost known as a watch purpose-built for pilots; its name even suggests it—‘Navi’ as in navigation of course. But despite the obvious pros of the Navitimer as a tool perfectly equipped for aviators, this wasn’t what its creator had intended for it.

Willy Breitling, inventor of the second independent chronograph push piece

Willy Breitling, inventor of the second independent chronograph push piece

Instead, Willy Breitling—great grandson to Breitling founder Léon Breitling—wanted an audience of scientists, engineers and mathematicians for his timepiece with the intention of it simply becoming the ultimate chronograph. The Navitimer’s former name, then, the Chronomat, makes sense—the chronograph for mathematicians. However, the suitability of Willy’s creation for the skies was too obvious and tempting for some…

A Decade Of Pestering

For ten long years the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) consistently tried to urge Willy Breitling of the then Chronomat’s potential as a perfect pilot’s watch. “But why didn’t pilots simply get hold of the Chronomat and use it, then?” I hear you ask … well, it wasn’t quite as simple as that.

The first Breitling Navitimer model

The first Breitling Navitimer model

The Chronomat needed some adjustments first, which involved the recalibration specifically for aviation use, such as allowing pilots to calculate the rate of descent, fuel consumption, ground speed and more. Eventually, then, Willy begrudgingly conceded and the Chronomat was revised, and thus became the Navitimer.

Enter Carpenter

Not long after the aforementioned requests, test pilot Scott Carpenter approached Willy Breitling with an idea—to adjust the Navitimer so it could read twenty-four hours. This adjustment wasn’t just for the needs of Carpenter’s day job, but for his mission aboard the Aurora 7 where he became the second American to reach space.

NASA astronaut Scott Carpenter wore a Breitling in space

NASA astronaut Scott Carpenter wore a Breitling in space

On this special flight, Carpenter needed a timepiece to keep him orientated with the correct time, as he watched the sun set and rise again three times in his five-hour journey around the Earth. It was a good job, then, that Willy duly obliged to help with his request.

Was The Navitimer Really Released In 1952?

Incidentally, there’s speculation as to when the Navitimer was introduced. The year of release is widely considered to be 1952, although there is little proof of this. Furthermore, recent watch literature simply states that the brand “started working on a wrist instrument for pilots and aviation professionals” in 1952, with no mention of releases in this year. This may explain why a Navitimer model from the year 1952 is such a rarity.

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