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Feature: When Bond Went Breitling

By the time Thunderball, the fourth James Bond film, was released in 1965, cinema’s most famous spy had already established himself as a staunch Rolex man. Bond, then played by Sean Connery, wore a Submariner Reference 6538—reputed to be from the actor’s personal collection—in Dr No, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger.

Unlike today’s Omega-Bond relationship, however, there was no megabucks endorsement deal involved. The filmmakers were, at that point in the series, simply staying faithful to the original Ian Fleming novels, which only ever referenced Rolex. Indeed, Fleming himself, a man who appreciated the finer things in life, was a Rolex man, favouring an Explorer Reference 1016.

Bond wore a Rolex Submariner Reference 6538 in the first three films. Image courtesy of Bonhams.

Bond wore a Rolex Submariner Reference 6538 in the first three films. Image courtesy of Bonhams.

Under no obligation to feature only Rolex, the filmmakers decided to give a supporting role to another brand in Thunderball, introducing not one Breitling watch to the Bond canon but two.

The Submariner made another appearance, but it was a very unusual Breitling that stole the limelight in Thunderball—one of the most financially successful Bond films ever made—and bagged an impressive ‘Bond first’ in the process.

The Watch-as-Gadget Era Begins… With Breitling

Interestingly, you’d think that the first ever Bond watch to do something cool and gadgety—as befitting a fictional secret service agent—would be a Rolex. Everyone remembers the Submariner Reference 5513 with buzzsaw bezel used by Roger Moore’s Bond in Live and Let Die, for example. Or the Omega Seamaster Professional with a built-in bomb detonator and laser used by Pierce Brosnan’s Bond.

Yet that claim to fame goes to none other than Breitling, whose ‘Top Time’ model was adapted by Q and his laboratory of boffins to feature a Geiger counter—a handy little device for detecting radiation. The props department also had it heavily modified so that it came within a large cushion case, rather than the standard circular one available to the public.

A modern version of Breitling's Top Time model, worn by James Bond in Thunderball

A modern version of Breitling's Top Time model, worn by James Bond in Thunderball

In the film, two atomic bombs are hijacked and held to ransom by long-time Bond adversary SPECTRE. The Geiger counter on the Breitling Top Time helps Bond locate the bombs, while the other Breitling in the movie—a Navitimer Reference 806—is worn by Francois Derval, a French NATO pilot, who is then killed and has his identity stolen by a SPECTRE assassin.

Bond later produces the watch as evidence of Derval’s death. No fleeting half-glimpses here—these watches were integral to the plot and got a respectable amount of screen time.

Interestingly, the Breitling ‘Top Time’ was also the only watch ever issued to Connery’s Bond by Q Branch, with Roger Moore’s incarnation of the character getting all the best stuff—especially during the digital Seiko era of the 1970s.

Boot Sale Bargain

We live in an era when film props are not only meticulously documented from the moment they’re acquired, but often sold at auction for astronomical amounts within a few years of being on screen.

So it might seem borderline negligent to us that the Breitling Top Time went M.I.A for decades. We can only speculate on its wilderness years. One story online claims it was procured by a person working at Pinewood Studios, where much of the filming took place, before being sold years later to someone who didn’t know exactly what they had on their hands.

Also seen in Thunderball is a Breitling Navitimer Reference 308

Also seen in Thunderball is a Breitling Navitimer Reference 308

That is, until discovering a thread about the whereabouts of the watch on an online forum.

Predictably, the UK press preferred the fairytale version—that it turned up at a car boot sale in the UK and was bought by a lucky bargain hunter for the laughably low price of £25.

As the buyer wished to remain anonymous, we may never know the real story. But what we do know is that they finally realised they owned a rare and sought-after piece of movie memorabilia and ended up taking it to an expert who valued it at around £30,000 to £60,000.

This amount turned out to be way off the mark. It eventually ended up at a Christies auction in 2013 where it sold for over £100,000—a bit of a steal considering an Omega Planet Ocean worn by Daniel Craig in Skyfall had sold for £157,250 in 2012.

And the other Breitling used in Thunderball? Who knows, but keep a look out for an old Navitimer Reference 806 the next time you’re rootling through the dusty trinkets at your local flea market.

The Re-issue

Breitling, finally capitalising on this bit of promotional serendipity, re-issued the Top Time model in 2020. Limited to 2,000 pieces, it features a distinctive dial design that has earned the nickname ‘the Zorro’ due to the black ‘mask’ over the sub-dials.

Breitling's 2020 limited edition re-issue of the Top Timer with 'zorro' dial.

Breitling's 2020 limited edition re-issue of the Top Timer with 'zorro' dial.

Unfortunately it doesn’t feature a Geiger counter—that never existed in real life—nor a cushion case, but this handsome chronograph does boast a vintage look, with Super-LumiNova-coated hands, dot hour markers and a decimal scale on the outer track for some added aeronautical kudos.

It also features a ‘B’ logo under 12 o’clock, which obviously stands for ‘Breitling’, but, if you really want to max out your 007 fantasy, you can always pretend it stands for ‘Bond’. We won’t judge you.

It’s unlikely a Breitling will ever feature in a Bond film again, but nobody will ever be able to take away the fact that the brand provided this iconic movie spy with his first Q-issued gadget watch—a remarkable footnote in the brand’s long history, and one about which they seem to be admirably modest.