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Review: Breitling Top Time

If you ever happen to be in Monaco and you’re looking for somewhere to eat, check out a little place just past the Casino called “Tip Top”. It’s surprisingly cheap, the food is surprisingly nice, and compared to everything else around it, it’s a welcome breath of fresh, affordable air. Must be something in the name, then, or names like it, because this limited edition Top Time from Breitling shares many of the same traits. So, pull up a chair, tuck the tablecloth into your collar and grab a fork, because we’re tucking in.


Breitling and chronographs go together like cheese on a pizza—one of Tip Top’s specialities, as it happens. With every watchmaker competing in the wake of the industrial revolution to capture their niche, Breitling quickly found its own in the science of timing things. Patek Philippe was all about complication, Omega all about design and precision—for Breitling it was the chronograph.

And they did a roaring trade through the 1800s and into the 20th century. That is, until the kids got too cool for chronographs. That’s not even a joke. Willy Breitling, founder Léon Breitling’s grandson and owner of Breitling from 1935 to 1978, noted that the youth of the day were turning their noses up at precision timekeepers. Sound familiar?

You can hardly blame them. The chronographs of the 40s and 50s were pretty boring. Small, dull, the kinds of things their uncool parents would have worn, it was clear that the chronograph was no longer “it”. Breitling used to be “it”, but then, to quote Abe Simpson, “they changed what ‘it’ was.” Willy, keen not to lose sight of his business, needed a plan. Omega had their plan, the Speedmaster; Rolex had theirs, the Cosmograph. For Breitling, something needed to happen that was simple, affordable and a breath of fresh air: that something was the Top Time.

The 60s really were a tough time for chronographs not called Speedmaster. Steel divers and simple, date-only watches were all the rage thanks to their clean, no-nonsense looks. The old chronographs were fussy and fiddly and were harshing the vibes of the grumbling youth. The newer ones didn’t fare too much better in some cases; Rolex could barely sell the Cosmograph. It all came to a crumbling climax with the automatic version of the chronograph of 1969, a monumental achievement that quickly fell into the shadow of what was to be the beginning of the end—a tiny little crystal made of quartz.

But that was still a decade away. Breitling was sure it understood the younger generation, and the Top Time was that understanding personified into a watch. Gone were numbers so small binoculars were needed to read them, gone was the calculator bezel—yawn, sounds like homework—and in were big, simple shapes, bright colours and a whole lotta fun. Breitling even managed to get sexy man-bear Sean Connery to wear one in Thunderball. Starting at just $93, Breitling opened the floodgates, sat back and waited for the cash to roll in.


Of course, the money never did roll in because in 1978, Breitling closed its doors. Then in 1979 Willy died. And then, with no family willing to take the business on, Breitling was sold. Imagine that, the family business of several generations failing in your hands the year before you die. That’s enough to make anyone feel rotten.

Just as well then that Breitling and the Top Time get a second chance with this limited edition of 2,000 pieces. You can imagine the relief Willy would feel were he somehow able to know, that despite Breitling’s ups and downs, despite the rough ride, things have finally started picking up where they left off fifty years ago. That’s a long old hiatus, but the Top Time is well worth the wait.

Simple, affordable and a breath of fresh air. That was the original brief to capture the attention of a new audience, and that’s exactly the same again now. The Navitimer has serviced Breitling well, but it just ain’t flying with the kids these days—excuse the pun. They’ve got Apple Watches to take care of all their in-flight calculations.

So, the Top Time: it’s simple. It’s 41mm in steel, 14.2mm thick, not too big for a modern Breitling. The case is round and the lugs stick out; so too do the crown and pushers. There are no rider tabs or any other needless design frippery. The dial layout is clean, with a twin sub-dial setup, clearly demarcated hands and no portable eye test circling the dial. Inside, the calibre 23 borrows from the Valjoux 7753 to provide 48 hours of COSC-certified performance. A snap-on case back gives you 30m of water-resistance and no more. That’s it.

You could call it underspecced. You could call it lacking. A chronograph these days can perform far better. But that’s not what the Top Time was about back then, and it’s not what it’s about now. What it is about is the £4,250 price tag. For a Breitling. Yes, there are some chronographs cheaper, but did Sean Connery wear one of those?

But the real spice, the pepperoni on our pizza, is that this watch is a breath of fresh air. Everything else feels so serious these days, like watch brands are boring old adults telling us to brush our hair and watch our language. I just want to enjoy a watch that catches my attention and makes me feel good, man. Take your boring old monochromatic chronograph and stick it.

As if to really hammer home the Breitling Top Time’s anarchic attitude to watchmaking, there’s a little detail here that, probably, you haven’t even spotted. Most watches with a chronograph will track the seconds with, well, seconds—but not the Top Time. There’s a decimal display instead, counting to one hundred over the course of a minute. It’s a nod to a rare variant of Top Time, but I like to think of it as something of a test to see if you’re the kind of square who would actually use the chronograph—and if you do, you lose. Heavy!

Monaco has a bit of a reputation for being a tax haven to the rich and greedy, a seedy, soulless town with nothing doing, but to be honest, I don’t see that. It’s a snapshot of the sixties, of the glitz and glamour of a simpler era, a time warp to a period before things got all serious. It’s actually the perfect environment to wear the Breitling Top Time, a brand that is trying to shake off a reputation for being owned by—well, people who live in Monaco. Perhaps the Top Time is a chance to take a fresh look at the watchmaker—and Tip Top is the perfect place to do it.

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