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Review: Breitling Transocean Chronograph 1915

Ever since Willy Breitling decided to amalgamate his wristwatches with the bane of the 1940s’ schoolroom, the slide rule, there have been questions over the legitimacy of the brand as a watchmaker. Clearly, it’s a company that makes watches, there’s no disputing that—the concern arises more from the credibility of its impact on the wider world of watchmaking. The question is, are those concerns unfounded, or is there some truth to them?

Let’s first address where these concerns come from in the first place. After all, Breitling is a brand that’s been with us since 1884, one that has an immediately recognisable aesthetic and, let’s not forget, has managed to survive through to today—although not without some hiccups along the way.

Well, let’s go back to 1940, to that first Chronomat. It was a revolution, no doubt about that, but the mechanics of the slide rule were as much to do with the development of watchmaking as a clock radio is to the advancement of telecommunications. Having the ability to perform endless calculations at a glance was incredibly useful, and the infatuation shown by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association that enabled the subsequent recalibration of the Chronomat into the pilot-friendly Navitimer is a clear mark of Breitling’s importance as a brand.

But does that make it a great watchmaker? Inventing the keyless works, or developing the balance spring overcoil, or reinventing the escapement completely—these are examples of the kinds of contributions that moved the watchmaking game forward. Can Breitling make a claim to anything like that?

Not every watchmaker has the opportunity to change the status quo overnight. It took a long while for Hans Wilsdorf to persuade the public that his Rolex wristwatches were more desirable than pocket watches, or for the industry in general to accept larger case sizes and even rose gold. Sometimes it takes just a nibble here and a nibble there, and that’s the kind of watchmaker Breitling is.

We get a reminder of that subtle influence with this Transocean Chronograph 1915 limited edition, which draws attention to a feature we’ve come to take for granted today. You see, in 1915, no one had yet thought of separating the start, stop and reset functions of a chronograph; they were all one and the same, controlled by a single pusher.

Traditionally, this pusher was mounted in the crown, a carryover from stopwatches, but in 1915 Breitling raised the bar a few inches by shifting the pusher up to two o’clock. A small change, but one that would have a significant long-term impact—as well as making the chronograph more ergonomically intuitive to operate.

Almost twenty years later, and Breitling gave the bar another nudge upwards by locating a second pusher at four o’clock, extracting reset from the other functions and allowing users to restart a stopped chronograph without having to reset it first. Another thirty years again, and Breitling joined forces with Heuer, Hamilton and Dubois Dépraz to develop the world’s first automatic chronograph movement, bringing the gentle evolution of the chronograph to final completion.

The Transocean Chronograph 1915 really is a rather subtle way of celebrating Breitling’s contribution to watchmaking. Of course, with the case measuring up at a weighty 43mm in diameter and 14.6mm thick, I mean subtly in the figurative sense.

But with so much brand real-estate occupied by the busy Navitimer, the chunky Avenger, the complex Aerospace, the opulent Bentley, plus all the associations with air, sea, land, and now, for some reason, film—there’s not much left over to remember the little things that turned out to be quite big after all.

Hence the Transocean Chronograph 1915, I suppose—but I expect the importance of what it represents will very likely be lost. Even the design, in the way the single pusher blends down into the crown guards and case, disguises its significance.

What won’t be lost is the old-timey appeal of the dial, which although some 5mm or so bigger than its vintage counterpart, is appropriately dressed with a classic printed logo and the slightest hint of aging in the colour palette. Perhaps it would have been better off without a date window, but the numbers don’t lie: date functionality sells watches.

The most pleasing aspect of the 1915’s appearance is the spacing of the sub-dials. Suitably separated from each so as not to look too centre-weighted, a common faux-pas of chronograph watches, this balance is achieved by having an in-house movement of its very own. Even in a world where every brand worth its salt makes its own movements, having an in-house chronograph is still mighty impressive.

What came completely out of the blue is the fact that this calibre B14 is manual wind. No one but no one in this segment makes manual chronographs any more—the classic Moonwatch is of course the exception—because the functionality of the automatic winding sells far more watches than the enthusiast appeal of winding it by hand, and that’s what makes the decision to have one surprising. Perhaps adding the date wasn’t so necessary after all.

The calibre B14 may only be a modification of the standard automatic B01 Breitling calibre with the auto winding mechanism stripped out and the single pusher rigged to work in isolation—there are spaces where wheels used to be, and some of those thirty-three rubies have nothing in them—but when manual chronograph movements are this hard to get hold of, it’s not worth the complaint. It’s a watch that fans of Breitling who know the reality of the brand’s impact on watchmaking have been pining after for a long time—and at last, here it is.

Why Breitling is so coy about the contribution it’s made to watchmaking is unclear. There are only 1,915 of these Transoceans made, a drop in the ocean compared to the Navitimers, Avengers and Aerospaces it’ll sell, and the justification will most likely be that that’s what the public wants. But is that because the public doesn’t know about what Breitling really achieved? Given a chance, perhaps this is a watch company that could be considered a credible, legitimate watchmaker after all—if only they’d let it.

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