In our modern technological era, it’s difficult to view time as anything more than several digits on your phone marking the elapsed hours and minutes in a day. But in the early 20th century, when marvellous winged machines first took to the skies during the advent of the aviation industry, the recording of time was a vital survival tool – a means to measure flight duration, fuel consumption, and perhaps distance from safety.
Should the worst happen and the precise onboard instruments on these planes fail, it would be a map and the chronograph strapped to the pilot’s wrist that could prove the difference between life and death: just as the marine chronometer helped guide sailors across the seas, the chronograph helped forge a path through the clouds.
That the pilot’s watch is almost as old as aviation itself is therefore no surprise, but its lasting legacy speaks of the cultural significance of aviation and its reach in the contemporary world.
There is one name above all others that is inexorably tied to both the pilot’s watch and the field of aviation and that is the Breguet dynasty. It began with the famous 18th-century watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet, whose immeasurable influence over horology knows no bounds, and was continued by his descendants at the House of Breguet until we arrive at his great-great-grandson Louis Charles Breguet at the turn of the 20th century who would prove himself to be one of the early pioneers of manned aircraft.
Not long after the Wright brothers’ first flight on 17 December 1903, Louis Breguet began work on a forerunner to the helicopter in 1905, the gyroplane, and later turned his attention to fixed-wing aircraft in the form of the 1909 Breguet Type I. By the 1920s, the Breguet 14, a single-engined day bomber, was integral to the French war effort. Indeed, France began The Great War with just 120 aircraft at its disposal, by the end of the war in 1918, Louis Breguet’s company had played their part in the construction of some 55,000 aircraft and 110,000 engines.
There’s one name tied to both the pilot’s watch and the field of aviation and that’s Breguet
In the 1930s, not long after a Breguet plane made the first nonstop crossing of the South Atlantic in 1927, the family’s horological arm would turn its attention to the field of aviation with the production of various special aerodrome chronometers created for the military and the newly founded national airline, Air France.
For decades, Breguet would be known as one of the most recognisable specialists in the field of watchmaking instruments for aircraft. In fact, step into the cockpit of the Concorde prototype at the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace at Le Bourget Airport on the northeastern periphery of Paris, and you’ll find the ubiquitous Breguet Type 11 chronograph adorning its complex dashboard panel. If it’s good enough for the supersonic airliner…
Reverting to Type
As the years passed, the wristwatch became an increasingly prevalent part of wider society, and its relationship with military forces only deepened. Slowly, military-commissioned watches started to filter through into squadrons around the world as the need for a tool watch became more apparent.
Breguet received its first official order for wristwatches from the centre d’Essais en Vol (French flight test centre for aeronautical weapons and aircraft) at the beginning of 1949, but the story of the iconic Type 20 – to this day a pillar in Breguet’s watch collections – began several years later in 1953.
Contrary to what you might think, the Type 20 name does not stem from Breguet itself, but actually refers to the original specification sheet distributed by the French Air Force to several watchmakers invited to apply for the open contract to produce a purpose-built flyback chronograph intended for use in flight.
Inspired in part by the German Hanhart chronograph, among the specifications for the French Air Force were resistances to the rigours of flight, including changes in acceleration and atmospheric conditions, as well as practical criterion including a black dial with luminescent numerals and hands, a rotating bezel, and a flyback chronograph complication. Several other watch companies answered the call, but it’s the Breguet Type 20 that has stood the test of time as one of the great pilot watch designs of history.
Breguet were given official approval for the Type 20 in 1953, following extensive testing carried out by the Service Technique Aéronautique, and were contracted the following year to create no fewer than 1,100 pieces for the French Air ministry, a quite staggering number for the era, and would fulfil their order over the next five years.
The watchmakers who were successful in their application to produce the Type 20 were also given permission to create a model for consumer use. In the case of Breguet, this special civilian model featured three-registers to distinguish it from its military-use brother and was given the designation Type XX and was first released in 1957.
The new Breguet Type 20 / Type XX
It’s hard to forget the shadow of the past when you’re working in the world of watches, but the Type 20 and its civilian alter ego loom larger than most. Not only is it steeped in a rich history, stretching back further than many storied collections in horology, but for each new iteration (of which there have been several since its mid-1990s revival) the minutiae of its design are discussed ad absurdum by a vehement band of collectors.
The original Breguet Type 20 was a two-register chronograph featuring an unsigned dial (the only mention of Breguet was to be found on the case back), a 38.3mm case featuring an ungraduated bezel, and a practical pear-shaped crown that was large enough to be manipulated while wearing a glove. In some ways, bar for some aesthetic touches and a larger case, you could say the core of the design remains true to its original aesthetic codes – for all it has slowly morphed to suit contemporary tastes.
Which brings us to the new watches. Launched in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the original Type 20, Breguet has released not one but two models to honour its rich aviation heritage: a military-inspired Type 20 (ref. 2057) and the civilian-styled Type XX (ref. 2067).
Before we touch on the more obvious aesthetic changes Breguet has elected to make, we should begin at the beating heart of the watch where new calibre 728 and 7281 movements do the heavy lifting. One Breguet watchmaker told me that the maison “started from scratch” with this calibre, in an effort to upgrade the now-outdated technology in the previous iteration. That certainly squares with the fact it has been five years since the Type XX ref. 3800 was discontinued, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Breguet has spent much of the intervening years perfecting this new movement for this anniversary.
Breguet started from scratch with this calibre, in an effort to upgrade the previous iteration
The big change is returning to a column wheel chronograph in place of the cam-actuated system found in the previous reference. Is it an improvement? In truth, it’s more about tone than practicality. The cam system is certainly robust and easy to manufacture, but the column wheel goes back to the heart of craftsmanship thanks to its added complexity. Add in a vertical clutch and a bunch of silicone parts for added reliability and a touch of accuracy, plus a 60-hour power reserve, and you have a chronograph more than a match for its prestigious competitors. The only difference in the two movements is the hour totaliser found on the Type XX.
On the looks front, the Type 20 and Type XX are executed differently. The former features a green lume and is stripped down to its military-spec past, with two registers, syringe hands, that fabulous pear-shaped crown and an unmarked bezel. The latter is based of the civilian model from 1957 and features a cream lume with three-registers, sword hands, a 12-hour bezel and a flatter crown.
Being picky? I wish the Type 20 returned to its original 38.3mm case size and dropped the date function at 4:30. To my mind, it would have been a more dutiful homage to the past; leave the maximalism to the 42mm civilian Type XX. However, this is but a small bone to pick from a writer who’ll never miss a chance to wave the flag for reduced case sizes.
At certain times of the year, especially when Watches & Wonders rolls into Geneva, it does feel like you’re being bludgeoned over the head by a big marketing hammer as brand after brand regales you with the story of references of the past. It can feel a bit like death by a thousand watches. But the Breguet Type 20 and Type XX are not such timepieces.
This is a truly important watch that has been given not only a face lift and upgraded hardware, but also honours the past. The Type 20 gets my vote, but no doubt they’ll both prove popular with the high flyers.
For more information, breguet.com