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Breitling watches: made for action

A Breitling Bentley Mark VI watch in 18K rose gold fetched $17,000 in December 2018 at Morphy Auctions. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – Quality craftsmanship, innovative design and precise timekeeping are the hallmarks of a great watch and classic Breitling men’s wristwatches certainly fit the bill. Vintage sports watches are hot as collectibles from racing to aviation models, the latter made famous by Breitling. Their pilot watches have long since expanded in popularity, past the cockpit into the mainstream, becoming the ultimate stylish accessory for the man about town.

“Most popular right now are the vintage sports watches: racing watches and pilot watches,” said Ron Ciarmello, head of Morphy Auctions’ watch division in Denver, Pennsylvania. Watches from Breitling that have multiple functions are very collectible, he said.

Circa 1950s-1970s Breitlings are especially desirable, led by the iconic Breitling Navitimer, which was introduced in the mid-’50s and was made in limited numbers. “That particular model has become really popular,” Ciarmello said, noting Navitimers made for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and featuring the AOPA logo, are “one of the absolute hottest Breitling watches you can buy.”

This Breitling rose gold Bentley H13363 watch brought $8,500 in May 2017 at Morphy Auctions. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Made in steel-on-steel or steel-on-gold versions), often having black, blue or bronze dials, the Navitimer chronograph watch has a large diameter, giving it a larger-than-life presence, making an impressive statement on the wrist. The large faces are designed to increase ease of readability. Most Breitlings had automatic winding that was totally mechanical and featured various complications. The Navitimer, specifically, was famous for having a circular slide rule on the bezel.

Some rare Breitling models are decorated with diamonds, such as the Professional Emergency Superquartz Chronograph in 18K yellow gold that features diamonds on the bezel, band and the case for a total of over 7 carats of diamonds. As technologically superior as it is handsome, this watch has a built-in micro transmitter to broadcast on the emergency frequency for aircraft.

This Breitling Emergency Chronometer, Ref. K56321, circa 2005, realized $31,810 in June 2016 at Auctionata Paddle 8 AG. Photo courtesy of Auctionata Paddle 8 AG and LiveAuctioneers

The top price on LiveAuctioneers’ database for this model was an example numbered 7 of 25 and having a mother of pearl dial. It attained $50,000 in September 2011 at Bruce Kodner Galleries in Lake Worth, Florida.

“People are looking for watches in absolute original condition,” Ciarmello said, noting that in years past, people often returned their watches to the maker to be worked on, to refinish a faded dial, for example. Today, as with most types of antiques, original condition and surface is highly prized. “People want a watch completely original, even if the dial has fading or staining. Patina is really hot – people want untouched, unmolested original condition.”

A Breitling Transocean Chronograph QP watch sold for $36,000 in July 2016 at Auction Hit LLC. Photo courtesy of Auction Hit LLC and LiveAuctioneers

With a Navitimer, having a watch with its original dial and original hands dramatically increases its value. With the company under new management since 2017, vintage models that perhaps were underappreciated years ago with the exception of a select grouping of the choicest examples, are likely to see prices rise across the board.

Breitling began in 1884 in St. Imier, Switzerland by Léon Breitling, a talented watchmaker who made timepieces and scientific tools in his workshop. He soon developed technical features for his pocket watches that cemented his reputation as a skilled watchmaker.

“Léon Breitling focused on chronographs, which were increasingly in demand at the time for industrial, military and scientific applications as well as for athletic organizations,” according to a company history on Breitling’s corporate website. After his death, his son, Gaston, took over the business and, sharing his father’s affinity for chronographs, launched one of the first wrist chronographs, ushering in a new era in men’s watches.

A Breitling Bentley B05 Unitime man’s watch made $28,000 in August 2015 at The Churchill House. Photo courtesy of The Churchill House and LiveAuctioneers

The 1950s at Breitling were marked by many technological innovations, including the 1952 debut of the prototype for the Breitling Navitimer, which got its name by combining the words “navigation” and “timer.” A decade later, in 1962, astronaut Scott Carpenter wore a Breitling on his Mercury space mission that he helped design, replacing the traditional 12-hour dial with a 24-hour dial.

In pop culture, a Breitling makes an appearance in the movie Thunderball, where Q presents James Bond with a Breitling Top Time that helps him track down stolen nuclear weapons.

Asked for tips for new collectors when buying watches, Ciarmello said watch collectors collect for all sorts of reasons, mostly personal. “Just do your research, take your time to know what you are buying,” he said. “Originality is really one of the more important things to look for.”

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