There is an unexpected room in Breitling’s factory in Le Chaux de Fonds, the spiritual home of the Swiss watch industry. Rather than rows of watchmakers, silently putting together timepieces with tweezers, are fully automated machines, drilling, positioning, screwing, assembling.
The craft with which the industry so prides itself seems to have gone AWOL. But Jean-Paul Girardin, the brand’s vice president, sees it another way. “When we can introduce technology, we do it,” he says.
“We still need the watchmaker’s knowledge and a hand-made capacity to make the watches we do. But we’re also pragmatic in pursuit of efficiency. If sometimes having robots to do certain things is convenient, and the hands of the watchmaker can add nothing to the process, then we have it.” It’s a suitably progressive attitude for Breitling right now.
The family-owned independent company - one of the few remaining - is going through an overhaul. There are the flagship stores opening - New York last year, Paris this, London next, with another seven or so to follow, as well as some 20 new Breitling-only independent stores.
There is the expansion to the manufacturing base, which means it is now in the position to double production from its current 150-200,000 pieces per annum, half of which are mechanical chronographs.
And, perhaps most strikingly, there was the launch this year of the Transocean Chronograph Unitime, with a new Caliber 5 movement that re-invents the world timer mechanism by equipping it with an adjustment system that, unlike so many similar watches, is actually dead easy to use.
But, perhaps just as strikingly, for a brand that has built itself on the very instrument-like, almost macho style and functionality of its watches - which sees its Chronomat of 1984 still its best-seller, and its famed Navitimer still the oldest mechanical chronograph in continuous production - the Unitimer is also rather dressy. “It’s the most classic, elegant watch we’ve done for a long time,” Girardin concedes.
“But to go too much down that route would be to lose the ethos that Breitling is known for - even if that means losing sales. The fact is that a functional chronograph, for instance, needs to be a certain size and have a certain look - and we’d rather stay true to that ethos than dilute it to sell more.”
The ethos has, after all, been long in the building, one that has made Breitling the serious aviator’s brand of choice. Leon Breitling opened a workshop specialising in chronographs - then more for industrial and scientific purposes - back in 1884, moving to Le Chaux de Fonds 120 years ago this year.
His son Gaston took over the family firm in 1914 and, a year later, introduced the first wristwatch chronograph. In 1923 Breitling created the first independent chronograph push-piece - the buttons separate to the crown and still a distinctive characteristic of any chronograph today.
And in 1934, Gaston’s son Willy developed the second return-to-zero pushpiece, giving the wristwatch chronograph its definitive form. In 1969 it designed the first self-winding chronograph movement.
Ten years later ernest Schneider, watch manufacturer and - surely no coincidence - keen pilot, took over the brand from Willy. All the same, the Unitime and several new designs in the pipeline perhaps point to Breitling’s continued step up the prestige ladder. In 1999 the company decided that all of its mechanical watches would, henceforth, be certified chronometers.
This year saw the warranty extended from two to five years, “which is a very clear message about the increase in quality,” the vice president says. Crucially, Breitling is also making its own product.
When in 2002 the Swatch Group/ETA contacted Breitling, among others, to say that it could no longer give guarantees on the delivery of movement blanks - the basis for the mechanical parts within a watch - Girardin was quick to take the decision to develop their own movements.
“Fans had long asked why the leader in mechanical chronographs didn’t have its own movement, and the idea was in the air but we never really did anything seriously to address it,” he adds.
“But we simply couldn’t be in a situation where we could be waiting to receive parts. It was an industrial rather than a brand strategy, for all that it has proven a big turning point for the company. It has allowed us to innovate and develop new products, rather than rely on suppliers. But you have to keep moving forward.”
Albeit at no breakneck pace. Developing two movements every three years is enough of a challenge, he says, without the growing industry expectation to produce one to show off every year; “and I don’t want us to set off to try to design the most complicated watch ever, because it’s another kind of business that likes to develop extremely complicated movements, for another kind of customer,” Girardin adds.
"We want to finesse the idea of watches as instruments.” Or, in other words, build on its reputation as a specialist. “After all, the watch industry is akin to the car industry now,” Girardin adds, “in that the latter originally offered just the Model T Ford - and in any colour as long as it was black - but is now increasingly segmented, with different brands specialising in different kinds of vehicle.”
That will mean that, while Girardin does not want to become a brand dependent on raiding the archives - for all that the Unitime and, another recent classy piece from the brand, the Super Ocean Heritage are precisely based on past successes - and while through the years it has proven it can be original - with the likes of the Chronospace, Airwolf and Emergency models, for instance - nor should anyone expect anything too radically bold from the brand. “But that is a product of functionality really,” Girardin argues again, keeping true to the brand’s form-follows-function thinking.
“For decades the industry has been talking about putting the latest technology on the wrist but it isn’t that easy - and it’s not clear yet what people are really ready to wear on their wrist anyway.
"The fact is that, while designers are open to ideas, and there is some need to look different and strong, you still need hands and dials and a system to tell the time in the most legible manner - and that, more than with many other brands, is what Breitling is about. Yes, functionality is limiting in design terms. But it also helps define the company. It’s what Breitling is all about.”