History of the Breitling Navitimer Watch is Shrouded in Mystery
The history of the Breitling Navitimer watch is hard to pin down, as company records have been lost, and company lore does not match up with other facts. This all makes the Navitimer an interesting watch to collect.
The story of the first Navitimer is shrouded in mystery and even some controversy. Quite simply, no-one knows for certain the full story, or if they do they have not yet spoken. The records held by Breitling SA in Grenchen, Switzerland are incomplete, so to tell the story of the most famous of all Breitlings, some detective work and even a certain amount of speculation is involved; the foremost world experts on vintage Breitlings do not agree on all the details.
This makes for a very interesting watch to collect, as there are several different variations and some are quite rare if not unique.
What is certain is that following the great success of the Chronomat, the world’s first slide-rule chronograph released in the early 1940s, Breitling made a second slide-rule chronograph—the Navitimer—and released it some time between 1952 (claimed by Breitling) and 1954 (believed by eminent Breitling experts). This watch has the logo of the AOPA—the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, in Frederick, Maryland—on the dial, and current thinking is that all the first examples of the watch had this logo. Indeed some researchers think the watch was specifically designed for members of AOPA, although others believe Breitling designed the watch and that AOPA then asked for it to show their logo and to be specially made for their members. The true facts are not currently known and may be buried in the records of the AOPA, but many of Breitling’s own early records have been lost. The watches do not have “Breitling” on the dial—simply the AOPA logo—and Breitling had no reference for them. A few of the early Breitling Navitimers have turned up with Breitling’s “B” insignia instead of the AOPA insignia. These were apparently marketed on a small scale in Europe.
An advertisement for the Breitling Navitimer, billed as a “flight computer” and chronograph that meets the requirements set by the AOPA—the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association—of Frederick, Md.
Another ad for the Breitling Navitimer. This time the watch is billed as the AOPA Navitime and comes with a steep price for a watch in the early ’50s: $102.75 for stainless steel, $117.50 for gold-filled and a whopping $294.50 for the watch in 18 karat gold.
In the mid to late ’40s, Breitling started using the Venus 178 in it’s ref. 765 WATCHES, and turned these into their “AVI” watches, in the early ’50s. The AVI was an expensive, waterproof steel chronograph, but it had no slide rule, just a rotating bezel. They continued using this very durable and dependable Swiss-made chronograph movement right into the 1970s in the “Navitimer.”
Sometime in 1949, Breitling changed it’s representative in the United States from White Plains Watch Co. to an exclusive agreement with Wakman Watch Co.
Wakman worked miracles for Breitling, and the U.S. started to dominate sales for Breitling watches.
Breitling lore claims that the company introduced the Navitimer reference 806 in 1952. According the facts apparent, this is simply not true. Why the company makes this claim is also a mystery.
There was no reference number on the original Navitimer. Breitling’s well-guarded production papers do show that the so called AOPA was first produced in 1954 with a Valjoux movement. This is the best argument against Breitling’s 1952 claim, and against the early use of the Venus movement and 806 reference.
The 24-hour dial on the Navitimer/Cosmonaute started production in 1962 at the behest of U.S. astronaut Scot Carpenter and the need for a 24 hour dial in space.
The new version was given a new reference number 809 and the name “Cosmonaute” emblazoned on the dial. The two different watches—the Navitimer and Cosmonaut—have identical 806 style cases, Venus 178 movements and all-black dials. The difference is simply the 24-hour as apposed to 12-hour dials. The watches feature beautiful, big black dials with luminescent numerals, steel sword baton hands (also luminescent), sub-seconds and hour register, with a large steel chrono sweep hand. The highly legible and “readable” dials in any light, they are the perfect watch for the pilot or cosmonaut. Their utilitarian features have translated to a boon for collectors, driving the prices for the rare and unusual versions to “astronomical” heights.
Red Scare Forces Name Change
The Breitling Navitimer “Cosmonaute” with its black dial.
The new version of the new “Navitimer/Cosmonaute” had no sooner hit the marketplace when Wakman made a huge change in the marketing of the watch, re-naming the watch Astro-Timer for the 24-hour watch, and removing the name “Cosmonaute” from the dial and advertising. This was a direct result of the “Red Scare” in the United States and the space race with the Soviet Union, although the word “cosmonaute”(with an e) was French, whereas the Russian “cosmonaut” was spelled without the E. The French “cosmonaute”—the word for Astronaut—is pronounced the same as the Anglicized word for a Russian astronaut “Cosmonaut.”
The word “Cosmonaute” was too easily confused with the Russians, which made it a huge market hurdle to overcome in the U.S., so Wakman totally changed the marketing of the Cosmonaute 809. This is why “Navitimer” has remained on the dial and “Cosmonaute” is seldom seen except on earlier examples and in 1962 advertizing on the watch. A collector simply MUST have a version of each!
Throughout the remaining 60s, Breitling made various changes to it’s very successful Navitimers and Cosmonautes, and although they can be minor, these changes make a huge difference in desirability and price.
Navitimers with all-black dials continued to be made until the early 1960s. There were several variations in dials and bezels up until they were completely superseded by the silvered sub-dials variations. By 1963-64, Navitimers were no longer fitted with all-black dials and the Navitimer ref 806 featured silvered sub-dials from 1959 onwards.
It appears that the all-black dials were gradually replaced from possibly as early as 1959 with dials with silvered sub-dials, and the hands and the bezel were also replaced with later designs from 1960 onwards. A further complication is that hands from the AVI model may have been used on the ref 806 during this period.
Without reliable documentation, it is difficult to be absolutely sure of the facts, but most collectors and experts agree that there was a transition period between 1959 and the early 1960s when Navitimers were released with a mixture of old and new features. However, it is possible that earlier watches have had later dials and/or hands fitted during a service, or even that later watches had earlier parts fitted, so great caution is needed by the serious collector who is concerned with 100-percent originality when purchasing an 806 from this transition period. Breitling did what it had to do to complete inventory and market watches to meet demand, having little regard to future collector’s needs.
A German ad for the Breitling “Cosmonaut” featuring U.S. astronaut Scott Carpenter.
An ad following the scrubbing of the word “Cosmonaut” from the watch because of concerns in the U.S. about the Red Scare and the space race with the Soviet Union.
In 1972 Breitling ceased production of the 806 and 809 Navitimers and Cosmonauts, and nearly ceased production entirely. Some watches were finished and sold under the Breitling name by Ollech & Wajs. Later Ollech & Wajs continued producing these great watches under the “Aviation” name. Ollech & Wajs has since become “Sinn” and no longer makes these aviation watches.
Navitimers of various models, both mechanical and quartz, were supplied by Breitling to various air forces around the world. Breitling supplied the Iraqi Air Force at least during the 1970s and 80s, and possibly from the 60s through to the early 90s. These had the Iraqi Air Force wings on the dial and a specially engraved case back.
When the company was sold in 1979, certain rights to assemble and/or manufacture the ref 806 passed to Sinn and O & W. The names “Breitling” and “Navitimer” were sold to Ernest Schneider, who then formed a new Breitling company, Breitling SA.
Breitling is still very much in business today, producing a huge line of gents’ and ladies’ sport model watches, is still a high-quality product of Switzerland, and is still producing commemorative Navitimers, but that’s another story.
My thanks and credit to Bill Shaine, Kurt Broendum—the time world’s acknowledged experts on Navitimers and pioneer on research and writing—and Mark and Theresa Heist of Horological Services.
David Mycko is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in antique and vintage watches.
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