Posted on September 17 2018
Founded in Switzerland in the 1880’s Breitling is a luxury watch brand which along with Rolex, Omega and TAG, is now well known among the public. It’s one of only a handful of Swiss watch companies with good name recognition outside of watch fan circles.
In many ways this is due to one watch. The Breitling Navitimer Chronograph.
The company started as a small enterprise, founded by Leon Breitling and stayed as a family run business for nearly a century. The evolution of their most famous watch began with the introduction of a Slide Rule on the 1942 Chronomat model - two circular scales which can be used to perform basic arithmetic. A surprisingly useful feature in the pre-calculator age.
The Navitimer was introduced in 1952 and featured the design we’re now familiar with. The name itself is self explanatory, a shortening of Navigation and Timer. It’s an iconic and instantly recognisable design with a busy dial, detailed slide rule and double pushers.
With shrewd marketing, brand ambassadors and a role as the official supplier of on board instruments for the large airlines, the company was in a strong position. Indeed, in 1962, Scott Carpenter suggested that Breitling create a 24hr dialled Navitimer for his mission with Aurora 7. He wore the custom watch when he became only the second American to orbit the Earth.
However, like most of the Swiss companies producing mechanical watches, the introduction of battery powered quartz watches had a devastating impact on the business and by 1979 the company was in real trouble. Ernst Schneider, the owner of Sicura watches, bought the company and eventually closed his own brand to concentrate on Breitling. Until very recently his family still owned the company.
Like the Rolex Explorer we covered here and the Omega Aqua Terra here, the Navitimer is a watch that is out of the reach of many people. Therefore, we’re again going to highlight a few of the affordable alternatives.
Poljot Blue Angels
In 1930 Joseph Stalin ordered the founding of the First State Watch Factory and so started the life of Russia's greatest watch producer. Over the following decades the factory and it’s brands produced a number of iconic watches, including those used by the Russian space program. Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, wore a Sturmanskie watch from this factory during his 1961 mission.
Out of all the movements produced in the factory, one in particular stands out. The 3133, a handwinding mechanical chronograph movement that was used in both the famous Poljot Okean and Strela watches. The same movement is also used in the Blue Angels model.
So this watch ticks a couple of boxes straight away. It looks like the Navitimer and it has a high quality Russian made chronograph movement and comes in at a modest 40mm diameter. Although not a Breitling it still has it’s own history. However, there is a ‘but’. The bezel is fixed so you can’t actually use the slide rule as you could on the navitimer. Still, with a price around the £400 mark you’re getting a lot of watch for the money. And despite the ‘Blue Angels name, it’s additionally available with a black or white dial too.
If you’re interested in this model be sure to also check out some of the other very similar Poljots. There’s the Albatros, Ruslan and Night Hunter models that all pay homage to the Navitimer.
Sinn 903 ST
Like Breitling German watchmakers Sinn have historic links to aviation, having been founded in 1961 by ex-pilot Helmut Sinn. Like Poljot they also have links to space programs.The first use of a Sinn watch in space came in 1985 when German astronaut Reinhard Furrer wore a PVD version of the 140S during Spacelab D1. As you’d expect with a brand with this kind of heritage, the 903 just about qualifies as affordable if compared to a Breitling - but it’s still the most expensive on this list.
We noted earlier that Breitling, like other Swiss manufacturers, suffered heavily with the introduction of quartz watches, ultimately going out of business. One consequence was that Sinn were able to buy the rights to produce a watch similar in all but name to the Navitimer. The 903 ST was the result. A homage produced with the permission of the original brand.
The Sinn is powered by a customised swiss Sellita automatic movement which can be seen through the sapphire crystal case back. The diameter is 41mm making it noticeably smaller than the Navitimers that can go up to 46mm.
Citizen need no introduction. The Japanese giants make affordable, good quality watches that you’ll see on every high street. Mention Citizen and the first thought that comes to mind is Eco Drive, the brands solar technology that charges the watch through exposure to light. As expected, the Navitimer homage we’re interested in is part of the Eco drive line.
There’s a few citizen watches that arguably take their design inspiration from the Breitling, including the AT0361-06E and BL5400-52A. However, the CA039 is the nearest to a homage. It has slightly different pushers and sub-dials in an arrangement not seen on the most popular Navitimers, but overall the general aesthetic is there. Unlike the Sinn and Poljot it has a quartz movement - either a pro or a con depending on your preference.
At 45mm it’s on the large side, particularly with the addition of the chronograph pushers, but for most that won’t be a deal breaker -especially if you’re a fan of the 46mm Breitling. As expected, with a watch that costs a couple of hundred pounds, it has a mineral crystal, real leather strap and 100M WR.
Air Blue Navigator
American company Deep Blue have been producing divers watches since 2007, building a good reputation as a specialist watch brand. So when they began to produce aviation watches they created a sub-brand, Air Blue. The idea being a complimentary brand to Deep Blue, but with it’s own distinct styling and niche. The watches are sold as the official timepieces of the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds demonstration teams.
This model is a 45mm, quartz powered chronograph released in a number of dial colours and with a stainless steel or rose gold coloured case. Unfortunately it’s not currently available on the manufacturers website with the current range having branding from the two aerial display squadrons. However, they can still be picked up new online for a couple of hundred pounds.
In our last article on vintage inspired divers watches we picked out an attractive design by popular high street brand Rotary. Technically and stylistically there’s nothing particularly special about the brand, but they do produce some nice, cheap quartz watches - occasionally grabbing your attention.
The Chrono Speed line catch your attention in Argos precisely because of the obvious homage to the Navitimer - and because there’s little else to interest the watch fab there. For a sub-£100 watch you can’t really go wrong. The cream dialled model (GS03447/08) with a brown leather strap is among the better variations and does look the part of a vintage aviation chronograph.
There’s a few others that are also worth further investigation, but some discontinued models are no longer easily available, such as the Torgoen T2. And some, like the Stuhrling Original 669B.01 Monaco, are pretty much the same as the Rotary. There’s also a few Casio Edifice models that are reminiscent of the Navitimer but probably not enough of a likeness to make the list.