Baselworld is almost upon us - it always seems to sneak up so quickly - and watch lovers everywhere are positively quivering with frayed nerves. There's a lot to be excited about, as ever, but one brand that deserves particular attention this year is Breitling.
Breitling is one of the biggest names on the Baselworld exhibitor list, thanks to its 134 years of history at the heart of Swiss watchmaking and its special reputation for aviation - perhaps the most dashing field in horology. Many of Breitling's most impressive and historic inventions have been unveiled at Baselworld over the years, including the B01 movement (its first in-house chronograph) and the legendary Calibre 11 which it co-pioneered in 1969 (the first automatic chronograph, unless you believe the El Primero was earlier).
Known not just for its incredible watch launches but also spectacular marketing stunts and "secret" after-parties, Breitling's Baselworld 2018 presence will be highly anticipated by all veterans of the watch show. With a much smaller exhibitor roster than previous years, Basel increasingly relies on big guns like Breitling to draw crowds. It never disappoints: 2015 saw the brand's first in-house world timer, the Galactic Unitime, with its extraordinary tungsten carbide bezel. In 2016 it went further with the Avenger Hurricane in Breitlight, the amazing new space-age material almost four times lighter than titanium.
That brings us to last year. The new Breitling watches of 2017 were truly remarkable. There were three exciting launches: the first was the Breitling Navitimer Rattrapante, in 45mm red gold or steel, showcasing the new B03 movement, the brand's first in-house split-time chronograph. In an ingenious touch, one of the two chrono seconds hands ends in a finely-etched B motif, the other in an anchor - the full Breitling logo doesn't come together until the rattrapante hands are joined in the same position.
The second timepiece was a 60th anniversary edition of the Breitling Superocean, the company's fabled diving watch. These Heritage II vintage-styled models were revamped with technical upgrades, including a gorgeous new bezel with ceramic inserts in three colour options, each perfectly matching the respective dial. The three-hander version, with its sword hands taken from the early Superoceans, uses the B20 movement, notable for being co-developed with Tudor.
The most eye-catching watch at the Breitling stall last year was probably the Avenger Hurricane again, in its new Military incarnation. A true beast at 50mm, the watch wears light as a feather thanks to its renewed use of Breitlight. Not only is it effortlessly weightless and exceptionally sturdy, it is also anti-magnetic, hypoallergenic and resistant to scratching, corrosion, and temperature change. With a 24-hour dial, yellow highlights, and a patina-style lume, it even boasted a custom movement to match its external glories.
So what can we expect this year? 2018 has already kicked off with positive Breitling news, as the new CEO Georges Kern announced a long overdue end to sexist advertising that objectifies women. Meanwhile, pre-Basel marketing has already revealed juicy new watches in the form of the Breitling Navitimer 8 collection, showcasing Kern's fresh vision for the brand.
These five wonderful timepieces are intended to complement rather than replace the traditional Navitimer. They are inspired by Willy Breitling’s Huit Aviation Department from 1938, which produced eight-day cockpit instruments for pilots. With their vintage elements and much less cluttered dials (many technical elements, and even the famous "wings" logo have been stripped away to make space), the Navitimer 8 models feel like a bold new direction for the brand. Only two of the five watches are even chronographs, and there is not a slide-rule to be seen. Overall, they present more elegant dress-watch applications than macho sports-watch ones. We are eager to see how additional pieces unveiled at Baselworld support (or go against) this trend.
So what do we think we will see this month in Basel? Retro re-editions of classic timepieces and other vintage throwbacks seem to be a strong trend not just for Breitling 2018, but for many major brands, including the likes of Rolex. Some have speculated that we could be in for the reappearance of cleaner, less hyper-masculine classics - such as the iconic Top Time, or a fruity "Tropical" Navitimer with faux patina.
On the other hand, trends are made to be bucked. Breitling was bought out last year by a private equity firm after decades of family ownership, and the new boss has already signalled a clear change of direction. The watches we're realistically expecting this year are likely to show less complexity, greater moderation in size (and number of references), and if anything move away from some of the historic tropes in which the brand has arguably become mired. It's an exciting time to be following this giant of the Swiss industry at such a crossroads.
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