Should you have an interest in historic military pilot’s watches, 2016 is your year. In January IWC released its latest update to the fabled Mark 11, which it originally made for the RAF in the late 1940s and ‘50s, and which the air force used for several decades. Then in March we discovered that, coincidentally, Breguet was adding another chapter in the story of the other great military flying watch of that era, the Type 20 fly-back chronograph, which it produced for the French Air Force.
Well, perhaps not quite a chapter – the new watch is a variant of the already-existing Type XXI (ref 3810), the model that includes a date and day/night display; though it does gain a new reference number, 3817. Cased in steel, it adds a smidge of new colour and character, some minor dial modifications and becomes, quite importantly, the first Breguet pilot’s chrono in which the movement is visible through a sapphire case-back.
However, the 3817 is a bit more than the sum of those parts, I think; for it is, frankly, the sexiest Breguet pilot’s chrono there has yet been. It’s the confident, good-looking dandy of the range, with a slate-grey dial, plump numerals in a creamy “aged” lume, and an engraved gold rotor swinging about over its movement. From one of Switzerland’s most buttoned-up brands, it is a watch that runs the risk of being, well… cool. How about that.
The range deserves to have a watch as winning and downright commercial as this. For although pilot’s watches can seem like an uneasy sideline from a brand as rarefied as Breguet, in the canon of great military watches the Type 20 is right up there. Plenty of brands scratch around for a sniff of a genuine story on which to build some military ‘DNA’, but Breguet genuinely furnished the wrists of many French airmen, with one of the finest aviation chronographs of them all.
Of course, it wasn’t just Breguet, which was one of several producers of the military Type 20; and actually nailing the Type 20 down to a definitive model is impossible, so many were the variations (four differing models featured in the Phillips auction of 88 chronographs earlier this year).
It’s all too tempting to see a contrast of national character between the RAF’s sternly understated, indestructible Mark 11 and the free-flowing, wind-in-the-hair beauty of France’s perfect aviation chronograph; in truth, they served different navigational purposes (astronavigation for the Brits, dead reckoning for the French). Nevertheless, the essential ingredients of the Type 20 add up to something unmistakably charismatic: a black chronograph dial lit up by thickly-lumed numerals and prominent hands, with a notched, numbered bezel that rotates both ways to aid calculations.
The first Type 20s appeared in 1954. Just as the British Ministry of Defence invited tenders to make its Mark 11, so the French Ministry of Defence looked to Swiss companies to build a watch that would eventually be supplied variously to the Armée de l’Air, to the Aéronavale (the navy air force) and to the military aviation test facility, the Centre d’Essais en Vol at Brétigny-sur-Orge (stamped C.E.V. on the back, these are understandably rare).
As with the Mark 11, the name “Type 20” was a simple military designation (according to online researcher Don Indiano, other “types” included Type 11 and Type 12, both aircraft dashboard chronographs rather than wristwatches); to this designation was attached a list of specifications relating to water resistance, power reserve (35 hours), diameter (38mm), dial (black, with 3 and 9 o’clock registers), and the chronograph to have the flyback function.
That meant the running chronograph could be reset instantly to zero, and timing restarted, at one push of a button and without first being stopped. Patented by Longines in 1936, the flyback chronograph enabled accurate timings to be made in series, without being hampered by stopping and resetting. In ‘dead reckoning’ navigation, where the accurate timing of steps in a journey was combined with speed and direction to discern a position, this was essential.
Besides Breguet, watchmakers Auricoste, Dodane and Vixa all took up the challenge, Dodane supplying the most, at over 5,000 watches. A point worth noting: given that Breguet today owns the old movement maker Lemania, one might assume a historic connection too. Au contraire: only Auricoste’s Type 20s were supplied with Lemania movements, while Breguet’s contained Valjoux calibers. Oh, and Breguet didn’t actually make the Breguet Type 20s. Mathey-Tissot did.
Breguet, at that point, was more a brand than a watchmaker: watches were produced and sold under the Breguet name, but it did not make them. The Breguet name was then much more prominently attached to a French aircraft manufacturer, itself set up by a fourth generation descendant of Abraham Louis Breguet himself. Whether this had any influence on Breguet being part of the watch procurement is unclear, but there was no formal connection. The Breguet family had sold the watch business to Edward Brown, the English former head of the Breguet workshop, in 1870; his family would steward the name until 1970 when it was sold to the jeweller Chaumet, under whom it produced a handful of second-generation Type 20s for civilian aviators.
It was in the mid-1990s that Breguet, once again under new owners, revived its revered chronograph, now as a luxury wristwatch that drew on its military heritage. Unable to use the old name, like IWC it simply switched the number for Roman numerals: the Type XX as luxury chronograph was born.
It’s remarkable to think that the basic modern Type XX, just 39mm across with a polished steel bezel and Lemania-based flyback chrono movement, has been in production for 21 years – a carry-over from the pre-Swatch Group days, with a handful of variations having come and gone.
In 2004 the Type XXI was introduced, a more complex take on the theme, incorporating a 24-hour day/night indicator at the 3 o’clock sub-dial, a date overlaying the 12-hour chronograph totaliser, and high-tec silicon escapement. With the sub-dials occupied (running seconds is at 9 o’clock), it bears an unusual quirk: the XXI has two chronograph hands coming from the centre, one for the seconds as normal, and one for the minutes. It gives the watch a busy and unusual look, particularly when the chronograph is running.
In recent years there’s been the further addition of the highest spec member of the family, the Type XXII, to please the serious tech-heads among the Breguet collecting community with a stupendously fast 10 Hz escapement frequency.
The new watch, however, adds to the XXI blueprint a kind of groovy, handsome charm that feels very much of the moment. The numerals have been enlarged, and the tea-coloured lume bulges off the dial. That lume, against the slate grey dial, gives the watch the flavour of history and age, without the ersatz pretence of deliberately aged patina found on certain vintage-style new watches.
Turn the 3817 over and you find, for the first time, the Cal 584 Q/2 movement glinting back at you, and it’s something of an esoteric oddity: a Lemania workhorse from the early 1970s, now made with all of Breguet’s modern spit and finish, plus its 21st century silicon tech; but perhaps not the kind of refined, column-wheel/vertical clutch wonder demanded of modern manufactures. That only adds to its charm in my book, and it’s pleasing finally to have it on show.
For those of a more purist persuasion, the 39mm Type XX surely remains the pick, and is indeed a persuasive entry point to Breguet; but for those who love design, style and finish, as well as a sense of history, the new Type XXI leaps immediately to the front of the pack – not just of Breguet pilot chronographs, but arguably of the whole genre.