Inside its factory in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Breitling uses the very latest technology to manufacture half its annual production of some 150,000 watches, 50% of which are equipped with in-house mechanical chronograph calibres.
In the early 2000s, Breitling Replica Chronomat Evolution set itself an ambitious goal. After three generations under the same family, the company had changed hands in 1979 when it was taken over by Ernest Schneider. Newly refocused on mechanical watches, not least thanks to a Chronomat driven by a 7750 Valjoux movement in 1984, the brand was clearly in need of the industrial muscle that would guarantee its future. “If we were to survive as an independent brand, we had to ask ourselves the right questions,” comments Jean-Paul Girardin, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer. “Clearly, the reliability and quality of the products was no longer enough. In aeronautics, everything was already certified. In watchmaking too. Since 1999, Breitling has submitted all its production to the COSC (Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres). We were already using the best suppliers. What other options were left? The obvious answer was to start producing our own movements; the markets were already pushing us in this direction anyway.”
Breitling Chronométrie, as it stands today, is the result of this vision. It accounts for half annual production, which is in the region of 150,000 pieces, i.e. between 70,000 and 80,000 watches, half of which are fitted with in-house movements (Sellita and ETA remain major suppliers). Breitling has founded its production on solid principles and a firm belief in organisation. “We only integrate component production if it makes strategic and economic sense,” says Jean-Paul Girardin. “If we can guarantee an ongoing supply of certain parts from at least two sources, it becomes pointless that we should make them ourselves. This is currently the case for balance springs. In a similar vein, we automate any time-consuming manual operation with no real added value. This explains how we can be very much a manufacture in the strict sense of the word and work with some forty outside suppliers.”
From the engineering division to the testing lab, from the workshop that makes tools and blanks to the pre-assembly workshop, where the 346 parts in the base calibre become 75 mini-modules, every process abides to a single, all-encompassing philosophy: producing quality is better than controlling quality. This rule has sparked innovations across the entire production process, such as deburring with water, solvent-free washing and dry milling of parts. Not forgetting the first ever fully computerised and automated assembly line. A combination of robotics and measuring techniques track the progress of a calibre as it is assembled, part by part. As Jean-Paul Girardin explains, “the objective here wasn’t to increase productivity but to ensure maximum flexibility and quality. Thanks to this system, we can assemble our five movements on the same line. Once finished, every movement is ready to be sent off to the COSC.”
A partner to aviation
Such rigorous production methods find their exact counterpart in the world of aviation. And rightly so, for Breitling Replica Chronospace and aeronautics have a longstanding connection, as the winged letter B that is Breitling’s logo reminds us. From the moment he set up his watchmaking workshop in the Swiss Jura, Léon Breitling carved out a reputation for precision instruments whose robustness and reliability quickly came to the attention of aviation pioneers. The onboard chronographs that Breitling developed from the early 1930s were issued to Royal Air Force fighter planes during the Second World War. The United States Air Force soon followed suit. Such a breakthrough didn’t go unnoticed, and Breitling became the instrument of choice for civil and commercial aviation.
The chronograph has become Breitling’s signature complication. Indeed, its modern-day configuration owes much to the Breitling family. Léon’s son Gaston developed one of the first wrist chronographs with an independent pushpiece, in 1915. This invention was then perfected with the separation of the stop/start and reset functions. The final touch came in 1934 with the introduction of the second pushpiece. The next milestone came in 1942 and the launch of the Chronomat (a combination of chronograph and mathematics), which was the first ever chronograph watch with a circular slide-rule. One success led to another when, ten years later, Replica Breitling Emergency introduced the Navitimer, the only wrist chronograph in continuous production since 1952. Some fifty years on, a tour of the Breitling Chronométrie factory revives this rich past, now with added innovation and rigorous organisation to boot.