Taking away from the traditional view of watchmaking, Breitling operates an assembly line-type process. Far left: The Superocean Heritage takes its cues from the original 1950s model and, as with all new Breitlings, is fitted with a COSC-certified movement.
THE ART OF
ASSEMBLY Functionality has long been at the core of Breitling’s watches, and with its high-tech facilities the brand has now applied this ethic to the manufacturing process. QP investigates what this futuristic approach has in store for the 128-year-old bastion of the chronograph. Josh Sims
ook around most high-end watch factories – or manufactures, as they prefer to call them in the industry – and there is a sense that you’ve walked into some kind of set-up. There are the white-coated watchmakers, sat in deathly silence at their worktops set at armpit height, moving their elastic-banded eyepieces back and forth. And it is no different at Breitling, only the workers are quieter – on the monastic scale somewhere between ‘pin drop’ and ‘resting snail’ – and here you tread about with polythene bags over your shoes to protect the sterile environment. Since the building’s entire capacity of air is changed every 10 minutes, that really is quite sterile. It is as a watch manufacture might be in the public imagination: pristine, hands-on, lab-like but also finicky. But then you are led into another room – perhaps by accident – and the facade drops. Here there are no people at all, just fully automated machines drilling, positioning, screwing and assembling. Meanwhile, the so-called Sample Management System – an assembly line-type device borrowed from the medical world – whirs along “like a sushi bar”, as jokes Jean-Paul Girardin, the brand’s Vice President (which, since this isn’t an American company, means he is actually the boss). It is enough to make the true believer of La Chauxde-Fonds choke into his chrono. Oh woe, whither ye olde craft? A WELL-OILED MACHINE But Girardin is having none of it. “When we can introduce technology, we do it,” he explains. “We still need the watchmaker’s knowledge and a hand-made capacity to make the watches we do. But we’re also pragmatic in pursuit of efficiency and if, depending on the difficulty of the task that means automation, that’s what we use. We try to be very open about it – if sometimes having robots to do
certain things is convenient, and the hands of the watchmaker can add nothing to the process, then we have it.” It’s a suitably progressive attitude for Breitling right now. The family-owned independent company – one of the few remaining – is going through something of an overhaul. There are the flagship stores opening – New York last year, Paris this, London next, – with another seven or so to follow, as well as some 20 new Breitling-only independent stores. There is the expansion of the manufacture, which means it is now in the position to double production from its current 150-200,000 pieces per annum, half of which are mechanical chronographs. And, perhaps most strikingly, there was the launch this year of the Transocean Chronograph Unitime, with a new Calibre 5 that re-invents the world timer mechanism by equipping it with an adjustment system that, unlike so many similar watches – whose operation invariably means you no longer care what time it is in Tonga or Karachi by the time you’ve worked it out – is actually dead easy to use. But, perhaps just as strikingly for a brand that has built itself on the very tooliness of its watches, positioning it as the leading brand with aviators – which sees its Chronomat of 1984 still its best-seller and its famed Navitimer still the oldest mechanical chronograph in continuous production – the Unitime is also rather dressy. Not a dress watch per se, granted, but less obviously macho. Girardin is having none of this either. “It’s the most classic, elegant watch we’ve done for a long time,” he admits. “But to go too much down that route would be to lose the watch-as-instrument ethos that Breitling is known for – even if that means losing sales, to women for example. The fact is that a functional chronograph, for instance, needs to be a certain size and have a certain look and we’d rather stay true to that ethos than dilute it to sell more.” FIRING ON ALL CYLINDERS All the same, it – as well as several new designs in the pipeline, including “some interesting functionality, and maybe not only mechanical,” says Girardin, teasingly – perhaps
Above: Lines of whitecoated watchmakers reinforce the expected image of a manufacture in this horological hub. Left: Watchmakers meticulously work on the minute details involved in creating a Breitling timepiece. Right top: For 2012 Breitling has produced the Transocean Chronograph Unitime – a world timer equipped with an inhouse movement. Right bottom: Breitling’s first flagship store in New York opened last year, displaying 900 timepieces over its three floors.
points to Breitling’s continued step up the prestige ladder. Its prices have gone up too – and Girardin concedes that explaining why to retailers, and retailers explaining why to shoppers, is one challenge the company faces. But then Girardin believes it is also making a better product. Much as in 1999 Breitling decided that all of its mechanical watches would, henceforth, be certified chronometers, so this year saw the warranty extended from two to five years, “which is a very clear message about the increase in quality,” he says, “that we’re producing at the highest quality we’re capable of. In fact the positive response to that has shown how sensitive people are to such a statement of self-belief, much as they are when buying a car.” Crucially, Breitling is also making its own product. In 2002 the Swatch Group/ETA contacted Breitling, among others, to say that it could no longer give guarantees on the delivery of movement blanks. Spurred into action, Girardin was quick to take the decision to develop in-house movements. Ironically, given the status afforded to being a manufacture a decade on, Girardin says that the move was taken “not to create a marketing tool, but to ensure we kept our independence”. “Yes, fans had long asked why the leader in mechanical chronographs didn’t have its own movement, and the idea was in the air but we never really did anything seriously to address it,” Girardin explains. “But we simply couldn’t be in a situation where we could be waiting to receive parts. It was an industrial rather than a brand strategy, for all that it has proven a big turning point for the company. It has allowed us to innovate and develop new products, rather than rely on suppliers. But you have to keep moving forward.” But perhaps not too far, or too fast. While Breitling is clearly making moves to encourage its re-evaluation, Girardin is keen that it sticks to the course it is on. Developing two movements every three years is enough of a challenge, he says, without the growing industry expectation to produce one to show off every year; "and I don’t want us to set off to try to design the most complicated watch ever, because it’s
another kind of business that likes to develop extremely complicated movements, for another kind of customer. We want to finesse the idea of watches as instruments. That suits Girardin maybe. Having started off his career working as a design and development engineer in machine tools for the car industry, specialising in pressure and flow of air and oil, he was finally sucked in by the Swatch Group. Would it be fanciful to suggest that this man who tried to avoid the watch world for so long is a man who loves his tools? But some might feel it is to paint the brand into a corner. Or, the counter argument may go, to underline its expertise in one watch type. “After all, the watch industry is akin to the car industry in that the latter originally offered just the Model T Ford – and in any colour as long as it was black – but is now increasingly segmented, with different brands specialising in different kinds of vehicle,” Girardin suggests. IN THE WORKS That will mean that, while Girardin does not
Above: In addition to its accomplished watchmakers, Breitling’s manufacture is lined with high-tech machines to help with various stages of manufacturing. The machines used in the manufacturing process require the same level of precision that is exacted by the handcrafted alternatives. Right bottom: The Superocean Heritage takes its cues from the original 1950s model and, as with all new Breitling’s, is fitted with a COSCcertified movement.
want to become a brand dependent on raiding the archives – despite the Unitime and another classy piece from the brand, the Super Ocean Heritage, being precisely based on past successes – and while through the years it has proven it can be original, with the likes of the Chronospace, Airwolf and Emergency models, nor should anyone expect anything too radically bold from the brand. “But that is a product of functionality really,” Girardin argues. “For decades the industry has been talking about putting the latest technology on the wrist but it isn’t that easy – and it’s not clear yet what people are really ready to wear anyway. The fact is that, while designers are open to ideas and there is some need to look different and strong, you still need hands and dials and a system to tell the time in the most legible manner. And that, more than with many other brands, is what Breitling is about. Yes, functionality is limiting in design terms. But it also helps define the company.” Further information: www.breitling.com