Laura McCreddie-Doak has been writing about watches for 10 years. She is the watch editor-at-large for online luxury lifestyle site BURO., has a bi-monthly column on women’s watches in City AM magazine and is a contributor to the Times LUXX, Wired, Mr Porter and Men’s Health.
Due to their origins and functional history, the Pilot’s watch tends to be characterised as a masculine watch and is often designed and marketed solely for the male consumer. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find many Pilot’s watches that possess the defining features but in a smaller package. This year, however, Breitling has decided to change this with the launch of the new ladies Navitimer 35. This timepiece is inspired by their iconic Navitimer watch but comes in a 35mm case and by adding some seriously stylish strap options they have created not only one of the few women’s pilot watch collections around but an instant classic.
The history of the pilot’s watch
Today, the defining characteristics of a pilot’s watch are elements such as large numerals, so they can be read at a glance while flying; a relatively clean dial, and oversized hands for improved legibility. However, the first-ever pilot’s watch, the Cartier Santos, designed by the eponymous Louis for his friend the aerial pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont, looked nothing like it.
It was small with Roman numerals and tiny hands. However, it created a market for watches worn while seated in a cockpit and arguably one of the most recognisable, and relatively unchanged, designs in this particular timepiece family – the Navitimer.
The history of the Navitimer
Launched in 1952 and the successor of the Chronomat, the Navitimer upped the pilot watch ante with its innovative slide rule. This logarithmic scale, which has its roots in 17th century Scotland and an astronomer called John Napier, was adapted by a mathematician called Marcel Roberts to measure the three most important units for pilots: STAT for standard mileage, KM for kilometres and NAUT for nautical miles. These three combined allowed pilots to easily do complex calculations, such as average speed and fuel consumption.
It was Willy Breitling, grandson of the founder Léon, who pushed the aviation angle further with adverts specifically targeting pilots; something which cemented Breitling’s reputation as a brand for those who took to the skies. As if to further secure its place in history, it was the Navitimer that had the honour of being the timepiece into which Breitling would put the revolutionary Calibre 11 – the first automatic chronograph developed in collaboration with Heuer and Dubois, instantly recognisable because the movement construction necessitated a left-hand crown.
It was also the watch that, post-Quartz Crisis, relaunched the Breitling name. To say the Navitimer is important is certainly not understating the case here.
The ladies Navitimer
Now women can own a piece of this incredible lineage too. According to CEO Georges Kern, the decision to offer a smaller Navitimer was a result of demand from its female customers, which isn’t surprising. Breitling isn’t known for its women’s watches but that isn’t to say they haven’t ventured into the field at times– its powder-blue Superocean Automatic 36 was a standout from last year’s Baselworld, while it’s Galatic 32, especially in bicolour, is a classic sports’ number. However, it has been a brand that has concentrated on turning out amazing men’s watches first and foremost with ladies watches being a secondary focus. Until now, that is.
The new feminised Navitimer is worth the wait. Despite knocking six millimetres off the case diameter and, thankfully, retaining the slide rule, the dial still has the clean, uncluttered, legibility that makes it invaluable to pilots and catnip to everyone else. The shade of burgundy used for one of the leather strap options promises to be a major colour this year for those who want something other than blue. That said, the all-blue version here will most certainly be at the top of every watch wish list regardless of gender. By combining the practical with a bit of fashion flair, Breitling has created an aesthetic that isn’t quite wholly masculine or overtly feminine but something in between.
It taps perfectly into the type of louche, gender-fluid looks seen on the S\S20 catwalks. It’s in a similar vein to the disco collars at Salvatore Ferregamo, the Bermuda-short suits from Bottega Veneta and Givenchy or the waistcoats at Gucci or Louis Vuitton. In fact, the whole thing is very Villanelle in the most recent season of Killing Eve. Everyone’s favourite assassin has ditched her frothy Molly Goddard frocks in favour of sharp Comme de Garçons blazers and Halpern suiting. The latest Navitimer would be an ideal addition to her wardrobe; she’d probably find the slide rule useful too. Once she worked out how to use it.
Aside from simply being a very desirable addition to the Navitimer line, this new Breitling is at the forefront of a shift in what we expect from a woman’s watch in terms of design. At the end of the Noughties, many brands decided to move away from “shrinking and pinking” – the lazy act of taking a man’s watch, making it smaller and launching it in pink – to taking a proper look at what women wanted from a watch in terms of how it looked and what was under the bonnet. Women had more disposable income, were becoming properly interested in watches as an outlet for spending that income, and didn’t want to have to continue to shop in the men’s department. Aware that they were missing out on a major sector of the market, watch brands started to look more seriously at creating timepieces designed to meet the needs of women.
This led to watch brands becoming incredibly creative. Tourbillons concealed under flowers, chronographs combined with diamonds, exquisite dials that were painted, stitched or hand laid. However, it did mean that some of the iconic designs remained the preserve of men. Now that the snobbery over downsizing a watch that was originally designed for a man has abated, styles such as IWC’s Pilot’s Watch and now Breitling’s iconic Navitimer are being made available in sizes more suited to a female wrist.
Just like Villanelle’s Comme des Garçons blazer, this new Navitimer, in whichever guise you choose, has enough panache to wear after dark but would look equally at home with Stan Smiths and a pristine Victoria Beckham tee. In short, it might just be that elusive addition to every watch wardrobe – the perfect everyday wearer.