March 3, 2013
by Ariel Adams
I recently had the pleasure of being invited to look at a rare collection of vintage Breguet aviator watches and was treated to an uncommonly good time with old timepieces. While vintage watch love is deep amongst this (watch enthusiasts) crowd, it is the rare historic and interesting timepieces that really excite me on a tactile basis. Sure I can appreciate most vintage timepieces for their design and what they mean as part of the evolution of the watch, but I am not particularly interested in wearing vintage watches on my wrist. Much more the modernist, I like new watches, their prices be damned.
When it does come to vintage timepieces, the only ones that I have ever found to excite me have been a select group of sport watches that possess a size which is at least somewhat comparable to that of modern watches. So if you are really into vintage Omega, Heuer, Rolex, and alike, we probably have enough things in common. If you are keen on traditional dress or office watches, then you have my respect but we won’t be borrowing each others’ watches and socks anytime soon. Consider these vintage Breguet pilot watches to be in that category of antique watch I’d fancy wearing myself.
What you see here is a collection of mostly 1950s era Breguet Type XX timepieces. In mostly fine condition, these watches are extremely rare and many now once again belong to Breguet. However, many of you are aware that Breguet is not the only company to have a “Type XX” watch. Dodane for example is another maker of Type XX watches and there have been others historically. So what does Type XX mean? I must admit that in writing this article I opted to supplant my own knowledge a bit by doing some research. I knew the basic history of the Breguet Type XX, but I needed to know more. The basic story is interesting, and a treat to those interested in how certain functional timepiece designs became so popular.
While Breguet played with the design of the Type XX during its “military career,” most versions more or less stayed the same. The evolution was minimal and for good reason. “Type XX” (Type 20) was actually a design designation by the French government referring to a specific chronograph and dial style. This was the mandated design for all pilot chronograph watches. They were to look a certain way and have a certain range of functions. The rotating bezel and flyback chronograph were essential parts of the design. Breguet, as well as some other Swiss and German watchmakers produced these so called Type XX style watches for various parts of the French military – who would commission the watches. These were owned by the government and given to pilots to wear while in the military. I don’t know how many civilians were able to purchase them.
From what I can tell the Type XX watch was produced by Breguet (and others) into the 1970s, and seemingly used for a while after that. In the 1990s Breguet re-released the designs as the Type XX Transatlantique and Type XX Aeronavale – both about 40mm wide. Later Breguet released the larger Type XXI (hands-on with a titanium model here) and more recently the Type XXII (hands-on here). In 2010 Breguet released a limited edition Type XX Aeronavale watch that was a beautiful nod to the original.
The 1950s was the main era of the original Breguet Type XX. This is when Breguet made the most of them, and played with the dial. You even saw them stray from the norm by producing a very select amount of them in 18k gold, and a few with different dial colors (such as the brown dial pictured in this article). However, the overall design of the Type XX remained the same. A high-contrast legible dial with elegant Arabic numerals and distinctive hands. As you can see, some versions of the Type XX had full 12 hour chronographs, while some only measured 60 minutes. A very important element was the flyback mechanism which was apparently used for a range of in-flight functions by the pilots.
While Breguet is to be credited with the modern success of the Type XX timepieces (as well as its kin), the design is a testament to institutional functional design. While these look like “gentleman pilot watches” today, the design was originally conceived purely for instrumental purposes. Though being French you sort of knew they weren’t going to be ugly. The dial style has aged remarkably well which is partially why I would gladly wear one of these today – as rare as they are to find. I think you’d be luckier buying a new one than finding an original in good condition. With sizes hovering around the 38mm-40mm mark, these are acceptably sized for today as medium watches.
In the 1950s Breguet was still a French company – being originally founded in Paris by Mr Breguet himself so long ago. It wasn’t until later, after Swatch Group purchased it, did Breguet become a Swiss watch brand. Movements in the 1950s seemed to be mostly from Valjoux and Lemania. These companies were also purchased by the Swatch Group later on. So in a sense, the Swatch Group really dominates when it comes to “owning” the history of many of the Type XX timepieces.
In addition to making wristwatches, Breguet seemed to also produce some cockpit dashboard clocks and other instruments, as well as some pocket watches. Military and pilot watches such as these seemed to be what Breguet was all about for much of the 20th century. It was not until the Swatch Group “re-launched” the brand as a luxury company did Breguet “recall” its roots and traditional designs. So for me the Type XX, Type XXI, and Type XXII timepieces are very much a strong part of what Breguet stands for, especially in semi-modern times.
For more history on the Type XX watch and Breguet’s role in it you can visit this well-detailed page from Don Indiano’s website here. That ought to satisfy answering most questions that you have, and I am sure you’ll appreciate his compilation of the watch’s history. For me, I was pleased to have some hands-on time with the Type XX originals that spawned the modern iterations of the design. For most of the people who won’t be able to get the original, the 40mm Type XX from today is an excellent alternative. And for those wanting something larger, the 44mm wide Type XXI and XXII are also interesting choices. I do hope that Breguet continues to focus on this collection for a long while. breguet.com