Breathing new life into old things is a particular talent of today’s luxury Swiss watch industry. The formula is simple. Take something from the past, adopt it for the tastes of today, and make sure when people see it they aren’t quite sure what era it was made for. Breitling’s re-launch of the Chronomat with the tube-style “Rouleaux” bracelet is very much an exercise in what today’s watch industry does best. Breitling quietly puts the previous Chronomat model to rest (it had been produced for a decade or more), and then brings back something from the Breitling world that I don’t believe retailers have seen in their shops since the 1990s.
The bad news is that terms like “Chronomat” have become a lot like “911” (in Porsche terms). They do mean a type of car/watch, but they don’t necessarily refer to any one particular item. So let’s call this watch by its slightly more precise (albeit just as vague) name, the Breitling Chronomat Bo1 42. Other parts of the aBlogtoWatch team have seen this watch before me. Launched in 2020 during the pandemic, it was not possible for us to all meet with Breitling at one inclusive event. aBlogtoWatch first launched the Breitling Chronomat B01 42 watch here, and then a bit later our David Bredan went hands-on with the larger Breitling Chronomat B01 42 timepeice collection here.
The question I wanted to answer for myself with the Breitling Chronomat B01 42 was how well it stood up to the competition given what works with collectors today. With prices starting at just above $8,000, the Chronomat is not just another fun aviation-inspired tool watch, but a serious luxury item that buyers will need to pit against Rolex, Omega, Blancpain, Glashutte Original, TAG Heuer, IWC, etc…. The challenge for Breitling is to produce a product that does three things well at the same time. The first thing is that the watch needs to fit the mold of a traditional tool watch. Second is that the watch needs to be visually handsome and complementary to the style of the wearer. Third, the watch needs to come from a brand whose appeal and popularity today merit luxury positioning and buying confidence.
Many would argue that compared to a lot of other brands Breitling is more of those things than much of the competition – especially in regard to branding and luxury positioning. Currently, under the leadership of Georges Kern, Breitling was fortunate to get a leg up on other brands by having been able to release a number of new watches late 2019 and early 2020 (whereas most of the competition was waiting to release new watches that trade shows canceled by the pandemic). Breitling has also been investing a lot in marketing prior to the pandemic, and the momentum of that noise has carried on into the first half of 2020. For now, Breitling is rather hot with collectors, which means that an attractive and spirited new product collection will command even more attention and be gobbled up by consumers now versus after the market has had time to become more familiar with the product.
The core story behind the Chronomat is the type of military tie-in which is at the basis of so many great timepiece tales. In around 1984 Breitling produced a watch for a squadron of Italian airforce pilots (the Frecce Tricolori) that eventually turned into the first Chronomat models. This is when Breitling debuted both the Rouleaux bracelet and the rotating bezel with the “rider tabs” (that I called “bezel claws”). This look (especially the bezel) dominated the look of Breitling watches for nearly a decade. When Breitling started to make their own in-house caliber B01 automatic chronograph movements, the Chronomat lost that bezel and bracelet – turning into something a bit more generic (albeit still very nice) and help carry Breitling through an important era. On aBlogtoWatch I reviewed the previous generation Breitling Chronomat 44 GMT here. While it features the same movement, the Breitling Chronomat B01 42 is a very different watch. What I find interesting is that while it is inspired by nearly all generations of Breitling Chronomat watches, it ends up being something entirely new altogether.
The case size has been something of a conversation topic. People are trying to lean toward more comfortable and easy to wear watches – which means some larger Breitling watches of old are more passe in style. The previous-gen Chronomat’s largest case size was 47mm-wide — clearly massive for many wrists. The 2020 Breitling Chronomat B01 42 is 42mm-wide and about 15mm-thick. It wears large but not too large, in my opinion. The sense of size is really a function of all the nicely polished steel and the wide lugs combined with the dramatic tapering of the Rouleaux bracelet. As always for Breitling, the steel case (two-tone or an all gold version is also available) is exceptionally well-made with excellent finishing. I have always stood by the opinion that Breitling makes some of the best cases on the market when it comes to crisp details and the quality of polishes and surface treatments.
Breitling also now has a watch that at least in appearance competes in the “steel watch with integrated bracelet market.” For me, that is the best trick that the Breitling Chronomat B01 42 plays since it isn’t traditionally thought of as a watch that fits that style — now it does. From a construction standpoint, the new bracelet is nothing like the traditional Rouleaux bracelets of a few decades ago. These new ones are built more like contemporary luxury products with parts being individually machines and polished, and generally using much more sturdy pieces of metal. Old Rouleaux bracelet would bend and stretch over time. This bracelet doesn’t appear to be prone to any of that type of wear over time. The fresh form of the bracelet is what is important. It is comfortable yes, but more important is that it sticks out and helps the experience of wearing a Breitling Chronomat B01 42 be more distinctive. This will only help increase the value of the watch for many consumers, as people don’t want generic luxury watch experiences at these price points.
The new rotating bezel design is clearly inspired by the original Chronomat watches, but they lack a lot of the funky character. Breitling did an amazing job of making them feel refined and high-end, for sure. That said, the oddity of the screwed-on “rider tabs” and the peripheral screws that jut out are gone. The bezel of the new Chronomat collection does even have those screws around the periphery, but they are effectively minimized such that you can’t really call them a key part of the piece’s personality. It isn’t that the bezel is a missed opportunity, but rather that Breitling made the specific decision it should not be a major part of the new Chronomat’s distinctive features — they left that to the bracelet.
Many brands including Breitling have delighted in updated vintage “hot dog on a stick” style hour and minute hands to make them feel a bit more modern and angular. Likewise, the new Chronomat’s hands take the shape of vintage Chronomat watches and render them for today’s tastes. The tri-compax array chronograph dials of the Chronomat watches are very refined and elegant and demonstrate a sort of simple conservatism that today’s Breitling enjoys. The dial experience works because of the familiar look and the good use of colors and materials. Breitling isn’t innovating much in this area, but I don’t think the dial will leave anyone feeling anything but, “That’s a handsome watch.”
I do like that Breitling managed to engineer out the screw-down chronograph pushers. This vestigial element was designed to offer more water and elemental resistance, but for the most part simply prevented more people from using the chronograph. The watch still manages to be water-resistant to 200 meters without the screw-down chronograph pushers — a success, in my opinion. I also like the slightly oversized look of the crown and the design of the entire crown and pusher region of the watch on the right of the case. Depending on your taste and budget, Breitling offers the Chronomat B01 42 case and bracelet in all steel, or with various degrees of gold for two-tone models. An all-gold model exists, but I do not yet believe there is a solid-gold bracelet option. Eventually, there will be, and that will make one hell of a bold statement on the wrist for those who can fork over for it.
With variety in mind, Breitling designed the Chronomat B01 42 to be available in literally dozens of versions of the years. Simply by swapping colors and materials, the chore Chronomat B01 42 case with chronograph movement can be rendered in so many interesting ways. I happen to love those dials with contrasting subdials, and for now, I happen to prefer the watch in all steel. The movement isn’t new, but Breitling’s in-house-made caliber B01 automatic chronograph is a great performer and has held up well. It still looks great in execution, and while not industry-leading in any regard, is a stable 4Hz frequency movement with about 70 hours of power reserve. You can view the movement through the sapphire crystal window on the rear of the watch.
Breitling has a new hit with the Breitling Chronomat B01 42. I think most watch lovers will enjoy it since it combines conservative masculinity with trendiness and high-quality construction. Yes, the base price is over $8,000, but these are good looking and sturdy-feeling watches that aren’t out of league at all for the price. Mr. Kern has another hit on his hands for a brand that is doing great if he can maintain the momentum. How possible that will be during pandemic times has yet to be seen, but at least for him, Breitling has a leg up on most everyone else.