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Culture Shock

  • James D. Malcolmson

Breitling bolts tradition with its new in-house quartz movement.

Like dozens of other Swiss watch company executives who made similar announcements this year, Breitling senior vice president Jean-Paul Girardin tendered a matter-of-fact explanation of the company’s new in-house movement. The difference between Girardin’s introduction and those of his many peers, however, is that Breitling’s newly developed device, the B50, incorporates a quartz regulator—an act of near heresy in an industry whose models for men are defined by their adherence to mechanical-watchmaking tradition. “For us, the issue was not one of supply,” Girardin says. “We realized that if we wanted to do something innovative, we would have to do it on our own.” 

While the bulk of Breitling’s timepieces are mechanical, the company has defied orthodoxy for decades by offering feature-rich quartz watches containing supplied movements under the premise that these professional-grade instruments are better adapted to the needs of pilots. In fact, the first watch to sport the new in-house quartz movement, the Cockpit B50 (priced from $6,595 to $8,050), presents a multifunction digital display alongside conventional hands in a layout similar to that of the brand’s Aerospace model from 1985. The B50 movement, however, greatly expands the capabilities of that earlier timepiece. For example, the bright digital displays, which are activated when the wearer rotates his wrist more than 35 degrees, accommodate a number of pilot-specific functions, including flight-time recording and UTC time coordination. A simpler sport mode limits the watch to more familiar features, such as a stopwatch and a calendar.

The challenge of engineering a proprietary quartz movement proved substantially different from the task of creating the brand’s first in-house mechanical effort, the B01, which was unveiled in 2009. While Breitling produces the baseplate for the latest movement and assembles its parts, many of the crucial components, including the display modules and the electronic chipset, are purchased from suppliers. According to Girardin, the brand’s most important contributions were design and programming. To power the high-luminosity display for the Cockpit B50, the company took the unusual step of equipping the watch with rechargeable lithium batteries, which must be repowered via a magnetic USB cable roughly once a month. Breitling’s engineers also developed an algorithm that enables the watch to compensate for the effect of temperature changes on its quartz crystal. The company claims this adjustment delivers a tenfold improvement in accuracy, allowing the watch to qualify for the ultra-strict electronic chronometer certification. 

Girardin believes that, with proper service, the life of the B50 can extend into decades. And while the movement is not intended as a replacement for mechanical versions, its development highlights the brand’s independence. “Historically, we have always used quartz side by side with mechanical movements,” says Girardin. “Engineering them for ourselves, though, was a real cultural change.”  

Breitling, 877.273.4854, www.breitling.com