Breitling was founded in 1884 and right from the start the company specialised in chronographs. In fact it’s fair to say that many of the modern-day chronograph characteristics we know and love can be attributed – at least in part – to developments undertaken by the company. In 1942, Breitling introduced the first watch with a circular slide rule, the Chronomat. Some years later (1954) the legendary Navitimer made its debut. The focus of today’s article however is on the Chronomat, perhaps one of, if not, the most commercially successful Breitling model of the past sixty years. Contrary to popular belief, it is the Chronomat not the Navitimer that has proven to be Breitling’s biggest seller. Today we’re taking a closer look at the latest iteration, the Chronomat Black Steel 44 SE. First though, some background.
What is the Chronomat?
It is generally accepted that the Chronomat made its public sales debut in 1942 and this is the date that has been quoted for many years by the Breitling Company. The life of the Breitling Chronomat began in 1940 with the application for a Swiss government patent for an innovative circular slide rule to be used in conjunction with a wrist chronograph. The circular slide-rule design of the Chronomat has come to be known as the ‘Type 42’. Emphasis was placed on the watch’s application in engineering and mathematics, science and industry, positioning it as an analog computer for your wrist.
The 1940’s Chronomat is regarded as one of the most historically important Breitlings ever made, a true classic. There is a red 0 – 100 scale near the middle of the dial which can be used for reading 1/100ths of a minute, necessary for making accurate computations using the slide-rule. The Swiss cross and the number 217012 on the dial refer to the Swiss government patent that was granted in 1940. As with other chronographs of the period, the minute register was marked at 3, 6 and 9 minutes as long-distance phone calls were charged in 3-minute increments back then. The rotating bezel included an outer telemeter scale and the watch was equipped with the legendary Calibre Venus 175.
The Chronomat’s functionality helped create one of the greatest aviation chronographs ever made, the Navitimer, and from 1954 up to 1962 both models co-existed, targeting different segments of the market. The first was promoted back then as the chronograph for engineers, the second as a tool watch for pilots. However, in the July 1962 edition of the AOPA Pilot magazine, the newly designed Chronomat (Ref.808) was promoted as a watch suitable for pilots. Despite this confusion, the model’s character did not change. The Chronomat went on to be produced in many forms including a version of the first automatic chronograph watch in the late 1960s and a quartz non-chronograph during the 1970s. Then in the 1980s it was reborn in a different form as a pilot’s watch without the slide-rule.
After the catastrophic Quartz crisis Breitling had to re-invent itself. In 1984 the Chronomat (Ref.81950) was (re)introduced. This new incarnation was designed with input from Italian military pilots however it was very different than the iconic Navitimer. In the place of the old type 42 slide rule it had a rotating timing bezel with four projecting “rider tabs”, easy to grip while wearing gloves in the cockpit. They also provided a measure of protection for the crystal. The pushers and crown were made more prominent and therefore easier to use while wearing gloves. This also marked the first time Breitling used the Valjoux 7750 movement.
Original Ernst Schneider Rider Tabs – Photo credits Breitling SA
This new watch was named the Navitimer Chronomat and was very different from earlier Chronomats. It was admittedly a sportier chronograph with an interesting blend of ultra-modern and traditional elements, which had all the necessary specifications for a proper tool chronograph. After all it was water resistant to a depth of 100 meters and had been tested to forces of 20g. During 1984 a special version of the Chronomat with the Frecce Tricolori logo on the dial was issued to members of the aerobatic team.
Over the ensuing decades, the Chronomat has transformed little by little into the ultimate sport chronograph on offer from Breitling, especially following the introduction of Breitling’s in-house B01 calibre in 2009. This is a watch that can withstand almost everything. Over the years there have been many versions and variations, it’s almost as if the Chronomat became the test bed for experimentation by Breitling. For instance in 1985 there was a moon-phase model, while 1989 saw the introduction of the Chronomat Yachting with a modified Valjoux 7750 movement with a special countdown timer in the place of the usual minutes counter at 12 o’clock. In 1996 the model had reached a level where it was offered in countless combinations of case metals, dials, straps/bracelet etc.
That same year Breitling created a special version, the Blackbird, that was true to the original Navitimer Chronomat of 1984. It was named after the legendary spy plane Lockheed Blackbird SR-71. However, the next big change in the line up would not happen until 2004 with the Chronomat Evolution, bigger in diameter, thickness and weight than the previous models and quite a departure from the original 1984 model. In 2009 the first watch to be announced with the new in-house Breitling B01 movement was the Chronomat. This model was called the “Chronomat B01” and had also a number of stylistic differences from the Evolution but it was very recognisably a Chronomat.
Breitling Chronomat evolution
Chronomat 44 Blacksteel Special Edition
Fast forward to 2016 and the introduction of the Chronomat 44 Blacksteel Special Edition we are looking at today. We realize now that the model changed almost totally over the years in order not to clash with the legendary Navitimer and also to fulfil the role of the rugged sports chronograph in the Breitling catalog. The modern Chronomats are surely bold watches both in their dimensions and their technical specifications, combining a resolutely technical and masculine style. This Special Edition is perhaps the perfect embodiment of this.
The case and bezel, made from steel, are satin-brushed and stand out thanks to a black carbon-based high-resistance treatment, which offers an unparalleled protection from scratches as well as a very unique and cool stealthy look. The dimensions are 44mm in diameter, 16,95mm in height, 54mm lug to lug, while the weight of the watch is 128,6 grams without the strap. Certainly not a watch designed to be worn with a suit. It is extremely rugged and well made and is targeted at people that want a cool and robust chronograph that can withstand almost everything you throw at it, and maybe more.
Of course, it has the technical specifications to support this role, since it is water resistant to 200 meters with a screw down crown and pushers, while the the unidirectional rotating bezel with black rubber-inlaid numerals is equipped with four polished rider tabs serving to measure elapsed time as well as assist hand grip. The strap matches the Blacksteel’s character as well. It is the twin-pro strap (as Breitling calls it), which is high quality rubber, embossed with the name of the company. On the down side it is yellow in order to match with the dial and it is cut to fit. It also has a black steel push button with ratcheting clasp. All machined to a very high standard.
Besides the robust case and the watch specifications the coolest thing of the Chronomat Blacksteel SE is the dial color, a bold choice that you do not see very often in the industry. The yellow dial chosen has an almost school bus yellow tint and immediately commands attention against the slightly recessed black chrono sub dials and red hands, which are reminiscent of instrument panels. The hands and indexes have a certain aroma of patina, which calls to mind those of the Airborne edition of the Chronomat (personal favourite among the line). On the rehaut we have a 10-minute indication and on top of that we find the classic tachymetric scale. The result is a dial that stands out with admirable clarity and combines a bold color matched cleverly with various modern and vintage elements. At first glance it might look graceless but on closer inspection this is not the case. The dial ensures optimal readability thanks to its large luminescent-coated hour-markers and hands, protected by a sapphire crystal glare proofed on both sides.
As well as the stealthy looks and the robust nature of the Chronomat Blacksteel SE I think that its biggest advantage is its calibre. I do consider the in-house Breitling B01 chronograph to be perhaps one of the greatest mass produced modern chronograph calibres along with the Omega cal.9300 and the Rolex cal.4130. This is the part that I might become a little more technical but I think it is worth it. The research for creating this calibre started in 2004 and ended in 2009. The B01 is a 47-jewel caliber with an extended 70-hour power reserve obtained from a single barrel (unusually high for a self-winding movement), a modular design that makes maintenance straight-forward, as well as instantaneous date change ability. It oscillates at the frequency of 4 Hz and offers a chronograph precision within 1/4th of a second. This calibre has a column-wheel arrangement and also a vertical coupling system (of chronograph and timekeeping mechanisms) that eliminates hand jumping once the chrono feature is triggered. In this case Breitling chose to paint the oscillating weight of the B01 black in accordance with the general character of the watch. Of course it can be seen through a transparent sapphire crystal caseback and I think it might be a pleonasm to mention that it is COSC certified.
By concluding this preview I have to say that this is an exceptional modern chronograph that ticks all the right boxes. It houses a great calibre, it is robust, and it is bold in its dimensions and in its aesthetic appeal. Who is it for then? Surely the Chronomat Blacksteel is not for the vintage/retro chronograph lover, it is not a timepiece that is flexible and can been worn in various occasions throughout the day. It is not an elegant and classy timepiece and surely if you want such a Breitling chronograph you can choose something from the Navitimer or Transocean lines. This model is modern and bold, with light vintage strokes and aims at a man, who is active and wants on his wrist a quality chronograph that can withstand every punishment imaginable. Perhaps the Blacksteel might be classified as one of those perfect do-it-all summer watches. Surely, this model is an exceptional modern chronograph that begs to be used as intended. An exceptional new instrument for aviation professionals – and all passionate fans of accomplishments.