There are watches of significance, watches of history, and then there are watches of legend. The Type 20/21 Chronographs, ordered by the French military beginning in the 1950s and supplied by France’s leading watch manufacturers, are legendary.
These are tool watches par excellence that saw active military duty. The esoteric past of the Type 20/21 makes their owners a select group. Some of the original brands are still making Type 20/21 chronographs and some have relaunched them, like Laurent Piccioto from Chronopassion told us in this interview.
Because the Type 20/21 Chronographs were an active part of cockpit functionality, they had to perform. They needed to be accurate to within eight seconds a day and have a power reserve of more than 35 hours. The crucial feature the government requested was the fly-back for the chronographs. The fly-back function of the chronograph allowed pilots to reset or retour-en-vol timing by pressing the lower push piece.
This function lets a pilot push one button for course corrections instead of pushing the upper button to stop the chronograph, pushing the lower button to reset it and then pushing the upper button again to restart.
Anyone who has managed the alacrity of a cockpit can attest to the benefit of one button over three. Such quick resets aided waypoint navigation and grid searches, allowing pilots to transition ‘on the fly’.
The Type 20/21‘s common appearance shared across manufacturers was a black dial with Arabic numerals, illuminated numerals for easy recognition, and 38mm x 14 mm cases, diminutive by today’s standards. The Type 20 appeared in the 1950s, and the request for improved reliability and maintenance gave birth to the Type 21 in the 60s. Six manufacturers supplied these watches with four still making them: Breguet, Dodane, Auricoste and Vixa. The brands Airain and Boullier have not survived.
The crown prince of this genre, coveted by collectors, is the Breguet Type XX and later Type XXI. As we already shared with you, Laurent Piccioto from Chronopassion was partially responsible for the relaunch of this model. Breguet’s horological achievements overshadow their aviation heritage, but during World War I, French Fighter Pilots flew approximately 5,500 Breguet XIV (Br-14)s, which were biplanes designed by aeronautical pioneer Louis Charles Breguet and equipped with the Brequet watch company’s aviation instruments and chronographs. Fusing their horological prowess with their aviation pedigree produced the historic Breguet XX.
Today, the company preserves this lineage with the Type XX, available in the Aeronavale and Transatlantique versions, and the Type XXI, 39.5mm and 42.5mm respectively. These watches prize the fly-back feature, and their visible style makes them instantly recognizable. Powered by Breguet 582 automatic movements (modified Lemania 1350 movements for fly-back functionality), these contemporary watches far exceed the French government’s original 1950 expectations.
Pushing the envelope, Breguet recently released the Type XXII 3880 ST (see photo below), replacing its 2010 Type XXII, and bringing the style into the modern era.
This movement beats at an astounding 10 Hz, which requires a silicon escapement and silicon balance-spring, and the mainspring provides 45 hours of power. The Type XXII departs from its predecessor’s conservative appearance with a 44mm case and a touch of red appearing throughout the dial, on the bottom pusher and in the band’s stitching. The Type XXII incorporates the Type XX/XXI legacy and then finds its own voice, making it the hot shot of the group.
Dodane, a fifth-generation family run company, is another Type 20/21 manufacturer still in existence. After the quartz crisis, the family reconstituted the brand as Dodane 1857. Their Type 21, which comes at a considerably discounted price compared to Breguet, also doffs the chapeau towards the past.
In its engine bay beats a Dubois Depraz 42021 movement whose balance prop churns out 28,800 beats per hour. Its case’s wingspan is 42.5 mm. Fly-back function? Check. Automatic self-winding movement with 42 hour power reserve? Check. Bi-directional rotating bezel? Check. With pre-flight complete, this watch is ready to soar. Not only does Dodane make the Type 21, but they also manufacture chronometric instrumentation for aircraft. You can sport a Dodane on the dashboard of your Piper Cub airplane, extending your debonair qualifications.
Auricoste and Vixa are two resurrected brands post the quartz crisis. As new companies, these brands lack the continuous heritage of Breguet or Dodane 1857, but they do an excellent job with the Type 20. Auricoste (also) sports a Dubois Depraz 42021 movement, and Vixa lists an automatic Vixa VJ750BC movement. Both watches are 42mm in diameter.
Vive la France!
This article is written by Max Reddick, editor for Monochrome Watches.