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by Jason on 11 February, 2013
Sometimes you have odd moments of serendipity, even working in this weird industry that is watches. We deal with a lot of preowned and vintage timepieces, but can have lulls of long periods where we may not have any leads or offers to trade in new pieces. Then, suddenly, you will have a rush of items come in within a span of several weeks. Such was the case where we ended up with two exceptional vintage Breitlings. Both came from completely different sources, but ended up in our store in the same week. Both are exceptional, hard to find, and well preserved – and both have interesting histories behind them.
First up is one of the most iconic and popular Breitlings of all time, the Navitimer Ref. 806 chronograph. Introduced in 1952, the Navitimer has been in production in some form or another right up until the present, and remains one of the brand’s top sellers. The 806 was produced from 1952 until the early 1970s and all feature the same basic specifications – large (for the time) 40mm case, manual wind Venus chronograph movement, black dial with luminescent markers and hands, tricompax (three-register) subdial layout, and most importantly the slide rule calculator integrated into the chapter ring of the dial.
The slide rule was an important part of the design of a “professional” watch in the era before calculators. For complex speed and distance calculations on the fly a slide rule was a must and the Breitling design (with a rotating inner bezel accessed by turning a knurled bezel around the crystal) began in 1942 on the Chronomat, which was marketed as a watch for white-collar professionals. The Navitimer was marketed directly to pilots as a handy combination of a slide rule and stopwatch, which made it ideal for navigational calculations (hence the name). This was done in direct association with the Aircraft Owners’ and Pilots’ Association – early versions of the 806 are referred to as AOPA models because they carry the organization’s logo on their dial in place of (or below) the Breitling logo.
The 806 was marketed directly to AOPA members and became quite popular among pilots as a stylish and functional watch that was designed with flight in mind. AOPA models were marketed to members directly with brochures sent by the US distributor. A booklet was included with each watch describing the calculations possible and a paper “practice” rule, with a clear focus on practical calculations while in flight (speed, ascent and descent rates, fuel consumption rates, and nautical mile conversion). Two main Navitimer models were available – a standard 12-hour dial version (with or without Arabic numerals depending on the year) and the 24-hour dial, which was later renamed the Cosmonaute ref. 809 and marketed as a distinct model. The slide rule ring was always a contrasting colour, while the chronograph subdials were colour matched to the dial until the early 60s when the familiar black dial/silver subdial version was introduced. Stainless steel, 18k gold, and gold plated cases (such as our example) were available, steel apparently being the most common.
Production of the 806 spanned from 1952 until the late 1970s, with five “generations”. Our example is a fourth generation model dating to approximately 1967, and features the Breitling logo dial in place of the AOPA dial found on earlier versions. It is gold plated, which makes it less common than the steel models but not as prohibitively expensive as the 18k version.
Despite being 45 years old, this one retains all of its gold plating with no signs of wear in the usual areas - normally gold filled or gold plated watches of this vintage will show corrosion between the lugs and chipping around the edges of the case and lug tips. I would go so far as to say this watch is in remarkably well-preserved condition – not new old stock, but not restored either, just a solid example that could be worn daily or enjoyed as a collectible. The stainless steel case back has been polished but the engravings and serial number are still crisp and completely legible. At 40mm it’s big for a vintage piece, and looks even larger in person owing to the expansive dial and thin bezel. The proportions are such that it can be worn without looking awkward in a sea of massive sport watches. Much like the Omega Speedmaster Professional - the other large manual wind sports chronograph that has been in production since the Ordovician period - the design and proportions are timeless and still look good.
This 806 has also benefited from regular servicing and runs perfectly, with a nice crisp action to the pushers and crown, a testament to the enduring quality of these old manual wind calibres. The Venus 178 featured a column wheel that gives it a slightly better feel than later chronos that dispensed with the difficult-to-adjust system in favour of a simpler cam and lever used on later Valjoux calibres. In the 1970s Breitling introduced the 806-36 (also called 806-E) that used an easier to produce and more available Valjoux 7736 movement in place of the Venus calibre, which makes the Venus 178 models slightly more desirable. Which is funny because the rarest 806 of all is a limited batch made in the mid 1950s that featured a Valjoux 72 movement - the holy grail for a lot of Breitling collectors.
The dial is the highlight of this piece. Much like Rolex sport watches of the era, this watch features a stunning gilt dial. Produced by treating the brass baseplate of the dial with a special coating, the result is a crisply printed dial with warm gold markers and a lustrous semi gloss black finish. The markers aren’t printed: instead they are exposed brass and it is the black surface that is printed by a chemical process. A well-preserved gilt dial is a beautiful thing, with sharp and delicate printing and a depth that normal printing can’t match. This dial was only available on the gold plated and 18k gold version of the 806, and you have to examine it in person to appreciate how amazing it looks. As far as dials go, they don’t make ‘em like they used to. The hands are gilded to match the markings and everything is marked with tritium lume, which has faded to a mottled medium brown on the dial and a biscuit colour on the hands. The subdials and chapter ring are flawless and there is only light corrosion on the hands. It’s a very clean dial overall, considering the age, with just the right amount of patina in my opinion. I like my vintage watches to show a little character and wear so they don’t end up looking like some contrived retro-re-edition that just came off the shelf.
But wait, there’s more! In Part II we will cover the Co-Pilot 7651, a remarkable and rare watch that introduced the automatic chronograph to the market. Stay tuned to the Baily Blog to read about the second watch in the Vintage Breitling Duo.