Diving Watches: From Sports Watches to Certified Icons
Collecting vintage watches can be a fantastic hobby, but it can also be an all-consuming and extremely expensive one, particularly if your interest lies in historically significant models. With the crazy sums being paid for sought-after pieces recently, you would be forgiven for thinking you have to have impossibly deep pockets to play this game. There’s definitely some truth in that, but if you’re willing to cast your net a little wider, there are still tons of great vintage options out there at relatively accessible prices.
A prime example is the Breitling Navitimer ref. 806. While it has shown performed well on Chrono24 over the last few years, it still offers a lot of bang for your buck. Best of all, it likely won’t bankrupt you in the purchasing process. Read on to learn more about the interesting history of this iconic pilot’s watch.
Chances are, you’re already familiar with the Breitling Navitimer. It’s considered one of the most famous pilot watches in modern history, thanks in large part to its distinctive design. Targeted at pilots, its name combines the words “navigation” and “timer.” Its most distinguishing feature, of course, is its flight-specific slide rule bezel. The slide rule allows pilots to calculate things like average speed, fuel consumption, and climbing speeds. Development began around 1952, with the first generation of the watch making its debut in 1954. It’s interesting to note that the slide rule bezel wasn’t actually created for the Navitimer. Instead, it was the Breitling Chronomat that first featured this unique bezel in the early 1940s.
The first Navitimer models were intended for exclusive use by members of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, commonly referred to as AOPA. The case backs of these extremely rare and highly collectible watches do not bear any reference numbers, and production is thought to have lasted no more than a year, from late 1954 until 1955. Referred to as the “Pre-806” by collectors, these models are equipped with the Valjoux 72 manual chronograph movement.
The dials of these watches are all black (contrasting subdials to improve legibility were introduced in later models) and feature the AOPA-signed wings logo just below 12 o’clock. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the Breitling logo is nowhere to be found. In fact, it didn’t appear on dials until the late 1950s. The other defining characteristic of this inaugural model is the beaded bezel, which was designed to be easily gripped with gloves for making in-flight calculations. The AOPA models feature more beads than later iterations (about 125 to be exact). Over time, Breitling reduced the total number of beads so that the individual size of each could be increased for improved grip.
Following the success of this early model in the aviation industry, Breitling introduced what is now referred to as the ref. 806 in 1956. This was a commercial production model available to the general public. As such, the Valjoux 72 was replaced by the manual Venus 178 chronograph movement developed by Fabrique d’Ebauches Venus S.A., a Swiss movement manufacturer. Breitling continued to use this movement in the Navitimer until the early 1970s.
Early ref. 806 models still feature all-black dials, but several other changes were made. Some feature the AOPA-signed wings like the Pre-806 (made exclusively for the American market), while others have unsigned wings and the Breitling logo. Others still have a Breitling Genève wings combination. Most of these models are made of stainless steel, but there are also some gold-plated and solid gold versions available. That said, solid gold watches were made in very limited numbers and are exceedingly rare.
Almost a decade after the original AOPA model, Breitling introduced contrasting subdials to the Navitimer. The reverse panda configuration is now a hallmark of the Navitimer collection, but at the time, the decision was made primarily to improve legibility. These initial models, introduced in 1963, were still offered in the earlier 806 case complete with beaded bezels, though the bead number was reduced to 93. The syringe-style hands were also replaced by arrow-tipped baton hands. These watches were only in production for about a year before Breitling made more dramatic changes in 1964.
Some of these changes included the introduction of a milled edge bezel to replace the beaded bezel, and the use of the twin jet logo on the dial with “Breitling Genève” written below. The subdials were also enlarged in the name of improved legibility. In the early 1970s, Breitling further improved the functionality of the Navitimer with the addition of a date window at 4:30. Officially introduced in 1972, this model goes by the ref. 7806.
The use of date windows always seems to be a contentious issue – and the placement of this one is arguably a bit awkward – but Breitling approached the decision with gusto, introducing the first hints of color (on the date window and slide rule) to the previously monochromatic dial. It was the 70s, after all. This model is powered by the manual Valjoux 7740 movement and still features a three-register layout; however, the hour counter and sweep seconds swapped their positions at 9 and 6 o’clock.
A few years earlier, there was another notable development in the Navitimer universe. Breitling, along with three other collaborators – Heuer, Büren, and Dubois Dépraz – had been secretly working on the development of the world’s first automatic chronograph movement. Zenith and Seiko were doing the same (separately, of course), and all three calibers debuted in 1969. While Heuer called the movement the Calibre 11 and created a completely new watch to house it in (the square Monaco favored by Steve McQueen), Breitling opted to put the so-called “Chrono-Matic” inside a new variant of the Navitimer.
The ref. 1806 was launched in 1969, and has a truly fabulous oversized 48-mm case nicknamed the “Pizza.” Unlike the manual version, this was a bi-compax chronograph with the date window just above 6 o’clock. By this point, the Navitimer’s popularity had spread well beyond the aviation crowd and was beginning to be viewed as the status symbol it is today. Famous musician Miles Davis was known to wear one, as were Formula 1 drivers James Clark and Graham Hill.
The Navitimer Cosmonaute is technically not a ref. 806, but it is a very close relative and has an interesting back story to match. According to watchmaking lore, American astronaut Scott Carpenter, one of the seven members of America’s original space program Project Mercury and the second American to orbit the Earth, was preparing for his mission with a Navitimer on his wrist. Realizing that his watch may not offer the full functionality he would require, he supposedly approached Breitling about the possibility of developing a Navitimer with a 24-hour dial to help him distinguish day from night in space.
Recognizing this opportunity of a lifetime, Breitling introduced the ref. 809 Cosmonaute in 1962. The initial version featured an all-black dial similar to early ref. 806 models, but it had an enlarged beaded bezel that could be operated even with heavy astronaut gloves on. Scott Carpenter wore his own personal ref. 809 Cosmonaute during the Aurora 7 mission, making it the first Swiss chronograph in space. It’s worth noting that the version with the enlarged bezel was produced for less than one year, making quality examples extremely rare today. Later, Breitling updated the Cosmonaute along the same lines as the ref. 806.
At Baselworld 2019, Breitling introduced a faithful re-edition of the ref. 806 from 1959. According to company CEO Georges Kern, the goal was to create a watch that was as true to the original as possible. To that end, the company worked in collaboration with watch collector Fred Mandelbaum (@watchfred), who reportedly owns one of – if not the – largest private collections of vintage Breitling watches in the world. It’s fair to say the end result is pretty cool.
Measuring in at 40.9 mm (including the beaded bezel), the steel case is the same size as the original. The bezel even features 94 beads like the 1959 version. Naturally, this watch features an all-black dial and lacks a date window. Just below 12 o’clock, you will find a Breitling inscription in capital letters and an unsigned winged logo. This particular logo was reportedly used for the European market.
Perhaps best of all, Breitling went to the added trouble – and cost – of developing a manual movement specifically for this watch. Based on the B01, the Manufacture Caliber B09 is a COSC-certified chronometer and features a column-wheel chronograph with vertical clutch, offering precision to 1/4th of a second. The movement beats at 4 Hz and has a power reserve of 70 hours when fully wound. You can’t see the movement at work because like the original, it is hidden beneath a solid case back.
With a genuinely interesting history, the Breitling Navitimer ref. 806 is a great timepiece for vintage chronograph collectors and aviation enthusiasts alike. While the model has shown good value development over time, it remains relatively accessible to purchase. Plus, it looks great on the wrist!