Zurich, Shanghai, Tokyo, Singapore, United States, London and UAE in five weeks. It’s a gruelling schedule by any standards so it’s little surprise that on the final, Dubai leg of Breitling’s five-week tour – its self-styled ‘roadshow’ – the man tasked with doing the bulk of the talking and presenting is a tad jet-lagged. But, everything is relative and even a jet-lagged Georges Kern, superstar watch CEO and horological tour-de-force, seems to operate with faculties that are sharper, keener and faster than those of the average bear.
Kern, who transformed IWC into a global brand, sending sales skyrocketing before being anointed head of watchmaking at Richemont, has been long-hauling it from one city to another to deliver the message: Breitling is changing. That message has come courtesy of a series of gala dinners, schmoozy media parties and presentations, but behind the glamorous get-togethers is a strategy prepared with the military precision and logic for which Kern is known. His message is clear, and speaking with him (Revolution joined Kern in Zurich and then Dubai), he sets out why Breitling needs an update, and exactly how this is to be achieved.
Georges Kern, Breitling CEO, presiding over the Zurich leg of the Breitling ‘road show’ that took place in February and March.
(Backstory: The brand was majority-acquired in 2017 by investment group, CVC Capital Partners, for a reported Eur840m. With Kern taking a 10 per cent interest, he has become not just a superstar CEO but a stakeholder.)So, what does the man with one of the most successful track records in watchmaking leadership have to say about his newest project? Quite a lot, unsurprisingly.
The first thing that Kern, whose horological highlights include becoming Richemont Group’s youngest ever CEO at 36 in 2002, is at pains to point out is that Breitling is much more than an aviation watch brand – so aside from inspiration from the skies, buyers can expect to see more land-based and water-based Breitling inspiration. And that is absolutely within its DNA, he says, a touch pre-emptively, conscious of fans resistant to change (although the brand’s relationship with Bentley, for example, is surely nothing new to modern Breitling lovers).
To further illustrate the new direction, he shares an internal video that shows Breitling’s previous style (masculine, aviation, black and white) with the new style. It’s more romantic, stylised, vintage, and soft. There is a focus on water (surfing, diving) and land (a new tie-up with Norton Motorcycles, and a refresh of its longstanding partnership with Bentley). There is of course air, and Breitling fans will be relieved to know that this is no unrecognisable revamp of its heritage. In fact, quite the opposite – heritage is taking centre stage. Breitling remains Breitling, with some sensitive updates.
The first collection to be unveiled is the Navitimer 8, with a well curated assortment of references within five models: Navitimer 8 Automatic, Navitimer 8 Day & Date, Navitimer 8 Chronograph, Navitimer 8 Unitime, and Navitimer 8 B01.The family digs deep into Breitling’s design heritage and aviation codes, taking direction (and the ‘8’) from Breitling’s Huit Aviation Department that made onboard clocks during the 1930s.
These five new models mark the start of Breitling’s new direction. Designed by Guy Bove, the watches draw on Huit Aviation’s codes of legibility and style, with the classic pilot’s watch Reference 768 providing particular source material for the new look pieces. “With the Navitimer 8, we wanted to create a watch that was in line with our vision for the brand’s future, but which would also pay tribute to the great Breitling watches of the early to mid-twentieth century,” says Bove. “From a design perspective, it occupies a unique position between Huit’s onboard clocks and the Navitimer.”
Moving forwards, you won’t need to peer through the caseback to try and see if your Breitling watches features an in-house movement or not – the dials of Breitling watches will be two-coloured to denote inhouse movement, or single colour if the movement is made by an external supplier.
“With the Navitimer 8 we honour the heritage of Breitling and its pioneering role in building chronographic instruments; we pay tribute to the past, but open the door to the future,” adds Kern. “The design is cleaner, more understated. The watches take some of the design elements from the Huit Aviation Department clocks – the dial and bezel – as well as the hands against black dials. They are more readable; I think we have the best equity in pilot’s watches of any brand today.”
That readability is seen in large, luminescent Arabic numerals on each of the five Navitimer 8 watches designed by Bove (also previously of IWC). Small triangles and long minute tracks recall early Breitlings as do the luminescent skeletonised hour and minute hands. The lugs have been artfully shaped and shortened, and the finish is now matte, or satinated, because people aren’t buying highly polished watches, says Kern.
Left: The Breitling Navitimer 8 B01 and (right) Navitimer 8 Automatic.
Fewer references, more choice
The limited (or should we say, reduced) colour palette also reflects consumer trends, adds Kern. “You might offer 20 colours, but they buy black, silver or blue,” he insists. Streamline, reduce and consolidate – that is the plan. Reflecting this, there are five models with just a few variations of each. The overall offering has been also been drastically slashed. Amongst the watches to be culled will be Breitling’s lower-end Quartz watches.
“Too much choice is no choice at all,” says Kern. “The consumer need to understand the product and have a readable offering when they look in the window.”
The design and number of references is not the only thing to get streamlined. In Navitimer 8, which we can reasonably expect to see in subsequent collections, the number of movement choices has been curated down to three. An ETA 2824 powers the Automatic and Day & Date movements.
And, when it comes to looking through the Breitling window at all those streamlined references? Well, even that is set to change, thanks to a slick new ‘loft’-style design for boutiques that will further reinforce the brand’s new-vintage style. Industrial, yet welcoming, retro touches and accents of ‘Breitling yellow’ are set to make Breitling more informal and accessible to a new generation of customers. The aviation and military spirit is still there, but it’s been softened and made more romantic. Think pilot kissing a girl in front of the plane, rather than bombing the hell out of someone with a burst of testosterone-charged air rage. When The Dubai Mall extension is finished, one of its flagship boutiques will be a brand new Breitling store; at 150 sq m, a sizeable stage in which to reintroduce Breitling to the region’s fans.
As with anything, you can’t please everyone, and the reaction to Breitling’s new direction is far from unanimous. Not that it deters Kern in the slightest.
Breitling, he insists, is simply responding to an evolving market, to changing tastes, and to a new generation of customers who love the brand, but need it to speak to them in their language. “Are we commercial? Yes. But is that a bad thing? No! “When Porsche brought out the Cayenne, people said they would be dead within a year. And then it brought out the Panamera, and those models today outsell the 911. People who say this isn’t Breitling are wrong; everything has been done from our DNA.”
See the new collection in more detail: CLICK HERE