Eight minutes into a Zoom conversation with Georges Kern and the Breitling CEO has managed to boil the history of luxury economics and the business of fashion down to a single observation. “The thing with any product is,” he says, "is it cool, or is it not cool?”
It’s such a preposterous statement that I wish I was on mute – Kern doesn’t mean it as a joke. I’m laughing because it’s so obvious. And because Kern is so obviously right.
No one at Breitling is going to thank us for bringing John Travolta's name up again – they’ll be round Esquire Towers to shove a DVD of Battlefield Earth where the sun don’t shine – but the bald truth is that as recently as 2017 the luxury Swiss watchmaker’s business was built on selling pilot’s watches off the back of adverts with Travolta sat in his own fold-out director’s chair, on a shiny Photoshopped runway, in front of a ludicrous rocket-fuelled fighter jet, wearing a black suit, a black shirt and a black wig. We’re not sure of the precise year when any of that stopped being cool. But we’re pretty sure it was sometime before 2017.
These days Breitling, with its Blockchain-enabled watches, eco-straps and loft-style ‘Townhouse’ apartment-slash-shops is a rather different proposition.
Earlier this year it released a trio of new watches based on cult American cars from the Sixties, a time when, as Tom Wolfe had it in his 1965 story The Last American Hero, cars like the Shelby Cobra and the Corvette String Ray “symbolised freedom”.
These directly replaced Breitling’s preceding car partner, a luxury British brand best-known these days for supplying SUVs to footballers. We know which one we'd rather take for a spin. (“Is it cool, or is it not cool?”)
Now it has applied a similar principal to aviation.
Super AVI, a new Breitling line that launches today, is a celebration of aviation history with designs inspired by its own 1953 “Co-Pilot” Ref. 765 AVI aviator’s watch and four classic planes of yesteryear: the North American Aviation P-51 Mustang, the Vought F4U Corsair, the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk and the de Havilland Mosquito.
In the 1930s, Breitling’s Huit Aviation department made its name inventing precision cockpit clocks for the emerging field of aeronautics. Two decades later, in 1953, it introduced the Ref. 765 AVI pilot’s watch. It was such a hit with actual pilots, it became known as the “Co-Pilot.”
Last year, Breitling launched the AVI Ref. 765 1953 Re-Edition, a faithful recreation that honoured that chronograph.
Now the brand new watches are:
The Super AVI P-51 Mustang, which comes in two versions: a stainless-steel case with a black dial and gold-brown leather strap, and an 18k red gold version with an anthracite dial and a black leather strap.
The Super AVI Tribute to Vought F4U Corsair, featuring a blue dial, tone-on-tone chronograph counters, and a black leather strap that takes its design cues from the livery of its namesake naval aircraft.
The Super AVI Curtiss Warhawk, with its military-green dial, white contrasting chronograph counters and red accents, that plays on its famous shark-mouth nose art for inspiration.
The Super AVI Mosquito, meanwhile, features a combination polished and satin-brushed black ceramic bezel and a black dial with white contrasting chronograph counters. Its red and orange elements recall the roundels and markings found on the plane dubbed the “Wooden Wonder”.
(Although it is often reported that wood was used to preserve precious metals during the war and to create an aircraft which could be built on the sly in woodworking shops, de Havilland felt confident that a wooden aircraft could be lighter, more streamlined and just as effective as a metal one. History proved him right.)
Naturally, picking a “cool” plane over a military-grade fighter jet to represent your brand is only half the job. The watch needs to be great, too.
Breitling is world-famous for its pilot watches, its Navitimer, which celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2022 – big plans are afoot, Travolta is standing by* – is the classic of the genre. So its not like it doesn’t already have form in this area.
“Once you have the strategy and a vision, then you have to implement it,” says Kern. “And we have, thank God, one of best design studios in the industry – if not, the best. The wrong execution of a strategy is useless. It’s like in soccer, you can come up with a plan, but if you don’t implement it, you will lose four-zero.”
Strategy, vision and implementation sorted, the final task for the new family of watches may be the toughest of all. Picking a favourite.
"We have a competition running at Breitling, so we will see who will win," chuckles the boss. "Because many people are saying that the blue one will win. Some others are saying 'green is the new blue'. I'm telling you... I think it will be the Mustang."
And why is that? The black dial? The contrasting beige numerals? Its key role in keeping the Luftwaffe's twin-engined Messerschmitt Bf 110 heavy bombers at bay during World War II?
"My stomach feeling," Kern says. "And 25 years of experience."
Yeah. It turns out "is it cool, or is it not cool?" will only get you so far.
Super AVI B04 Chronograph GMT 46 P-51 Mustang, £7,900; Super AVI B04 Chronograph GMT 46 Corsair, £7,900; Super AVI B04 Chronograph GMT 46 Curtiss Warhawk, £7,900; Super AVI B04 Chronograph GMT 46 Mosquito, £8,000. The Gold Mustang watch; £19,200 (available in February 2022).
* This seems unlikely
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