They say that Christmas comes earlier every year. And actually, in 2022, that turned out to be true, because at the beginning of December I got my hands on a beautiful Breitling Blackbird chronograph, which belongs to my friend and colleague Richard Brown. He generously agreed to lend it to me over Christmas, and you can see how it all happened on this video right here.
Several weeks later, how did it all pan out? Richard texted me recently to ask, and I replied that the loan of his Blackbird had merely served to make the long-time itch I’ve had to own a Breitling (which I’ve bored many people about at great length) impossible not to scratch now. So the search starts immediately, especially because I’m going to miss this Breitling hugely when it shortly goes back to its rightful owner.
Anthony's Heuer Autavia and Richard's Breitling Blackbird - Credit WatchGecko
I’ve always loved aviation and flying, and Breitling make aviation watches par excellence. The Blackbird is named after the legendary Lockheed SR-71 spy plane, developed in secret during the Cold War. It was nicknamed Blackbird thanks to its black-coated titanium structure and it’s still the fastest jet in the world, with a maximum speed of Mach 3.3: around 2100mph. The spy jet was introduced in 1964 and was retired in 1999, but it still remains an absolute icon: a bit like the watch that’s named after it.
SR-71 Blackbird Spy Plane - Credit Adobe Stock
The level of complexity and detail is fascinating; it’s a busy watch but outstandingly clear at the same time, which is just the sort of thing you need at Mach 3.3. Introduced in 1995, the Breitling Blackbird was essentially a stealth version of the Chronomat, with a few additions to make it extra special.
Richard’s watch is the second-generation Breitling Blackbird from the late 1990s, which looks outwardly very similar to the first iteration but runs on a chronometer-certified automatic movement, as evidenced by the ‘chronometre’ inscription on the archetypally Breitling case back.
Breitling Blackbird on ZULUDIVER Sailcloth - Credit WatchGecko
This version (reference A13350) stayed in production until 2002, before more wholesale changes were made in 2007, with the jump to a much bigger case. I agree completely with Richard’s assertion that the late 1990s was ‘peak Breitling’ for the Chronomat, starting with the 39-millimetre case (39.8mm, to be exact), which is just about the perfect size. It seems to sit perfectly on my wrist, which is why I’ve been everywhere with it in my all too brief tenure: from Italy to Monaco to the United Kingdom. I put it through all sorts of scenarios: driving an old Fiat Punto from Tuscany to the south of France (cruising at approximately Mach 0.1), heading up an alp in the dead of night in minus 10 degrees, plus swanning around the Beach Plaza hotel in Monte Carlo at an art exhibition. It was on my wrist when I ate some of the best spaghetti alle vongole I have ever tasted at a harbourside restaurant, and also when I helped push a stranded van off a snowy side road.
1999 Breitling Blackbird Chronomat - Credit WatchGecko
It’s fair to say that this Breitling experienced the variety of society – and never looked out of place anywhere. Part of the appeal was undoubtedly the sailcloth strap that Richard had put on: it matched the watch perfectly at to my mind felt more at home on it than the metal bracelet it would have come on originally. This is meant to be a stealth watch after all: there’s nothing shiny on a real Lockheed Blackbird, so surely the watch should reflect the same ethos?
The very last incarnation of the Breitling Blackbird, which was discontinued in 2011, increased in size to nearly 44mm and had an oversized date window underneath 12 o’clock: to my mind about as stealthy as a brick through a window. But like all star performers it had several comebacks: a 2000-piece limited edition one year later, which then eventually morphed into the Avenger Blackbird from 2014 – an entirely different beast, which you can still buy now.
The one that I was privileged to wear on my wrist for a month was undoubtedly the best incarnation, and while in excellent condition thanks to Richard’s careful stewardship, it is also beginning to acquire the sort of ageless patina that tells a story modern watches are simply incapable of recounting. I found myself looking at it time and time again; finding extra little details on every occasion that I had never noticed previously (such as ‘serie speciale’ written in red above the bottom chronograph register).
Breitling Blackbird on ZULUDIVER Typhoon - Credit WatchGecko
So what was at the heart of the Breitling’s appeal, and why do I now want one so much? I spent a lot of time trying to analyse this, and here's the conclusion. This is a watch that subliminally speaks to you in a way that many of the more soulless Swiss brands don’t. I’m a frustrated aviator, and the Breitling somehow eases that frustration, bringing me closer to the skies and the romance of the jet age. On my way back, I spent ages staring out of the Boeing 737’s window, occasionally looking lovingly at this watch to the backdrop of the clouds it was created to inhabit. I think it’s the only romantic moment I have ever experienced on Ryanair. Such is the power of this Breitling to move you.
A Breitling is a serious piece of kit, used by actual pilots: an aspirational tool watch. And while – like most watch enthusiasts – I also love dive watches; I’ve never actually harboured any dreams to be a diver. But I would have loved to have been a pilot. The purposeful Breitling, with its prominent wings, helps make that dream a partial reality. As a mere desk flyer, you may not have wings on your jacket – but at least you can carry them on your wrist.
Leaving all those poetic notions aside, it’s just a great watch. It’s easy to read, sits comfortably on the wrist, and possesses the sort of understated elegance that we all aspire to. I’ve got very used to having this watch on me. But I know that it will soon be replaced with a Breitling of my own.
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