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The Very Best of Breguet’s Legendary Pilot’s Watches Type 20 and Type XX (XXI, XXII)

The Very Best of Breguet’s Legendary Pilot’s Watches Type 20 and Type XX (XXI, XXII)

Exactly 100 years ago, in the year 1921, Louis Charles Breguet shared his ambitious vision to introduce airplanes that could reach an altitude of up to 13,500 meters and complete the distance from Paris to New York within six hours. Louis Breguet, great-great-grandson of Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747–1823), wanted to make air travel possible for as many people as possible. In 1930, his vision became reality as the first non-stop flight from Paris to New York took off.

The descendant of watchmaking legend Breguet is ultimately responsible for the family’s association with aviation. Louis Charles Breguet was an aircraft designer who developed, among other things, the first flightworthy helicopter. During both wars, his company produced military aircraft for the French Air Force, which was, incidentally, equipped with watches from Breguet. The contemporary Breguet pilot watches – from the Type XX to XXI to XXII – date back to the chronographs produced for fighter pilots from 1935. Without further ado, let’s fly back in time and visit the most important milestones and models from Breguet’s pilot watch history.

Louis Breguet and the Maison Breguet

Louis Charles Breguet was born in 1880. After graduating from the École Supérieure D’électricité, he devoted himself entirely to aviation. He founded the Société Anonyme des Ateliers D’aviation Louis Breguet (later simply named Breguet Aviation), and proved extremely successful selling his aircraft under this name. In 1916, he developed the “Breguet XIV” aircraft, with some 8,000 models being delivered to fifteen countries between 1917 and 1926. At the height of his career, he pioneered vertical flight together with René Dorand. The “Gyroplane Breguet-Dorand” was introduced in 1935, going on to be the most capable helicopter of its time.

Although Louis Breguet was also passionate about watchmaking, he devoted himself entirely to aviation. Louis-Clément Breguet sold his family’s watchmaking company to his workshop boss Edward Brown in 1870, meaning it was no longer in the hands of the Breguet family. Nevertheless, both companies remained close to the name Breguet. During the World Wars, Breguet military aircraft were equipped with cockpit timepieces from the Breguet watch manufacture.

The History of the Type 20 and Type XX

That said, Breguet did not only produce watches not only for the cockpit, but also for pilots, and eventually even civilian models due to their popularity. The manufacture produced the first wristwatches for fighter pilots in 1918. Initially, however, these had only three hands. It was not until 1935 that Breguet also equipped the watches with chronographs. However, today’s Breguet Type XX – XXI – XXII models actually date back to pilot’s watches that were produced after both wars. Since Breguet employed only about 10 people in the 1950s and 60s, the company Mathey-Tissot in Les Ponts-de-Martel was commissioned to produce Breguet’s Type 20 watches. From 1975, these were then assembled in Paris in small ateliers.

Breguet Type 20 von ca. 1955
Fotocredit: Antiquorum

Essentially, one can divide the history of Breguet pilot watches into three generations. It is important to know here that the military models were called Type 20 and the civilian models were titled Type XX.

1954 – 1970: The first generation of Type 20

In the 1950s, the French Air Force expressed a desire for a wristwatch for its fighter pilots, which should would meet several criteria. This Type 20 model was to have, among other things:

  • have a black dial with Arabic numerals
  • a 38 mm case
  • a bidirectional rotating bezel
  • a chronograph with flyback function.

Furthermore, the movement was only allowed to deviate +/- 8 seconds a day. In addition, the power reserve had to be at least 35 hours. Along with other manufacturers such as Vixa and Dodane, Breguet took on the specification and developed its own interpretation of the Type 20 specification.

Breguet Type 20 from 1957
(Flyback Chronograph, Ref. 7168, Calibre Valjoux 222).
Delivered to the military on July 31st 1957.
Source and credit: antiquorum

Initially, Breguet produced a small series that was exclusively available to the military. Powering these first models was by the Valjoux 222, a flyback chronograph with a frequency of 2.5 Hz. The function of the watches was very clearly designed for military use; the elongated markers on the oversized subdials of the 15-minute counter at 3 o’clock were covered with lume (every three minutes), as were the hands and Arabic numerals.

Breguet Type 20 Marine Nationale Aeronautique from ca. 1958
Credit: Antiquorum

Between 1955 and 1959, models were distributed to the French Air Force, from 1956 to 1957 to the French Flight Test Centre, and in 1960 to the Naval Aviation “Aéronautique Navale”. Number 4100 of the Type 20, from 1958, was delivered to the Aéronavale pilots in 1960 and was limited to 500 pieces. This particular model, though, had a 15- (rather than 30-) minute counter. The respective limited-edition number was engraved on the caseback. These models later became known as “Aéronavale” upon becoming available to civilians. Interestingly, all military watches were declared as military equipment and therefore property of the French state. Only in exceptional cases were pilots allowed to keep their watches.

1971 – 1985: The second generation of the Breguet Type 20

In the early 1970s, Breguet introduced the second generation of the Type 20, with a larger case diameter of 40.7 mm and square lugs. Its black bezel was now only unidirectional. Similar to the first generation, there are versions with two and three counters. The so-called BigEye subdial counter at 3 o’clock reached up to 15 minutes. Powering the models was either the Valjoux 235 or 725 calibres, which also integrated a flyback chronograph.

Breguet Type XX from 1975.
Calibre Valjoux 725.
Credit: Antiquorum

In 1975, production of the watches made a return to the small workshops in Paris. However, due to the emerging quartz crisis, the creation of new Breguet models in the 1970s and 1980s very much waned. By this time, Breguet was owned by Chaumet, following the family of Edward Brown’s selling of Breguet in 1970.

1995: The third generation of the Breguet Type XX

At the height of the quartz crisis, production of the Breguet Type 20 halted. However, a few years later, shortly before the Swatch Group took over the manufacture at the turn of the century, the company presented its third generation of the collection. The Type XX Aeronavale 3800ST (3800ST92W9) was housed in a 39 mm case.

For the first time, it now used an automatic movement. As well as already featuring Breguet-typical fluted case middle part, Breguet also installed the calibre 582. This movement was based on the Lemania 1350 and had an in-house flyback module. The same year also saw the launch of the Breguet Type XX Transatlantique 3820ST (3820STH2SW9), integrating a date window at the bottom of the subdial counter at 6 o’clock.

Aéronavale and Transatlantique

Initially, two main commercial lines were on offer: the Aéronavale (named after the French naval aviation squadron) was produced from 1995, with the first being the Type XX Aeronavale 3800ST (3800ST92W9). This featured a polished bezel, matte black dial, and polished stainless-steel bracelet.

Transatlantique models were produced starting in 1998 in the form of the Type XX Transatlantique, eventually being discontinued in 2015. Unlike the Aéronavale watches, they display the date and were distinguished by their brushed bezels, glossy black dials and a brushed or polished stainless-steel bracelet. During their run, the Transatlantique models paid tribute to the first non-stop flight from Paris to New York on the “Breguet 19” airplane in 1930.

2004: The Type XXI 3810

In 1999, the Swatch Group took over Maison Breguet. To meet the demand for a larger case diameter, its pilot’s watch collection expanded in 2004 – exactly 50 years after the first Type 20 – with the Type XXI 3810 in stainless steel and rose gold, measuring 42 mm. The calibre 582Q within is, of course, equipped with a flyback chronograph, while the central hand measures the minutes passed. Another new feature is the “Retour en vol” lettering on the dial, which indicates the flyback function. The Type XXI 3810 was at that time available in three different executions: Breguet Type XXI 3810ST/92/9ZU (brown leather strap and stainless steel case), Breguet Type XXI 3810ST/92/SZ9 (bracelet and stainless steel case) and Breguet Type XXI 3810BR/92/9ZU (rose gold and leather strap).

2010: Special Editions

Breguet Type XX Aéronavale Limited Edition Watch

In 1958, the French Navy ordered 500 pieces of Breguet’s Type 20 No. 4100. After two years of production, the watches were then delivered to its Aéronavale pilots in 1960. On the back of each watch is the engraving “Breguet Marine Nationale Aeronautique Navale“. Thus, 2010 marked two birthdays; firstly, the 50th anniversary of Breguet’s Aeronavale tool watches, and secondly, the 100th anniversary of the French army’s aviation unit. To mark the occasion, the horology house launched the Type XX Aéronavale 3803ST923W6, limited to 1,000 pieces.

At 39 mm, this edition was slightly smaller in diameter than modern Type XXI pilot’s watches, yet still slightly larger than the original Reference 3800. True to the original, the model features a 15-minute counter.

High flyer: Breguet Type XXII 3880 ST (with 10 Hz movement)

In 2010, Breguet also presented the Type XXII 3880 ST, which served to demonstrate the technical sophistication of the manufacture. The watch integrates a balance that oscillates at a frequency of no less than 10 Hz, meaning it is able to stop timing twice as precisely as a the average chronograph.

In fact, the second hand circles the dial in just 30 seconds. Naturally, reading the stopped time on the 30-second graduated scale takes some getting used to. Additionally, Breguet integrated a silicon hairspring, which solves the matter of the lubrication of the parts at a high frequency. On the caseback, a small viewing window allows the wearer to admire the balance and the spring.

In addition to the chronograph, the Type XXII 3880 ST also features a 24-hour display at 3 o’clock and a second time zone with date at 6 o’clock. The watch first appeared in a 44 mm stainless steel case. This was later followed by a version with a red-gold case.

2011: Breguet Type XXI 3810 in Titanium

In 2011, the new Type XXI was presented for the first time with a 42 mm case made of grade 2 titanium. The rotating bezel with relief numbers is painted black on this reference 3810TI/H2/3ZU. The design is inspired by the original second generation Type XX models produced between 1970 and 1984. As with the Type XXI 3810 models from 2004, both the stop second of the chronograph and the minute counter turn from the center.

Type XXI Flyback Chronograph Ref. 3810TI/H2/3ZU

In addition to the chronograph counters, this Type XXI features a 24-hour display at 3 o’clock and an hour display for the second time zone at 6 o’clock. The latter also integrates a trapezoidal date window. In addition, the dial features Arabic numerals and applied indices with luminescence. Powering this Type XXI is the automatic Breguet calibre 584Q/1, which is of course equipped with a flyback function.

Baselworld 2016: The Breguet Type XXI 3817

Presented at Baselworld 2016, this model is the latest interpretation of the historic, military model. The design of the 3817 takes its inspiration from the Breguet Only Watch 2015 (Breguet Type XXI 3813), a special edition with a platinum case. However, the series production Breguet Type XXI 3817 features a 42 mm case in steel or rose gold. What remains, however, is the slate-grey dial with faux-patina numerals. Additionally, the model displays the minutes and seconds of the chronograph from the centre, making it more legible for the wearer.

Joining the small seconds at 3 o’clock is a day/night indicator at 3 o’clock, plus a 12-hour counter at 6 o’clock. The latter also includes a date window, with its number disc matching the grey of the dial. Inside is the calibre 584Q/2, which is visible via the sapphire crystal caseback. It offers an integrated flyback chronograph, which switches by means of a sliding gear. Breguet does not equip the Type XXI 3817 with a column wheel. However, the power reserve is a solid 48 hours and a silicon hairspring once again also on-board. The watch comes with a vintage-looking brown leather strap.

2019 Only Watch

The Type 20 Only Watch 2019 is, of course, once again a unique piece and is reminiscent of the Type 20 military aviation chronographs of the 1950s. The stainless-steel case maintains the original diameter of 38.30 mm and is further distinguished by the curved shape of the lugs with the lateral chamfering and the pear-shaped crown. Thus, they do differ from the civilian Type XX models.

The bronze tone of the dial is also a meaningful choice; given that the black dials of the original pilot’s watches sometimes discoloured due to sunlight, they often acquired this specific shade of patina. Additionally, the Type 20 Only Watch 2019 features small seconds and a 30-minute subdial counter. Powering it is the Valjoux 235 calibre, which bases itself on the Valjoux 222 from the 1950s.

2021: The titanium Type XXI 3815

This year, Breguet introduced the Type XXI 3815, a sportier reinterpretation of the Type XXI 3817 from 2016. Its 42 mm case is titanium and features the typical fine fluting on the middle part of the case. The bezel is bidirectional and showcases a black lacquered 60-minute scale. Numerals, hands and indices are either orange or green, while below lies the words “retour en vol” (French for flyback) in Breguet’s distinctive lettering.

Interestingly, Breguet omits the 12-hour subdial counter on this model, which can still be found on the Type XXI 3810 from 2016. Therefore, the Type XXI 3815 can only measure up to 60 minutes via the central minute counter. Inside is the calibre 584Q/2, which is visible via the sapphire crystal caseback. It offers an integrated flyback chronograph that switches with the help of a sliding gear.

2021 Only Watch

At this year’s Only Watch charity auction, Breguet presented the Type XX Only Watch 2021 Flyback Chronograph, which is a replica of Breguet’s first civilian Type XX models. Powering this Pièce Unique is the Valjoux 235 calibre; a direct descendant of the historic Valjoux 222, used by Breguet from the 1950s onwards. The stainless-steel case of the chronograph also measures 38.30 mm – an unusually small diameter given today’s tastes and trends. Unlike the military models, the civilian Type XX models feature a straight crown.

As with the 2019 Only Watch, the dial of the timepiece is bronze in homage to the black dials of the original pilot’s watches, giving them the unusual patina that proves so popular amongst collectors today.

The Verdict

Pilot’s watches from Maison Breguet were created at a time when aviation reached its cultural peak. Louis Breguet was witness to this, with his company also making the family name revered across the world’s airfields. The Breguet Type XX harks back to military timepieces of the 1920s, bringing the zeitgeist of early aviation to the wrist. In fact, the model itself has evolved over the years, and in its current form as the Type XXI, it no longer has much in common with the original Type 20. Therefore, traditionalists will likely be happiest with the Type XX Aeronavale 3800, which is still the closest to the original. Nevertheless, the contemporary pilot’s watches from Breguet should stand proud, seamlessly combining high watchmaking with the charm of aviation from days gone by.