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"Watches need to have a background, history and that makes everyone go back to their roots"

Breitling "is still an aviation watch company, but now it is also a diver watch company, a dress watch company, and a chronograph complications company".

May 28, 2022 / 03:14 PM IST
Fred Mandelbaum.

Fred Mandelbaum.

Breitling adviser, horological historian, and vintage watch collector Fred Mandelbaum, who is based in Austria and has been part of the industry for four decades, talks to Moneycontrol about the process of collecting, what he thinks is special about vintage watches and why mechanical watches are not going to go out of fashion anytime soon. Edited excerpts:

How did the journey to collect time-pieces start for you?

I didn’t really start off as a collector.  Chronographs were a tool for business because I was calculating production time, optimizing production, looking at the processes, so it was a daily tool. I was in electronics. It started out as a tool and then I started to get more interested in what makes a good chronograph or what makes a mediocre chronograph or a poor chronograph. And when you start researching, then you find that a lot of great innovation, technology and design was always done by Breitling. Breitling was one of the very first movers, and so it's that relevance that Breitling had.

Can you give an example?

If you look at the Rattrapante (a chronograph with an additional seconds hand for the chronograph function superimposed over the normal seconds hand and an additional pusher), for example, Breitling was the one who patented the Rattrapante movement.

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The first Swiss wristwatch in space: Scott Carpenter's Breitling Navitimer Cosmonaute. The first Swiss wristwatch in space: Scott Carpenter's Breitling Navitimer Cosmonaute.

So the process of becoming a collector starts as a student and then transitions into being an expert in the area?

Yes, no doubt. Actually, you start out being a scholar and then you learn and then you find yourself being more a teacher than a scholar, so that’s what happened to me. I'm a very curious person, I like to understand things. So it turned out to be a love for my hobby and in the end it turned out to be more than that. I ended up advising Breitling in their journey and repositioning and of course that then goes a bit beyond what a hobby normally accompanies.

Since you were involved in the company's turnaround, explain this: Breitling in the past was very popular and marketed and branded as the watch for aviation aficionados. Has that positioning changed?

No, so let me try to explain the strategy behind it. Historically, aviation was always extremely important for Breitling. Breitling was the largest manufacturer of chronographs in the 1960s.  They always did complicated high-end chronographs like the Duograph, Datographs, which were all  elegant dressy chronographs. The market positioning that Breitling had 15 years before Georges Kern took over was very niche, as it was being described Breitling was 'like a shark swimming in a swimming pool.' So in the small niche of aviation watches, Breitling was at the top of its game.

What has happened now is the company has gone back, taken a look at the original character of Breitling, and brought out lines like the Premier, the Superocean and more. During the last few years, watches for ladies were enhanced and more lines were added during the last years. It is still an aviation watch company, but now it is also a diver watch company, a dress watch company, and a chronograph complications company – which it always was, and has to be.

Historical Breitling Navitimer Cosmonaute from 1962 and the new Navitimer Cosmonaute Limited Edition (left to right)_RGB Breitling Navitimer Cosmonaute from 1962 and the new Navitimer Cosmonaute Limited Edition.

Tell us more about the new Cosmonaute? What's the thinking behind the watch and what does it reflect ?

Basically the Cosmonaute in many ways is totally unique because Breitling was always a tool watch company. This is the tool watch of tool watches because it was designed according to the precise specifications of an American Astronaut. He called up Breitling and said I love the Navitimer but we are flying in space, there is no day or night up there, so can you please adapt it and make a 24 hour watch out of it? And while you adapt it the astronaut gloves make it tough to use the bezel on the regular Navitimer, so do you make a special modification? This was built according to the specifications of an astronaut. So a lot of history, and is originally the first Swiss watch taken to space, long before others, and will always have a very special place in the history of Breitling.

A lot of companies have been relaunching vintage models, is that because nostalgia sells?

There is more to it, actually. Does anybody need a high-end luxury wrist watch? No, but watches are in a way historical themselves. There are other technologies but if you are into tracking the most precise time on earth, you won’t use a mechanical watch. You will use it for the technology and that it's been there for 70 years or more.  Watches need to  have a background, history and that makes everyone go back to their roots.

Yet, there is always a greater drive towards true vintage watches (40 years or older) versus the clamour for new modern watches, isn’t it?

The truth is vintage watch-lovers are a relatively small minority. I am a vintage guy, but 9 out of 10 watch collectors want something they can trust, not worry about. So there is a world for new watches - difficult to choose one. It's like children but with children it's still easy to choose.

What are you wearing right now?

I am wearing the 1953 Avi but actually it depends on where I’m going. There’s six or seven Navitimers among them, there is a Superocean, there is a Premier - the Duograph. In every family or segment, I have my favourite, but I can't say one specific watch.

Astronaut Scott Carpenter. (Photo credit NASA) Astronaut Scott Carpenter. (Photo credit NASA)

How are modern Breitlings doing in the after-market?

Some actually start doing very well, such as the Top-Time chronographs but let's be very clear: Very few watches do well in the secondary market, and only if you are able to buy at the right price.

I tell everyone, don’t try to be an investor of watches to make profit but invest in the joy that it brings you, invest in loving them. I’m old enough to have seen so many trends come and go. Twenty years ago people told you to never invest in wristwatches because nobody wants them to collect, as people only want pocket watches. People lost 90 cents on a dollar on that.

Every company goes through ups and downs. So where is Breitling currently?

Breitling has consistently outgrown the market for the last four years. Breitling was truly successful in growth rate, and has massively grown. It is only the beginning...there is much more to come and room to grow…It is definitely one of the best times that Breitling has ever had.
Pavan Lall is a senior journalist based in Mumbai.
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