Continuing the legacy of one of the most iconic watches of all time is a lot to live up to. Ask the people in charge at Audemars Piguet what it feels like to have people refer to them as a “single-watch brand” with the Royal Oak. Or recall Thierry Stern’s comments about the reasoning behind the discontinuation of the steel Nautilus (for now). None of these comments are true – Audemars Piguet has stuck it out with the Code 11.59, and Patek is flexing their muscles elsewhere as well – yet heavy is the head that wears the crown of an iconic watch.
Few watches are as iconic as the Type 20, one of the seminal and purpose-built pilot’s watches. So when Breguet announced their new Breguet Type XX (and Type 20) in Paris this past Wednesday, no one should have been surprised that the reception from the enthusiast crowd would be tough – unless it was done their way – “the right way.” Lionel a Marca, CEO of Breguet, expected as much.
“If I hadn’t included the calendar, some would’ve asked for one. You can never make everyone happy,” a Marca told me in an interview a day after the release, speaking of the date function. “We are living now in the 21st century, and given the current trends, a watch that doesn’t feature a calendar wouldn’t really be appreciated by the clients. So it’s almost a necessity today. But if I wanted to do an exact replica of the original watch, it also wouldn’t have been an automatic, it would have been manual.”
There’s a lot to debate about who brands are responsible to when it comes to a release like the Type 20. While our initial post racked up over 100 passionate comments, it’s become pretty clear to me that most buyers of a watch like the Type 20 aren’t particularly educated on the history of the model, the brand, or even readers of watch media. In fact, a lot of people in the retail space have told me online comments probably won’t have much of an impact on sales. Before we get into that topic, I have to say that I genuinely think that the Type 20 and Breguet Type XX (which I’ll occasionally here-on-out refer to as the Type 20/XX when talking about them both) are very solid watches that are getting overshadowed by a few decisions.
The similar names for the two watches released this week can get kind of confusing, and having to constantly use parentheticals to “clarify” the name – “(military version)” and “(civilian version)” – left me waiting for Breguet to drop a surprise “(Taylor’s version).” Shoutout to the tiny overlap of aviation watch lovers and Swifties that got that reference. It took me an hour or so – and a bit of exposure to two original Type 20/XX models on display at Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace du Bourget – to automatically delineate the difference in my head. The “Type 20” was the military specification for the watch and therefore is the military model, and Type XX is the civilian version.
When Breguet originally received the Type 20 specifications, they quickly threw their hat into the ring. The Breguet family, after all, had deep ties to aviation and Société des Ateliers d’Aviation Louis Bréguet (also known as Bréguet Aviation) was a major force in aircraft manufacturing after its founding by Louis Charles Breguet in 1911. When France entered World War I, the country had 120 aircraft. By the end of the war, Louis Breguet’s company had played its part in making some of the 55,000 aircraft and 110,000 engines produced by the country during the war. Forty years after the start of World War I, Montres Breguet would join the fray with their creation of the Type 20 (a two-register chronograph) alongside a number of other companies like Airain, Dodane, Vixa, Auricoste, and Mathey-Tissot, all of which stepped up to the Type 20 demands – most importantly that it was a flyback chronograph. For civilians, the brand produced the Breguet Type XX , with three registers, and the delineation was born.
It makes sense that five years after the discontinuation of the Type XX ref. 3800 that Breguet wouldn’t have just released one simple chronograph. Those five years were actually spent developing what a Marca said was an evolution that pushed the model forward, reminding me that Abraham-Louis Breguet himself would have never been content to remake an old watch if new technology had been available.
“I get the feeling that, especially from collectors, there’s an urge to hang on to the past,” says a Marca. “It’s a sense that Breguet is not allowed to evolve, not allowed to introduce new features, new functionalities, because it could have an impact on the DNA of the brand. And this is difficult because we want the brand to evolve with the times quite naturally.”
“Abraham Louis-Breguet was an innovator, an ‘Avant-Gardist.’ If he did everything that other brands did, the history of the brand couldn’t be the history we have today. So if we continue to do the same and replicate the watches we did in the past, how can we say we’re going into the future?”
Through that lens, it’s a bit easier to appreciate the steps that Breguet has taken with the Type 20/XX. The new caliber 728 and 7281 movements are certainly steps forward for the brand. The actuation of the start/stop/reset and flyback functions all have a satisfying crispness to them, with a balanced push all the way through. There’s no sense of slippage that you might get from other chronographs or too much resistance that would make you mistime the purpose of using the chronograph.
That gets back to the key functionality of the watch. The flyback functionality is essential for a pilot’s watch, especially when a pilot is flying on instruments. A pilot I spoke to at the Type 20 launch reiterated stories I’ve heard in the past, harrowing tales of flying using only instruments and being unable to see the outside world. In these cases, you have to time each turn to the second based on your flight speed, calculations on a slide rule, and the use of a map to prevent you from potentially flying into things like mountains. I hope never to be in that situation, but I could imagine having a big, legible, and reliable chronograph like the new Type 20/XX would be a relief.
Obviously, I wasn’t able to test the full 60 hours of power reserve or the long-term accuracy. The oscillating weight and column wheel are DLC-coated, a purely visual choice that brings contrast to the movement. The vertical clutch adds a level of reliability and complexity to the movement as well. Furthermore, the balance spring, the escape wheel, and the pallet-lever horns are all made of silicon. The watch also featured a good deal of hand finishing on the bridges and chronograph works, which, as a part of a brand-new fully-integrated flyback chronograph movement, feels in line with the asking price of $18,000.
But let’s be clear; the negative reactions to the watch largely seem to boil down mostly to one thing: an aesthetic, market-shaped, or practically-driven choice to include a date window on a watch that traditionally didn’t have one. Well, the price was another point of contention too but I have to admit that’s harder to judge. As I said previously, I didn’t find the price shocking, albeit maybe a bit higher than I’d hoped. But let’s get back to the date window.
In the past, you had the option to buy the original without a date or the Breguet Type XX “Transatlantique” ref. 3820 with a date (or Type XXI with a date as well). In any case, the date window sat at six o’clock, which seemed to be the lesser of all “evils” to watch commentators as it protected the balance of the dial. The very inclusion of a date was bound to upset traditionalists, but here, Breguet has chosen what is largely considered by that same group to be the least-ideal option: a 4:30 date window.
That date window is further punctuated/emphasized by the inclusion of “Swiss Made” between the window and the minute track, which doesn’t exactly help hide the date window. I think the biggest issue I have with the date window myself is that dates were never included in the original military specification (nor was an automatic movement, I take your point Mr. a Marca). But if the brand was set on releasing two watches, maybe it would have been possible to forego the date on at least one of them. I talked to a number of collectors and retailers at the launch event, and it seems obvious that the date window is the last thing on the general population’s mind. Even the collectors I spoke to (who were admittedly almost exclusively collectors of modern Breguet) were not fazed in the slightest by the date. One retailer already had a few preorders in less than 24 hours. That retailer also told me that from his experience, Breguet is a brand that is more often bought by somewhat wealthy collectors as a starting point on their way up to watches at multiple times the price. I’m not sure if that’s true across the board, but it’s certainly true that people can like Breguet – or watches in general – without being a part of a deeply (and fanatically) passionate online community of detail-oriented fans of horological history. And if Breguet’s market research has shown that dates sell watches, this was the best option for the Type 20/XX. I understand the frustration of the traditionalist collectors. Breguet has shown with their Only Watch pieces in 2019 and 2021 that they know exactly what purists want, so it’s frustrating when those releases are limited to watches far outside the reach of anyone but a single collector. But the acknowledgment from a Marca gives me a lot of hope, frankly, that there will be watches coming in the future that better satisfy the core of the traditional audience. Heck, I consider myself a traditionalist usually, too. That’s why I love so many of the features of these releases when you look past the belabored date.