Léon Breitling founded the eponymous Swiss watch brand in 1884; 125 years and many ground-breaking innovations later, Breitling launched its first movement to be designed and built in-house, heralding a new era of independence. A well-earned reputation for producing tough, reliable and functional watches means the company’s long affiliation with the aviation industry remains as strong today as it was when it supplied instruments to the RAF for its WWII fighter planes.
Breitling VP Jean-Paul Girardin joined the company, which remains privately owned, in 1992. He tells square mile about the challenges of remaining independent, why he almost didn’t follow his father and grandfathers into the watch industry, and why he based Breitling’s assembly line on a blood-testing lab.
On Launching Its First In-House Movement
2009 was a tough year for the Swiss watch industry and, by coincidence, it was the same year in which we launched our first mechanical chronograph movement developed and produced in-house. We did our homework and invested massively in production to secure Breitling’s future as one of the industry’s few remaining independent brands.
We faced a big challenge in creating our own movement, simply because failure was not an option, but on the other hand we knew there was no other way to remain independent and to keep the development of the brand as it had been for more than 100 years. We were confident about the decision we made, but we knew there would be challenges ahead of us.
On The Launch Of The New Breitling Unitime World-Timer
With the Unitime World-Timer [below], we are demonstrating the capability we have to innovate and present new functionality in a strong design. And how will we use this capability? We intend to stick with our ‘Instruments for Professionals’ slogan – we don’t want to develop the most complicated watch in the world in small quantities, we want to continue to offer useful functionality that is easy to use. The Unitime is the perfect example of that, and it explains more than anything else where Breitling is today.
On The Challenges And Advantages Of Being An Independent Company
We don’t have the power of big luxury groups, but what we try to do, even if we are thinking about the long-term, is remain flexible, alert and quick. Speed is one of the assets we have at Breitling – to make quick decisions, to follow the market and follow trends. Today’s real battlefield is the market place, and because we have only one brand we have to fight very hard to convince the retailers that it’s a good choice to stock Breitling.
On Following In His Ancestors’ Footsteps
Both my grandfathers and my father were in the watchmaking industry but for me it was too small – all those tiny pieces – so I studied mechanical engineering. I worked for five years specialising in control systems for the automotive industry, then undertook an MBA and in 1990 I joined the Swatch group, where I was in charge of watch case manufacture.
And then, after two years, I joined Breitling. I knew Teddy Schneider [Breitling’s owner] and he had heard that I was back working in the region. He was in the process of taking over the company from his father, an engineer, but he had no technical education so asked me if I wanted to help him reorganise the technical department. “Why not?”, I said, thinking that I might stay for a few years maximum. I’m still here now – 20 years later.
On The Company’s Key Markets
Globally, Breitling’s biggest market has traditionally been Europe, and the UK is one of the key markets within the continent. Our biggest, single-country market is the US. We still have work to do in China, where we have not traditionally had a presence for years – firstly because we didn’t have the capacity, and also because the large size of the chronograph is still quite new to China, but they are learning very fast. We are strong in Brazil, Russia and India, and in Asia we are strong in Japan, but China is definitely our next target.
On The Somewhat Unusual Inspiration For The Brand’s Assembly Line
The logistics system at our assembly line in La Chaux-de-Fonds, which manages the carriage of the movement from one workplace to another, is effectively based on designs by a doctor in a Hamburg laboratory. He understood that the testing of blood accounts for about 2-5% of the time, while the remaining 95% is spent handling the samples and moving them back and forth so he tried to develop a carriage system, with small shuttles moving from one testing system to another as efficiently as possibly. All of our equipment has been adapted to this system.
We have to take ideas from other industries and apply them to our specific requirements. We cannot stay closed, and say “we’ve always done it like that so we have to keep it”. We have to stay young and open to new ideas.
For more information go to breitling.com