Breitling's 2019 family of watches launched with a globe-trotting, glittering series of summits. The Los Angeles event showcased the various brand 'worlds' of land, sea and air in a series of distinctive, and distinctively masculine watches.
Also on show were the brands high-calibre partnerships – retailers and journalists alike jostled for a blurry shot of Brad Pitt on stage, that famous smile deployed to full effect. At the centre of this distinctively LA take on luxury was Breitling's CEO, Georges Kern: a dynamic, forthright industry veteran who has been in the role since 2017, and is busy revitalising the aviation-heavy brand.
Fast forward to 2020, and the contrast couldn't be starker.
The Breitling 2020 summit boasts no crowds, no celebrities, no exotic locations. Only Georges Kern, watches and a webcast. Welcome to the brave new world of Swiss luxury.
Releasing watches like this like this could have been disastrous, but for the fact that the watches themselves are pretty great, and none more so than a new take on the classic Chronomat.
It's a watch Kern thinks is very important, in a recent Zoom interview (of course), he wasn't shy of underselling its all-metal virtues: "It's the perfect product – from functionality, features, robustness and waterproofing – and it's only in metal."
"We've made a clear choice not to go into rubber or leather straps. It's very all-purpose from an aesthetic point of view. It's like the 911, which evolves over the decades – it's not really retro, it's very modern, it's an iconic design. The best designs keep being modern."
Putting aside the CEO hype factor, Kern has a point. The 2020 Chronomat is an incredibly versatile watch - or perhaps I should say watches, because already we've been treated to a full suite of variations.
But the core remains the same: a 42mm chronograph powered by Breitling's very good B01 movement.
More than that, the watch will sit well on the wrist at 15.1mm high. It's tall, but in a way that's proud rather than outrageous. Then there's the 200 metres of water resistance.
On top of that, you get all the DNA that made the Chronomat great in the first place. Prominent bezel rider tabs, onion-shaped crown a lot of two-tone and that distinctive, almost-tubular 'rouleaux' bracelet, all updated to 2020 standards. Steel versions will retail for $11,350.
For Breitling to chose the Chronomat as their poster child is interesting for a few reasons.
The original model was released in 1984, a century after the brand was founded, and it represented something of a gamble for Breitling. The mid-1980s was a risky time to release a large, mechanical sports chronograph. In 1984 quartz, and thin was king.
Yet the gamble of the original Chronomat paid off, and the watch was a huge success – one that for me will be forever associated with a Country Road rugby top casually draped out of the window of a Jeep Cherokee.
The new Chronomat channels, in the best way possible, that heavy dose of '80s and '90s nostalgia, and it's this retro-charm that will pave the way for the success of the 'new' Chronomat.
Historical revival is one of the great fallbacks for the Swiss watch industry. Brands build and bank their identity on what astronauts, race car drivers and explorers did last century while wearing their watches. Heritage is a commodity that's been heavily mined in the Swiss alps of late – with seemingly every brand offering their take on a mid-century diver, or a 60s sports watch.
The 80s, though? That's an untapped vein of riches. Mainly because, until recently, '80s and early '90s watch design has been overwhelmingly defined by disposability, guache taste and proportions that don't sit well on wrists in 2020.
But it seems that Breitling is at the forefront of a new historical revival. And to his credit, Kern seems critically aware of the winds of fashion: "Breitling was a very loud brand – very big, very macho. We changed this two years ago, because it doesn't fit our society anymore. Things that were cool a couple of years ago will not be cool today – this was happening anyway, but even more now, with Coronavirus."
It speaks to Kern's earlier point about evolving iconic designs that a watch which cut a swathe through the excesses of the 1980s can maintain its relevancy without any of the familiar trappings of luxury.
And it bodes well for the strength and the appeal of the Chronomat that it can excite with only a webcast and a Zoom conference, instead of the more usual star-studded extravaganza.