The Breitling Top Time
Until recently, the Top Time was, staggeringly, an unknown, under-achiever, on the various auction web sites, even during the period of exponential price increase mental-ness within the vintage collectable markets. Whereas other vintage models within the brand, notably the 806 and 809, were commanding strong figures the Top Time was still only fetching sub £1000 bids. I always found this remarkable because the Top Time epitomises the 1960s. The size was perfect, they are gorgeous to behold and they come from a highly respected manufacturer. I’m glad to see that this true horological classic has slowly started to get the appreciation it deserves on these auction sites. However, I am even more delighted that Breitling has recognised this wrist worn emblem of 60s cool themselves with this glorious re-edition.
Another factor that bemuses me in the slow uptake of the Top Time for collectors is the fact that a modified version was prominently displayed and utilised by, none other than, James Bond himself in the film Thunderball. This particular one-off Top Time was hardly recognisable from the original with it’s unique cushion case that was created by the prop department at Pinewood Studios. Bond’s Top Time is given to him by Q and acts as a Geiger counter in the movie.
The original example was remarkably recovered and verified in 2013 and placed for auction at Christies. Below is their description of this highly collectable piece:
The watch is composed of a stainless steel chronograph timepiece, by Breitling, Ref. 2002, case no. 984343, manufactured in 1962 and then modified, the black dial with applied baton hour markers, luminous hands, sweep centre seconds, two subsidiary dials for constant seconds and 45 minute registers, and outer silvered tachymeter scale, in circular case with two chronograph buttons in the band, case 35mm wide, case and dial signed, mounted in glazed water resistant type case with screw down bezel and case reverse, by Valley Tool Company, 47mm wide, signed V.T.C.
The pre-auction estimate was £40,000 to £60,000. However, the hammer finally went down at the amazing winning bid of £103,875. I would have thought that this event alone would have an impact overnight on the notoriety of the Top Time but it seems to have taken 7 years for the world, and now Breitling themselves, to appreciate this true gem of a chronograph.
Interestingly, the more observant (or simply watch nerds) amongst you may have spotted that the Top Time was not the only Breitling witnessed in Thunderball. Captain Derval wore a Navitimer 806, which Bond removes from his dead body to prove that he had been killed. As you do.
A useful comparison between the modified Bond Top Time and the original, ref. 2002
Where did it all start?
Willy Breitling, grandson of the company founder Leon Breitling, was many things, including an eccentric, an extrovert, a playboy and free spirit despite being a loyal family man. However, he also maintained the respected Breitling legacy and was a very calculated and meticulous business man. In the early 1960s Willy requested and orchestrated a massive public survey, that was conducted by Caspari. The results confirmed what Willy Breitling had been stating for years and categorically signified that the economic power was swinging gently towards a younger generation. A large community of people who were spending their spare time in leisure pursuits. To put it more succinctly: A large group of society who wanted chronographs. In the wake of this discovery Willy Breitling commissioned the design of the Breitling Premier in 1960, the Co-Pilot in 1966, the Superocean Chronograph in 1965, the Datora in 1969, the world’s first automatic chronograph, the Chronomatic, in 1969 and, the lead role in our particular anecdote, the Breitling Top Time in 1963. These all had the chronograph functionality of the Navitimers and Chronomats with water resistant cases and a more affordable price point. Just what the younger generation were after. See below a press release by Willy Breitling:
The original Top Time came in various examples. Bi compax (ref 2000, 2002, 2003 and the gold 2001 and 2004) and Tricompax (ref 810-1, 810-2, 810-3, 810-4) dials were available with black or silver dials. At a similar time to the Cosmonaute being introduced there was also a 24 hour dial Top Time (ref. 824). A cushion shape bi-compax Top Time was also available with a steel case (ref. 2006) or a gold plated case (ref. 2008).
Reference 824 (courtesy of springbar.com)
A brace of reference 2008s (courtesy of springbar.com)
However, Breitling have chosen my favourite from this period as their inspiration for this re-edition, the bi-compax Sprint model with its unique dial. Introduced in the mid-1960s at a cost of £145 this contemporary, more utilitarian design was affectionately referred to as the “Zorro” dial by fans and collectors.
The original Sprint with Zorro dial (courtesy of ticktage.com)
You can see where the nickname came from. (courtesy of Zorro.com)
The original classic tri-compax Top time was aesthetically re-introduced into the Breitling catalogue a few years ago as part of the successful Transocean family.
The original Top Time ref. 815 (courtesy of Chrono24)
The current catalogue Breitling Transocean Chronograph.
The new Top Time Limited Edition will be available as a steel case model only, limited to 2000 pieces worldwide. It has a 41mm case diameter. The movement is the tried and tested Calibre B23 that is based on the Valjoux 7753, with 27 jewels, 28800vph and 42 hours power reserve. This work horse movement is stripped down, checked and reassembled by Breitling watchmakers to Chronometer standards. It has a box sapphire glass to further add to the vintage aesthetic appeal. The water resistance is a perfunctory 30m. The dial and crown are signed with the vintage B logo. The brown nubuck leather strap will “weather” quickly to create a unique aesthetic. The hands are the same red as the warning segment within the 30 minutes sub-dial. These add a useful contrast to the dial and a subtle colour inflection. To aid after dark legibility, Superluminova® is applied to the hands and discrete dots at each hour point. The crown is non-screw down, which not only adds pertinence to the original but also gives practicality and ease-of-use over a screw down crown, which just isn’t needed here. The chapter ring is decimal scaled to allow for professionals, especially pilots, to perform vital timing calculations as percentages. The Top Time comes with a solid case back which is engraved with a period perfect logo and the acknowledgment that each timepiece is just One Of 2000.
The style and price point for the Top Time re-edition is perfect within a market where brands and consumers have realised that the vintage chronograph is a covetable and desirable item. You are at once presented with a practical wrist watch that has nostalgic design cues. Chronographs from this period are also the perfect size. Unlike vintage three handed watches, where 30-33mm is the norm and far too small for current trends, chronographs were typically around 36-38mm. The Top Time was 36mm. I’d like to know Breitling’s reasons for stretching this to a non-pertinent 41mm, because, in my opinion, they did not need to do this. A 38mm case was already available. I’m guessing the fact that the current Transocean 38mm is aimed at the female consumer may be a factor. But it is a shame we have moved into this mind frame.
The use of the ETA Valjoux 7753 based Calibre B23 is a sensible one because Breitling have recently released the 806 and Co-Pilot Avi re-editions with full in-house movements, and the price point that this determines. This particular point is also valid for the Transocean Chronograph. Fans of the brand, and particularly the Top Time, may have dreamed of this model being re-introduced with a version of the original Venus 178 movement. However, we were all witness to the £11300 price tag of the steel Omega Speedmaster when they decided to remake the famous 321 movement for it. As heralded as the original Top Time is it could not have carried off such a stunt.
Some onlookers may bemoan the lack of a date window in a modern wrist watch, but they would be missing the point of the Top Time Limited Edition entirely. The updates from the original are all considered. The addition of sapphire glass, the use of Superluminova® and the chronometer rated movement are discrete but add immensurable practicality and performance without disturbing the classic aesthetical appeal.
As always, the downside with these triumphant re-editions is the Limited Edition status. There are top times ahead for the 2000 lucky people who will get to own one of these often overlooked stalwarts of Breitling’s illustrious history. Speaking of which, the decision to release 2000 pieces is a mystery to me. The recent 806 and Avi Co-pilot were limited to 1959 and 1953 pieces, respectively. I think this respects the inauguration of an original release.
As an homage to the round case version of the original Top Time this re-edition is close to perfection. However, my one gripe is that this is a round case version. I, personally, would have loved to have been presented with a re-edition of the reference 2006 cushion shaped variant. Especially considering the recent additions of the round cased 806 and Avi Co-Pilot to Breitling catalogue. Please Breitling, add this to your list of fantastic chronograph re-introductions. You’ve got the option with the wonderful Datora. Don’t let us down.
Courtesy of retrovintage.com
Overall, the Top Time Limited Edition is a highly desirable timepiece on many levels. It is an accomplished amalgamation of retro appeal nostalgia with modern components, which combine to create a reliable and robust timepiece for those that are concerned about the lack of these attributes from an original example. The crisply defined visual touches take the initial design to levels that would not be possible nearly 60 years ago. Despite other vintage homages coming out of the Breitling fold recently the Top Time Limited Edition commands its own position within the market place and true fans will consume the 2000 pieces very quickly. I love it.
All words by Richard Atkins. All images from Breitling, unless other wise stated. This article may not be copied in part or whole without permission of the author.
It dawned on me the other day when I was searching through my old articles on our very own reviews section… Blog | Andrew Michaels