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The history of the Breguet Type XX: exploring its aviation heritage

The name Breguet immediately evokes the highest achievements in the field of fine watchmaking. The brand is instantaneously associated to purely elegant watches equipped with tourbillon, minutes repetition and other sophisticated complications.

But Breguet has a strong tradition also in the production of instrument watches and a unique tie with the world of aviation.

In fact, Louis Charles Breguet (1880 – 1955), great-great-grandson of legendary founder Abraham-Louis, was one of the early aviation pioneers.

Louis Charles Breguet - Courtesy from the book "Les 100 premiers aviateurs brevetés au monde et la naissance de l'aviation" by Émile J. Lassalle

In 1905, he began work on a gyroplane, the forerunner of the helicopter, achieving the first ascent of a vertical-flight aircraft with a pilot. Few years later he built his first fixed-wing aircraft, the Breguet Type I, and in 1911 founded the Société anonyme des ateliers d’aviation Louis Breguet, producing his first hydroplane one year later and several of the most widely used French warplanes during World War I and II. As it is easy to imagine, Breguet timekeepers were integrated into the dashboard in the cockpit.

In 1919, Louis Charles Breguet founded the Compagnie des messageries aériennes, which evolved into Air France.

The Breguet Type 20 - later named Type XX - is a clear example of the special relationship between Breguet and the aviation. This sporty model is certainly one of the most popular pilot watches produced in the post-World War II years.

In the 1950s, the French Ministry of War issued the technical specifications for a pilot’s watch that had to become part of the standard equipment of the Air Force and the Naval Aviation Forces.

Together with accuracy (within +/- 8 seconds per day) and reliability, the Type 20 requirements included:
- black dial;
- seconds chapter ring;
- bi-directional rotating bezel;
- flyback chronograph function;
- chronograph 30-minute counter at 3 o’clock and continuous seconds at 9 o'clock;
- screwback case with a diameter of 38 mm and less than 14mm thick;
- at least 35 hours of power reserve.

These characteristics were based on military chronographs produced in Germany during the war by brands like Hanhart and Tutima and used for Luftwaffe pilots.

One of the key features was the flyback function - or retour en vol in French - allowing the pilot to stop, reset and restart the chronograph with just one push of the lower button. The other push-button at 2 o’clock was used to start or stop the chronograph.

Since routes were determined by a series of directions and flight times, a precise measurement of time intervals was essential.

Thanks to the capability to instantly restart the chronograph with an accuracy within one fifth of a second, the pilot could be faster when changing direction with one single push permitting to stop, reset and start a new measurement. This way the pilot could concentrate on the flight, rather than on operating the watch.

Breguet was not the only manufacturer selected to supply these watches. Other brands who produced Type 20 models in the following years were Dodane, Auricoste, Vixa, Airain and Boullier (the last two companies no longer exist). Nonetheless, Breguet was the leading producer of watches in this style.

In 1954 the French Air Force (Armée de l’air) placed an order for 2,000 units of a Type 20 model in steel.  It is interesting to note that the first military Breguet Type 20 models did not have any brand on the dial. The Breguet logo appeared at a later time, for the most part in civilian versions.

Breguet Type 20 for the French Air Force with two registers and rotating bezel with no marks other the small arrow, circa 1955 - Courtesy of Sotheby’s

Another example of Breguet Type 20 delivered to the military in 1957 - Courtesy of Antiquorum

To power the watches, Breguet opted for a Valjoux 222 calibre, basically a Valjoux 22 with the addition of a flyback module, beating at 2.5 Hz (18,000 kph).

The hand-wound Valjoux 222 with flyback function, 17 jewels and column wheel construction - Courtesy of Robert Maron

The Naval Aviation Forces or Aéronautique Navale (often shortened to Aéronavale) also placed orders for 500 units of the Type 20 including a special version with a 15-minute chronograph counter and an internal anti-magnetic case.

A rare example of the Type 20 military chronograph produced in 1960 for the Aeronautique Navale - Courtesy of Sotheby’s

The case back of the Type 20 Aeronautique Navale with the added inscriptions "FG 9 12 07" and "FG 17 2 76" indicating the dates of next scheduled maintenance (FG standing for "Fin de Garantie" which means "end of warranty") - Courtesy of Sotheby’s

Breguet sold the Type 20 also to the civilian market, including pilots and other aviation professionals.

In particular, the Centre d’Essais en Vol (CEV), in charge of testing the prototypes of French national aviation companies, ordered 500 pieces with two counters and 50 with three counters which, in fact, are much rarer to be found. Like the Naval Aviation Forces, also the Centre d’Essais en Vol opted for a 15-minute chronograph counter. These units were also characterised by a bi-directional bezel with time markers. They can be easily recognized for the "CEV" engraving on the case back.

In the models for the civilian market, it is possible to find a few dial variations like in the two models depicted in the pictures below. The three counter model was powered by the Valjoux 225, a variation of the Valjoux 222 with a third sub-dial to measure the chronograph hours.

Breguet Type 20 featuring a rotating metal bezel produced for CEV in 1962 and nicknamed "Big Eye" for the large 30 minute sub-dial with propeller hand (courtesy of Phillips Watches) and, below, the re-edition created by Breguet for the Only Watch 2021 biennial charity auction (click HERE to read more)

A rare "civilian" Type 20 model with three counters and bi-directional rotating bezel with 0 to 60 marks - Courtesy of Antiquorum

In the 1970s, Breguet introduced a new evolution of the Type 20 characterised by a new case with larger and squarer lugs, an increased diameter of 40.7 mm and a black anodised bezel rotating in one direction only. The bezel was generally marked 0 to 60 but versions with 0 to 12 marks were also produced.

Maintaining the distinctive black dial with baton hands with long thin pointers and luminescent numerals, the model came in two versions, with two or three counters. To power it, a Valjoux 725 calibre.

The second generation of Breguet Type 20 featuring a larger and thicker case with three registers although a few two-register examples were also produced, circa 1975

The production of the Type 20 was interrupted at the beginning of the 1980s but, luckily, it was reintroduced in 1995 as Type XX Aéronavale, powered by the selfwinding 4 Hz (28,800 vph) Breguet Calibre 582.

The new model maintained the key design elements and case proportions of the original Type 20 with a bi-directional rotating bezel with 0 to 60 marks, a black dial with large luminescent Arabic numerals, and a diameter of 39 mm very close to the original.

Type XX Aéronavale flyback chronograph Ref. 3800, circa 1995

A novelty was represented by the fluted case side design which appears for the first time in this line. Confirming its iconic status, the model is still available today in the collection with virtually no changes.

With the request of larger-sized from part of the customers, Breguet later expanded its sportier collection with the Type XXI and Type XXII models.

The Type XXI model had an enlarged diameter of 42 mm and was driven by a self-winding chronograph movement with flyback function equipped with an inverted in-line Swiss lever escapement with silicon pallets as well as a silicon balance-spring.

The Type XXI Ref. 3817 presented at Baselworld 2016

With its imposing 44 mm case, the Breguet Type XXII combined a flyback chronograph with a second time-zone and was powered by self-winding chronograph movement with silicon escapement and flat balance spring beating at the impressive fast pace of 10 Hertz (72,000 vibrations per hour).

In 2023, Breguet unveiled the latest developments in the history of the Type XX, introducing the new generation of the Type XX. 

The Type XX chronographs introduced in 2023

Two versions have been released: the military-inspired Type 20 Chronographe 2057 and the Type XX Chronographe 2067 drawing on the finest civilian models, both powered by brand new manufacture self-winding movements. You can find a complete overview of these models here.

With its constant research in the use of advanced materials, in the development of high-frequency beating movements, or in the invention of patented-protected technologies (just think to the use of magnetic pivots to improve the stability of the balance staff), the brand Breguet keeps perpetuating the unique spirit of innovation that the founder Abraham-Louis demonstrated in the field of watchmaking and his great-great-grandson Louis Charles in that of aviation. breguet.com

By Alessandro Mazzardo
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Time and Watches | The watch blog: The history of the Breguet Type XX: exploring its aviation heritage
The history of the Breguet Type XX: exploring its aviation heritage
History of the Breguet Type 20. The Breguet Type XX history). Breguet Type 20. Breguet, the Type 20 and the world of aviation.
Time and Watches | The watch blog
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