If you’re mad about watches what could be better than a visit to a Swiss watch manufacturer? Plenty, it turns out, when your guide suggests not just a Breitling tour, but a stopover at Bentley’s plant in Britain, just to get into the spirit of things. Bani McSpedden reports.
My invitation to head to Europe for this boy’s own adventure comes from Mathieu Brunisholz, the 37-year-old reinvigorating Breitling here in Australia. He’s the nephew of company president and owner, Theodore Schneider.
Schneider has a reputation for being somewhat reclusive, leaving the public running of Breitling to his vice-president and fellow flying enthusiast Jean-Paul Girardin, a wiry and youthful executive I’d met on numerous occasions. Accompanied by Mathieu I’d be catching up with them both, a rare treat.
But first things first, which comes in the form of a liveried gentleman greeting me on arrival from Sydney at Manchester Airport and ushering me into a capacious Bentley Flying Spur for the sprint to Rookery Hall Hotel and Spa, an Elizabethan-style establishment in Nantwich, Cheshire, dating to 1816.
Set in 15 hectares of parkland, it is mere minutes – well, by Bentley it is – from Crewe, where Mathieu is to meet me in the library, over mulled wine I presume. Our plant visit is scheduled for the following day.
Why Bentley and not, say, Rolls-Royce? Because it’s Bentley that Breitling has a close relationship with, producing clocks for the cars along with co-branded watches. And it’s Bentley where Mathieu worked as a marketing intern a dozen years back in the heady days of the first Continental GT.
On cue the next morning, a Bentley Mulsanne awaits us on Rookery Hall’s gravel driveway. By nine on the dot we are greeted at Bentley HQ by Nigel Lofkin, a coachbuilder by trade, 36 years with Bentley, who has more recently swapped his apron for a Gieves & Hawkes suit, standard attire for company “front-of-house” personnel.
Bentley might make cars but, as we learn from Lofkin in a quick boardroom briefing, today it regards itself as a “luxury lifestyle brand”, its name gracing everything from furniture to leather goods, audio equipment and “desk tidies”.
But never mind that frippery, we are here for the cars, first stop being a room of historic monsters that once shook the world’s race tracks and still take the breath away. Restored, but not overly so, these relics from Le Mans, Brooklands and other famed auto arenas reek history and record-breaking feats. They’re not roped off or kept under glass like fragile specimens; and because you can touch, you can feel the power.
It’s a reminder that staggering performance has always been Bentley’s thing, and the factory’s other figures aren’t too shabby either. It produces more than 10,000 cars a year, a growing number of them customised in small or large ways according to the taste or requirements of the purchaser.
Bentley seems to relish such individual whims, impressive given the leather work alone takes 37 hours to hand-stitch in the case of a Mulsanne. You’re looking at 16 to 17 hides to wrap everything from headrests to seat squabs. The new Bentayga SUV is a little easier on the tannery, taking 14 hides, while the Continental GT swallows just 10 or 11. Each is hand-selected with the aid of infrared sensors that pick up any imperfections and several hundred employees are dedicated to the task. Even the steering wheels are hand-stitched; during our tour we pause for a demonstration by 50-year Bentley veteran Noel Thompson, a man whose technique utilises two needles in one hand.
The same attention to detail leaps out in various departments specialising in everything from transmissions to trees – the latter furnishing a vast selection of timbers for the interior trim, fossilised wood to walnut. Along with the absence of robots what stands out is the lack of conveyor-belt sameness. Every car coming down the line appears to have not-too-subtle differences, testament to the personalisation possible at this level.
You want orange leather in your GT convertible? No problem. You want pinstriping along the flanks of your Flying Spur? Just choose the hue. And that’s before we even get to the Mulliner bespoke division where you can order an automotive feast – down, or up, to the flaming lime-green Mulsanne with pale parchment upholstery we spot awaiting an owner.
Early afternoon sees us ushered outside to a Continental GT convertible, ours to enjoy for a quick foray down hedge-hugged roads for a spot of countryside afternoon tea. We are in Britain after all, and drops of rain serve to confirm what a terrific conveyance the Crewe crew are fettling, fabulously fast and sure-footed.
Four o’clock and we are cosseted in a Mulsanne again, heading back to Manchester airport for the onward flight to Switzerland and our date with the timing titans. A massively delayed flight – those rain drops presage a flooded airport – mean a late arrival in Zurich but one salved by the company car Mathieu had helpfully parked at the airport, a hulking silver Bentley Arnage. It makes light work of the midnight run to the Beau-Rivage Hotel in Neuchâtel; Mathieu drives, I doze.
Morning sees us back in the Arnage and headed to the bucolic Grenchen airfield, passing buildings bearing familiar watch-brand signage en route but stopping only for takeaway croissants; Mathieu motors, I munch.
Circling a spread of hangar-like low-rises we pull up just off a concrete apron, a few metres from an inert MD 900 Explorer helicopter. Moments later a silver-grey Porsche 911 approaches, Mathieu’s wave heralding Breitling’s vice-president – and, it transpires, our personal pilot – Commander Girardin at the wheel. That mightn’t be Jean-Paul’s official title, but it could be, given his public role at Breitling and his passion for flying, something that’s part of Breitling’s DNA.
This is the company that provided clocks for the RAF in the 1930s, outfitting British planes under cover of darkness. Breitling then went on to produce the famed circular slide-rule bezel that distinguished first the 1942 Chronomat then the 1952 Navitimer model, making them a must-have for pilots.
A hangar door glides open and Jean-Paul – who is wearing the brand’s latest instrument for flyers, the Exospace B55 – parks the Porsche beside a couple of light planes, and heads towards us and the helicopter. The plan is to visit Breitling’s Chronometrie operation at La Chaux-de-Fonds, an hour’s drive from Grenchen but just a 15-minute flight: in other words, no contest.
Jean-Paul takes the controls, I hoist myself up alongside him, Mathieu behind, and off we go, flying over one watch manufacturer after another – there’s Omega’s massive new construction, Cartier, Greubel Forsey’s angular atelier – until we zero in on La Chaux-de-Fonds’ mountain-top airstrip.What a way to see Switzerland’s watch industry, peering down through the helicopter’s transparent wrap-around canopy, and what a relief it is to find Breitling’s set-up is no anti-climax.
All sound-absorbing wood and airy pressure-controlled spaces, it is on the warm side of sleek and reassuringly comfortable, rather like an architect-designed home, albeit a rather expensive one. Aircraft and battle imagery, along with Breitling’s startling pop artwork, liven various areas and the atmosphere is professional but relaxed, staff greeting each other – and guests – warmly.
It’s hard to believe this is a factory. From design to manufacturing, assembly to double-checking, a quiet meticulousness pervades the building, conveying an uncanny sense of calm and silence, despite it being the nerve centre for an industrial operation of some complexity and scale.
It’s not just that 150,000 timepieces leave its pressure-sealed doors every year, it’s that each is constructed to COSC timing standards and certified as such, meaning every one can be accurately described as a honed instrument.
This is a description Jean-Paul likes to expand on, telling me “the factory itself is an instrument for professionals”. He has some back-up for such a claim. The air within is changed six times an hour, overpressurised and pulsed through every 10 minutes so any dust – heaven forbid – is forced out. Breitling was the first watch concern to embrace the technology, which came from the medical field, Jean-Paul commenting: “We learned that fresh mountain air with open windows is not that good for watchmaking.” It’s a hint of the complexity of operations taking place within.
In creating a modern Breitling – bearing in mind the company invented the wrist chronograph with separate pusher in 1915, refined it in 1934 and introduced a self-winding one in 1969 – the movement alone requires something like 2000 technical documents. The build then ranges across processes from metal stamping to chemical laboratory analysis of anything from levers to lubricants, even case materials. Finally, the assembly of a watch such as Breitling’s advanced Chronoworks, announced at Basel this year, is itself a 70- to 100-hour task for skilled hands.
It’s a reminder that while this is a high-tech and computerised environment, it’s one that involves humans at every step. In that respect it’s not dissimilar to things back at Bentley.
Back at Breitling, Jean-Paul takes us through each department and down each timepiece line, a compressed and compelling lesson in watch manufacturing, Breitling style. “We’re more than telling the time, we’re measuring it.” Add things such as backlighting (handy inside a dark cockpit) or an emergency beacon as features on one model, and “you need a little more than a few wheels”, he points out.
What we do need at this point though is food, having worked up an appetite over the previous few hours, so we head to a quaint farmhouse restaurant, Droz-dit-Busset, for steak frites. Then after a quick repast it is back into the helicopter for our rotary roam through blue skies to Grenchen, then by Arnage to Neuchâtel. A perfect day.
My meeting with the man ultimately responsible for all things Breitling, Mathieu’s uncle Theodore Schneider, is to take place over dinner the following evening. I am looking forward to it as one anticipates meeting the head of any watch-making family, although I know not to expect the usual conservative, polished and reserved gentleman found helming most brands.
Schneider has a reputation for avoiding the spotlight and interviews are something, I am told, he avoids. But he is highly visible in one respect – as the reputed enthusiast and collector behind the vibrant pop art referenced in Breitling merchandising material and found adorning the brand’s boutiques worldwide. Brassy and sometimes controversial, the Lovely-Ladies-like artwork is hard to miss. It’s the creation of American artist Kevin T. Kelly, whose comic-like fighter planes, pilots and combat imagery echo Breitling’s long association with aviation, while reflecting something they like to call the brand’s “rugged individualism”.
That description would also sum up the tall, rangy and youthful 60-year-old I find greeting us in the courtyard of the casual restaurant Les Caves in Bienne, his outfit comprising jeans and a leather bomber jacket, his craggy face relaxing into a smile. With Schneider is Breitling’s international marketing director, Ben Balmer, and after pre-dinner drinks we settle into an easy evening of rosti and conversation revolving around the roller-coaster world of watches. Time to relax rather than record.
Back at the Beau-Rivage though, I make some notes: they told me that Breitling was lucky to occupy a niche, with watches that have a certain and defined purpose; that it was the Chronomat designed by Schneider’s engineer father for the Italian Air Force in 1984 which put the brand on the map in Europe, popularising the chronograph for a post-quartz generation; that they’re lucky to have family ownership not subject to every market wobble or whim; that they’ve avoided the dramatic fall-off in demand in China because their timepieces were never big there in the first place – well they were physically too big; and that “we don’t want to be anyone else – we’re happy with who we are and what we’re doing”.
On the evidence of my flying visit you’d have to agree – the Breitling boys are doing just fine.
Back to the future
Breitling vice-president Jean-Paul Girardin on the brand’s strategy:
“The watch industry at the moment is at a crossroads. We are in many ways back to having a more useful function on our wrist than just the time. This is not new for us – the chronograph is still very useful for timing such things as how long you’re driving, flying or running.
“We don’t want to compete with smart watches or offer features for sports timing; we want to use connectivity to do better what we already do, the Breitling chronograph remaining the master.
“Our target is to harness connectivity to improve functionality and link with a phone to add functions that are otherwise difficult to integrate.
“Our investment in electronics is in terms of added value, adding to something with a real dial and hands, something that won’t be obsolete the year after next. Rather than worry about new chips, we’d look at longer power reserves.
“We offer an instrument, but also a luxury watch that has to be aesthetically pleasing and have emotion. Nothing has changed for us in that regard since the early chronographs or 1952 Navitimer with slide rule bezel.”
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