A chat with Breitling’s Creative Director Sylvain Berneron on the brand’s redesign of Navitimer and Superocean, as well as the importance of balance.
Breitling fans have had a great year. The new Superocean, for one, presents a contemporary take on the brand’s early divers’ watches that strikes an elegant balance between legacy and novelty. Before that, the redesigned Navitimer became one of the most talked-about horological highlights when it came out. And driving the creative force behind these creations and more is Sylvain Berneron.
Before becoming Breitling’s Creative Director, Berneron studied fine arts in middle school and industrial design in university, before starting a career in the transportation industry with stints at BMW and Ducati. Eventually, his passion for watches prevailed, and he transitioned to watch design. When Georges Kern took over the reins of leadership at Breitling in 2017, he asked Berneron to join his team. At Breitling, Berneron built up the brand’s entire design department from scratch and, for the first time ever, internalized its design expertise. Among his most notable works so far was last year’s highly-successful Endurance Pro which resulted in a partnership with endurance sports brand IRONMAN and—as touched on earlier—the redesigned Navitimer.
DAMAN: Breitling has released quite a few exciting novelties for 2022, particularly in the Navitimer family with the 70th anniversary pieces and the new Cosmonaute. What do you see as the most important developments and/or changes in the Navitimer collection for 2022 and beyond?
Sylvain Berneron: The new Navitimer collection perfectly illustrates what Breitling is all about. Our collections are deeply rooted in our heritage, and yet evolve with time to stay relevant in the 21st century. The main changes for this new generation are the slimmer case profile thanks to our new double-radius sapphire glass, the simplified dial which has its tachymeter deleted), the return of the legendary AOPA logo and the appearance of new and modern colors on the dial— namely ice blue, salmon and mint green.
DAMAN: The Navitimer is, of course, a very iconic line. Do you feel that there is an extra layer of pressure that comes with working on—or reworking—a collection with so much history and expectation behind it?
Sylvain Berneron: Absolutely! Nobody wants to be the guy who “damaged the icon,” as you can imagine. So. the pressure was there, of course. But, at the same time, it was an immense privilege to have been tasked with it. When I was a design student, I would have never have imagined that I’d have the chance to put my hands on this icon and perpetuate it into the future.
DAMAN: What would you say is it that makes the Navitimer collection so popular and sought-after since its launch until today?
Sylvain Berneron: It’s undoubtably the most iconic pilot’s chronograph in the industry. It carries a long-lasting pedigree and has a strong signature design that makes it stand out in a crowded market of pieces that all look the same. On top of that, it is a versatile product that can be worn all week long and offers a strong value proposition, both in terms of its technical features and aesthetics.
DAMAN: And then there are the new Superocean watches, which takes it cues from the “Slow Motion” model from the ’60s and ’70s. In a nutshell, what sets these new SuperOceans apart from their predecessors and also from divers’ watches in general?
Sylvain Berneron: The Superocean’s predecessors have been built around “function only” and therefore we felt that they may lack a bit of presence. This new generation takes as its source the Superocean Ref.2005 Mk.2 from 1970, which was known as the Slow Motion. As a result, we have a very distinctive design signature, with the wide rehaut, the large faceted indices and the square minute hand, which is directly linked to the 1970s Slow Motion hand.
DAMAN: All in all, is there a particular model that is your personal favorite? Or perhaps a particular novelty that you feel is the absolute highlight for Breitling’s 2022 lineup?
Sylvain Berneron: The Navitimer Cosmonaute is my number one favorite. We launched it on May 24, on the 60th anniversary of the original Cosmonaute becoming the first Swiss wristwatch in space. But I also love the Navitimer 41 with the dark blue dial and 43 with the silver dial. In the Superocean collection, the Kelly Slater limited edition is the bomb and I like the 42 and 44 with bronze cases as well. I should also mention the lovely Aerospace, which is the hidden gem of the brand, in my opinion…
DAMAN: In general, how do you approach the task of designing a new collection? What is your usual starting point?
Sylvain Berneron: Before a designer can draw, he or she must understand the brand and the tone of voice of the collection. We take vintage pieces out of the archives and we wear them for a while until we can really get a feel
for them. After that, we can deviate from it—or not. But at least our work is fueled with the brand’s pedigree and not external influences.
DAMAN: What would you say is the most challenging stage of creating a new watch or an entirely new watch collection?
Sylvian Berneron: Finding the right balance between heritage and modernity. Too much heritage and the new piece feels already a bit dusty, what people would call “lazy design.” But too much modernity and it disconnects itself from its long-lasting lineage of successful pieces, resulting in comments like: “It doesn’t look like a Breitling anymore.” There needs to be a perfect equilibrium between the two.
DAMAN: In your opinion, what has been the most significant change in terms of watch design or production from, say, the past year? And on the flip side, what would you say are the biggest changes to look out for in the year to come?
Sylvian Berneron: 2022 was the “green dial” year. We launched our mint green and pistachio dials in late 2021 and early 2022, so we were ahead of the curve on this one at least. In 2023-24, I finally hope to see the return of gold pieces—which was predicted by many a long time ago but hasn’t happened yet—and to smaller sizes in general.
DAMAN: Breitling’s watches tend to be on the larger side and the imagery associated with the collections—from the golden age of aviation to polar exploration—tend to be rather masculine. At the same time, there seems to be a lessening in the reluctance of women going for larger watches and certainly women are well represented in the various Breitling Squads. What is your take on this apparent shift? And how is Breitling planning to appeal more towards a women audience?
Sylvian Berneron: Breitling is always on the larger side, it’s true, because of its “tool watch” roots—readability is important and this requires more real estate on the dial. At Breitling, all my female colleagues wear pieces from 38mm to 44mm. I rarely see watches under 36mm, but this is Europe and different continents have different wishes and tastes, which is why we offer different flavors. As a designer I do not have a game plan for appealing to women. Instead, my goal is to make the best Breitling watches that we can and stay faithful to the spirit of the brand. If we stay true to ourselves, it shows in the end product and ultimately this is the best way to attract clients—male or female.
DAMAN: On a lighter note, if you could form your very own Squad on a Mission—your dream Squad, if you will—what kind of team will you form and who will be in it?
Sylvian Berneron: I’d love to do a “connoisseur squad.” The idea would be to shed light on people who cherish their collections and put their heart and soul into learning about watchmaking. I would pick Fred Mandelbaum, Eric Wind and Jeff Stein. Three incredibly knowledgeable gentlemen.
DAMAN: This might sound like a cliched question, but in this increasingly digital age, the appeal of classical, mechanical timepieces—even extremely complicated ones—remain strong. What do you think causes our continued admiration for traditional watchmaking?
Sylvian Berneron: Emotions! “Mechanical watchmaking is art, and art is eternal.” This is a famous quote by Jean-Claude Biver and it sums it up exactly.
DAMAN: For our last question, if somebody—a friend, perhaps, or maybe a relative—asked you to accompany them to a boutique and pick out their very first Breitling watch, how would you go about introducing the brand to them?
Sylvian Berneron: Breitling stands for impeccable taste, even if our watches are built like tanks. Our products are both timeless and reliable: that’s our vision. But good design needs to be able to stand on its own without explanations. That is the real test for us designers, to put our products in boutiques and see how our clientele spontaneously reacts to them!
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