DA MAN Caliber Insider: CEO of Breitling Georges Kern Tells Why the Brand Leaves Baselworld

Georges Kern, CEO of Breitling, talks about this year’s novelties and why the brand chose to leave Baselworld.

Georges Kern, CEO of Breitling

Ever since Georges Kern took over as CEO of Breitling, the brand has undergone massive changes. When Kern arrived at Breitling, he discovered a company with a very broad range of products, targeted at a very narrow market. So, what did he do? He streamlined almost all of the collections. Of particular note, Kern reorganized the products into three focused pillars—air, land, and sea—designed to extend Breitling’s reach beyond the aviation crowd. Using those pillars as a guide, he established seven distinct collections: Aviator 8, Navitimer and Avenger for “Air,” Superocean Heritage and Superocean for “Sea,” and finally Premier and Chronomat for “Land.”
Now, almost two years later, the outlook for Breitling is very much brighter. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to sit down with him for an in-depth chat about this year’s novelties and more major changes for the storied brand.

DA MAN: First of all, let’s begin with one of the biggest topics about your brand, namely about Breitling leaving Baselworld starting in 2020. What can you tell us about how this decision came about?
Georges Kern: Despite a successful Baselworld in 2019, we have decided to concentrate on our global Summit format with subsequent local roadshows in 2020. The decisive factor is the timing of Baselworld at the end of April, which cannot be reconciled with our scheduling. The Summit platform, which has already been introduced, allows us to be flexible regarding where and when we inform our target groups about new brand developments and product launches. We will continue to focus on this platform as it enables us to respond personally to customers, media representatives, sales partners, and collectors. For this reason, we will not be exhibiting at Baselworld in 2020.

The Navitimer Ref. 806 1959 Re-Edition and the historical Navitimer Ref. 806 from 1959

DA: Are you saying that Breitling will leave Baselworld for good?
GK: We will decide whether we will return to Baselworld from 2021 onward at a later date … and this will depend on the timing of the event and the possibility of holding the Breitling Summit. We would like to emphasize that the extensive innovations developed and implemented by Baselworld’s management under Michel Loris-Melikoff in such a short time frame have had a positive impact and can lay the foundations to take Baselworld in a new direction in the future.

“We have so many stories that people don’t know, but I’m discovering every day the strength of the brand”

DA: Moving on to Breitling’s novelties that the brand launched in Basel this year, one of the highlights is the Airline Editions. Why are these timepieces introduced as a capsule collection instead of, say, as limited editions?
GK: We are introducing these Airline Editions in a new capsule collection that is produced for a limited time and, consequently, in a limited volume. But the watches are not numbered. With these capsule collections, Breitling aims to tell specific stories rooted in the history of its core collection. This distinguishes them from our limited editions, which will retain their original intent: to be limited to a small, fixed number of watches.

DA: Any specific reason why you chose these three airlines—TWA, Pan Am and Swissair—for the first capsule collection?
GK: For civil aviation history lovers and watch aficionados, the very mention of these legendary carriers calls to mind the excitement and adventure associated with long-haul flights. For a more fashion-oriented clientele, there’s the allure of the style of a time captured in classic movie scenes of passengers enjoying the premium service provided by smiling, colourfully-uniformed crew members. Breitling was the preferred supplier of more than 15 leading companies and aircraft manufacturers back in the 1960s, and, with our first capsule collection, we are really excited about commemorating three of the most emblematic airlines of that era: TWA, Pan Am, and Swissair.

DA: You also launched the Breitling Premier Norton Edition, which is based on the partnership with Norton Motorcycles. What would you say is the best part about this collaboration?
GK: Breitling and Norton are both innovative and entrepreneurial and have powerful legacies. This new watch honors the great partnership between these two aspirational brands. I think that anyone who puts one on might suddenly imagine “Born to be Wild” playing somewhere in the background. [Smiles]

Breitling headquarters


Caseback of the Premier Bentley Centenary
Close-up of the Premier Norton Edition

DA: Then there’s the Premier Bentley Centenary Limited Edition for the legendary British automaker. Can you tell us more about this particular release?
GK: We’re proud of our partnership with Bentley. Both companies are known for quality, performance and design excellence. And both are built on powerful legacies. The Premier Bentley Centenary Limited Edition is a celebration of Bentley’s history, its luxury and its incredible racing pedigree, as well as its important, intimate connection to Breitling.

DA: Moving on, what was the inspiration behind the new Navitimer 1 Automatic 41?
GK: The new Navitimer 1 Automatic 41 is an ideal companion for the cosmopolitan traveler. It has a fresh, contemporary look but draws much of its inspiration from the iconic Navitimer Ref. 806 and the Reference 66, a three-handed Navitimer we launched back in the 1950s. This watch will never go out of style.

“This has been—one for me, in my whole career—one of the best fairs in history. In my whole career!”

DA: Since you mentioned the Navitimer Ref. 806, yet another standout piece released by Breitling this year is the Navitimer Ref. 806 1959 Re-Edition. What’s the story behind the revival of this vintage model?
GK: In the past year, we’ve been thrilled to learn that there are so many people who have always been passionate about Breitling’s legacy and that there’s enormous interest not only in our new products but also in our heritage and our early timepieces. The Navitimer Ref. 806 1959 Re-Edition will give new Breitling fans and people who have followed the brand for decades a chance to own and enjoy their own exclusive piece of our legendary past.

DA: You also said that the brand will release two Re-Editions per year. Why?
GK: Because one is not enough and I have so many. [Laughs] But I think two is enough because it’s a lot of work to be accurate, you know. This b****y dial is complicated! All handmade, indexes by indexes, really complicated. And on top of that, we have to develop a new movement. We have so many stories that people don’t know, but I’m discovering every day the strength of the brand. We worked with Fred Mendelbaum, he has an amazing collection, and every time I go there, I have a new idea.

The Premier Norton Edition and the Norton Commando 961 Café Racer MKII Breitling Limited Edition Motorcycle

DA: Still in the Navitimer realm, is it true that the Navitimer 8 label could disappear?
GK: The name, it was a mistake. And I don’t want to have name debates, I’m happy to have product debates. So, if the people, if there’s a historical reason behind it, well, I’m a pragmatic guy. It was a mistake. When we make mistake, we correct it, we listen to the customers. Now we turn the page.

DA: And what would be the new name?
GK: Aviator. And by the way, there’s a big historical line called Avi. So, if you look at the products, especially at the Aviator 8 Curtiss Warhawk and you see the engraving on the bezel, the counters: it’s Avi.

DA: We saw a very diverse collection this year from the brand. But I think, there’s one still missing. What about the Chronomat?
GK: Well, first of all, you have to understand that you can’t overload the consumer and the retailers. We can’t do everything at once. We’ve launched a diverse collection this year. And I don’t think there’s anybody on the market doing as many as we do.

DA: All in all, are you happy with everything now?
GK: We had a good fair. This has been—one for me, in my whole career—one of the best fairs in history. In my whole career! The retailers, they loved everything, because it’s a very balanced and very diverse collection. Nobody has this stuff. Nobody does this. Nobody has something like the Re-Edition. Nobody.

DA: So, do you feel more freedom operating Breitling compared to the previous brands you worked for in the past?
GK: Of course. With private equity, when you’re part of it, you take on more risks. And you have more freedom and more responsibilities. But, if the question is if I like it, then it’s a “yes.”

The Superocean 42 with white dial

DA: On the flip side, what do you think are the challenges now for the brand?
GK: The challenge in this digital world is for analog watches to stay relevant and to create an image which is interesting for younger people. This is the key issue. But, the beauty of it is that we reached out to wealthier people with a message and education, and we have leverage factors through issues like the problem of plastics in the ocean. We can’t save the world, but we can spread the word. We can help support Kelly Slater and Ocean Conservancy with their beach cleaning project, etc. So, if you can associate with doing good things like that, it’s perfect. I think any brand should do the most it can do and share its influence. And whatever I can do to share my influence, let’s do it.

DA: Last but not least, what do you think the biggest change since you took over the brand?
GK: We’ve totally changed. We’re doing the New Old Breitling. I think we found our way. I think it’s clear also for you guys where we are going and it’s very successful. We are not targeting competitors—I’m not targeting certain brands. We do what we have to do as a brand, based on our history, and this is what we want to do. I don’t think along the lines of “I want to beat this one or that one, I want to kick that product out.” No. We do what we have to do with our brand, and what we want to do is to be better than everybody else. So, we want to grow the brand, we want to be a relevant brand, and we want to do it brilliantly. That’s it.