In one of our earlier articles in The Collector’s Corner, we dove into Breguet’s illustrious history, focusing on the rebirth of the brand during the midst of the quartz crisis, by looking at the elegant and high-end hand-wound Chronographs of the Roth era. Today, we revisit Breguet, albeit at a slightly later point in the company’s history, namely the Investcorp era. And also, a completely different kind of watch, which also looks at the illustrious past of the brand, as well as another side of the family, that of the aviators. This episode of the Collector’s Corner is devoted to the brilliant 1990s Breguet Type XX.
To recap, the Breguet business remained under Breguet family ownership for two generations before it passed to Edward Brown, a watchmaker who had served as factory manager in the company. The Brown family maintained stewardship of the Breguet legacy for 100 years before the company was again sold to the Parisian jeweller Chaumet in 1970. Under Chaumet’s management and with Daniel Roth’s vision of what a Breguet watch could and should be, the archetypal design elements that we associate with Breguet came into being. These include intricate guilloche work on the dial, asymmetric displays of complications, and a specific case design.
The Chaumet diamond business faced significant losses in the mid-1980s, which led to yet another change in ownership, just as the brand was successfully exiting the quartz crisis. The boutique Bahrain-based private equity firm Investcorp S.A. then acquired Breguet. The Investcorp era of Breguet saw a very fortuitous decision, the one to introduce an entry-level sports chronograph modelled after Breguet military spec watches of the 1950s. Enter the Breguet Type XX.
The Type 20 Specification
The Breguet Type XX is basically a modernized remake of the Type 20. Far from being a model from Breguet’s archives, “Type 20” refers to a specification issued by the French Ministry of Defense in the 1950s. Basically, the French Ministry of Defense considered accurate and robust chronographs an essential component of a pilot’s standard kit, a tool that could be used to gauge the distance travelled or airspeed. A number of brands manufactured watches according to this specification, including Dodane, Auricoste, Mathey Tissot, Airain, and Vixa. Though the exact brief has been lost to history, most sources agree on the following details:
- 38mm stainless steel case
- Black dial with white luminescent numerals and hands (radium would have been used back then)
- Chronograph movement with flyback (Retour en Vol) functionality
- Two registers at three o’clock and nine o’clock, able to track intervals of up to 30 minutes (some later examples will feature 3 registers)
- Rotating bezel engraved with 12-hour scale (some early versions came with a simple fluted bezel with triangle marker)
- Movement accuracy to within eight seconds a day
- Power reserve of more than 35 hours
- The ability to operate satisfactorily at least 300 times
These watches were supplied to the French Air Force, the French Flight Test Center, and to the Naval Aviation “Aéronautique Navale” until the end of the 1950s.
The civilian version based on the Type 20 specification, the “Type XX” was introduced in 1995, with the use of Roman numerals in the name distinguishing the model from the military-issue watches. 2018 marked the end of the line for the Type XX when the model was discontinued after slightly more than two decades in production.
The Breguet Type XX – The Basics
The Breguet Type XX 3800ST stays pretty close to its military ancestors in terms of dimensions. The case measures a compact 39.5mm in diameter, not including the crown or pushers. It’s relatively short across as well, at only 44.5mm lug-to-lug. However, thanks to its thickness of 14.8mm, it has more presence on the wrist than its nominal size would suggest. The rotating bezel, entirely polished just like the case (or brushed on the Transatlantique date model), is engraved with indications counting 60 increments, which can be used to count up to or down from an hour.
Looking at the watch from face-on, the one feature that stands out as distinctly “un-Breguet” is the shape of the lugs. Breguet watches are characterized by straight lugs that jut out from the case, rather like a pocket watch conversion to a wristwatch. The Type XX, on the other hand, has slender lugs that flow seamlessly out of the caseband and end in a delicate downward tuck. However, the case profile is immediately recognizable as Breguet, with a coined/fluted caseband that is set slightly in from the caseback.
The dial follows the established white-on-black colour scheme that is a hallmark of pilot’s watches. Hours are indicated by vertically arrayed Arabic numerals. There is a simple minutes track at the edge of the dial, with wider hash marks every five minutes. The modified syringe hands are abundantly lumed, as is the chronograph seconds and minutes hand. Coming to the sub-registers, running seconds are shown at nine o’clock, hours at six o’clock, and chronograph minutes at three o’clock. The minutes register has a small quirk, namely that it is actually a 30-minute register, calibrated with 15 marks, with a long mark every six minutes. That’s right, each hash represents two elapsed minutes of the chronograph display. Clearly not the most pragmatic element of the Breguet Type XX.
To be specific, the model we are talking about here is the ref. 3800ST “Aéronavale”. Alongside this no-date model, there is the “Transatlantique”, which shares the same case, dial, and movement, with one addition: a date display at six o’clock. I prefer the cleaner no-date look of the ref. 3800, but I can’t deny that the date display adds practicality.
There are some small variations among early ref. 3800 watches. The earliest in the production series have a crown that is topped with a solid gold cap – presumably, these capped crowns were replaced during service, making them relatively uncommon now. Additionally, for a very short time in the early production, the Type XX was manufactured with a straight chronograph seconds hand instead of a lollipop hand. Yet another quirk among the early ref. 3800 was that they were fitted with a unidirectional bezel, instead of the bi-directional bezel that is more common on pilot’s watches. Oh, and one last thing: there also seem to be variations in water resistance. The early models are marked as water resistant to 200 meters – this later changed to 100 meters.
Powering the Type XX is the Breguet calibre 582 (based on the Lemania 1350), an automatic, integrated chronograph calibre with a 48-hour power reserve and flyback functionality. While I won’t open the can of worms of what qualifies as “in-house” and what doesn’t, let me just say the following: the movement company Nouvelle Lemania was acquired by Investcorp in 1992 and integrated into Breguet.
Why should you consider the Breguet Type XX?
First up, looks. I want to like pilot’s watches, I really do. I love their no-nonsense look, their wonderful legibility, and the copious amounts of lume on the dial. However, I can’t help but feel that pilot’s watches tend to look a bit sterile. The Breguet Type XX 3800ST avoids that pitfall without making any concessions when it comes to legibility. Sure, there is a lot happening on the dial, with multiple fonts and hand designs, but the information is clearly laid out. There’s a bit of French whimsy here, making for a more characterful aesthetic in my opinion.
I also love the size of the Type XX – too often, pilot’s watches are big and bigger. 39.5mm feels like a goldilocks size for a vintage-inspired piece. If the Breguet Type XX feels diminutive to you, there is always the 42mm Type XXI. If there is one thing I wish I could change on the Type XX, it’s the high polish of the bezel, which will likely attract plenty of swirls and scratches – which you can clearly see in the 15 years old and never-polished example in this article.
Third, I feel this is the perfect Breguet for someone who loves the brand but doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable with the pomp and dressiness that usually comes with its watches. This is a Breguet that you can wear day in and day out without worrying!
Lastly, let’s talk about the positioning of the Breguet Type XX in the brand’s catalogue, and to do that, we’re going to have to revisit the movement. The Calibre 582 is a cam-actuated chronograph and this, in the eyes of many collectors, is where the problem lies. The cam/lever is a less sophisticated and more volume-production-friendly setup for chronograph actuation than a column wheel. Column wheels are more difficult to manufacture, require more precise tolerances, and demand better finishing than a cam.
Arguably, a column wheel results in a better (read “crisper”) chronograph feel and is considered more prestigious. The column wheel construction is one of the reasons why the Omega calibre 321 is more highly regarded than the successor calibre 861 (the more romantic bridge layout and the historical importance of the movement as the first Moonwatch movement certainly help as well!). Breguet purists are quick to point out that such a “basic” chronograph movement has no place being in a Breguet watch, but I feel that this is beside the point. The Calibre 582 is a reliable workhorse chronograph movement, exactly the sort of movement you want in a sports chronograph. So surely, the pushers are firm but on the other hand, it somehow guarantees the reliability of the watch and its functions (flyback included) over the years.
The Investcorp years are not the finest era in Breguet’s history. Breguet’s prestige was called questioned by customers, partly due to the move away from high complications toward more utilitarian pieces, but also because of the use of movements that were considered low-spec. Though it was a stylistic departure from the ornate, high horology creations that preceded it, the Breguet Type XX likely helped keep on the lights at the company.
What all this means is that the Type XX is a bit of a steal – again, “steal” in relative terms, given the Breguet name, the demand for stainless steel sports watches, and the popularity of pilot’s watches. Expect to pay around 5,000 to 6,000 Euros for an Aéronavale in steel. The more exotic precious metal references 3800GA (yellow gold, limited to 150 pieces), 3800BR (rose gold with blue dial), 3800PT (limited to 100 pieces) command the expected premiums.
For a more personal take on ownership of the Breguet Type XX, our Managing Editor Brice reviewed the Breguet Type XX after five years on the wrist.