It is becoming rather difficult nowadays to buy a decent vintage chronograph that still has an heir of pedigree to it, for under £10,000 but believe me when I say it is still possible to buy such pieces within this range. I’ve already mentioned this before, but I think it is increasingly important to mention it again. There seems to be a bit of a buzz around vintage Breitling at the moment and the brand is now under new ownership, with Georges Kern at the helm, which perhaps signals a new dawn. Previously, vintage Breitling’s were largely ignored by collectors for some reason but those in-the-know have always kept a keen eye on the brands vintage pieces.
Breitling are very well-known for their chronograph timepieces and are one of the big watch brands which made iconic chronographs beside the likes of Heuer, Rolex and Omega. Breitling have a very interesting history and are very renowned for creating timepieces that incorporate useful functions for pilots and professionals alike – to be used as instruments rather than just mere watches. That said, most watch enthusiasts are perhaps more familiar with the Chronomat, Navitimer and Cosomnaute but as you know Breitling were making less mainstream chronograph examples too.
THE 765 AVI
The Breitling reference 765 AVI has an interesting, if not inspiring past. The AVI was first produced in 1953 and as you’ll perhaps notice was made with the military in mind – hence its large case diameter of 41mm, which probably is not considered large today but back in 1953, yeah this was a really big watch. At the time, Breitling had hoped to win a contract with the French army, however, the fact it didn’t feature a flyback function caused a few issues for them and so the likes of Breguet, Dodane and Vixa – who all made very similar looking watches, went on to supply the French army with their flyback chronographs.
It perhaps goes without saying that this very 765 AVI is not the first execution, that title belongs to the all-black dial first execution pieces that have, over the year’s, been nicknamed ‘Lucy’. The Breitling Co-Pilot 765 AVI’s have a very unmistakable appearance but the nickname they’ve been coined could in fact be a more interesting talking point. Nicknamed Lucy after the remains of a 3.2-million-year-old partial skeleton (nicknamed Lucy) of a predecessor to the homo sapien human, the Autralopithecus afarensis. The idea behind this nickname is likely the genesis or very early nature of the first series Co-Pilot 765 AVI.
This example is a 1953 first series, however, something that has maybe confused a few people over the years is the aperture at 3 o’clock. The window is often mistaken for a date aperture, but after handling one, you’ll quickly realise it is anything but. It is in fact a 15-minute countdown register that was used by pilots for their 15-minute pre-flight checks. That said, the Analog ‘Lucy’ which was also part of the exhibition featured a more traditional layout, with 3 subsidiary dials, with the register at 3 o’clock serving as the 15-minute counter. Same idea as Breguet Type XX and now just as sought after.
Later in its lifespan, the 765 AVI adopted a more traditional look with silver subsidiary dials, a feature often seen on the Navitimers and Top Times, and a look that today still make it appear more contemporary. The 41mm case houses a highly legible black dial, with the aforementioned silver sub-dials, with the register at 3 o’clock visibly being the largest, to draw the attention of the wearer. That said, there’s another reason why the wearer, or should I say pilot, would need to regularly glance over at the register at 3 o’clock.
It’s interesting to note the minute register unusually features a 15-minute counter as opposed to the more common 30. This is quite a significant feature, because to achieve this the Venus 178 movement the 765 AVI houses needed to be modified. Exactly why did they go through this hassle? 15 minutes was the exact amount of time required for a plane’s pre-flight check to clear it for take-off. This also clarifies the unusual lume dashes inside the sub-register, which marks every three minutes, making this routine check as easy as possible to time for the pilots.
With all that said, many of you would of course have noticed the dial bears the name Lip, a feature not too dissimilar from watches made by other brands that bore the name Hermes or Cariter on the dial. Lip was a really famous French retailer, which largely explains why Blancpain and Breitling had a partnership with them. It was the 2nd major French collaboration for Breitling after UTI. The Lip signed Breitlings are often large tool-watches like Navitimers, Cosmonautes and AVI co-Pilot but we see also Chronomat 808 and Chrono-Matics bearing the retailers name. However, Lip also manufactured their own watches too, at very attractive price points. Very sporty and colourful like the one pictured below.
Overall this Breitling AVI 765 Lip, was an absolute pleasure to wear, even if it didn’t sport the original crown – unfortunately these things happen. It’s 41mm case make sure it has some wrist presence, but it admittedly never felt too large, though it did glean a little attention, but this was perhaps more down to the contrasting dial. The overall construction of this watch is superb with its design clearly aimed at aviation as mentioned but large case and dial layout lend this AVI 765 a sense of timelessness to it. On a tanned strap or leather NATO, the 765 AVI just looks so downright cool but something to pay attention to is it lug width, which measures a rather large 22mm. While this is not unusual, if you have plenty of watches that require 20mm and this is the only one that take 22mm, then you’lll need to double up on them strap purchase – hence the reason you’ll notice its fitted with 20mm strap in the images.
But this will be the least of your worries, because for your money you’ll be getting a watch that has a lot of history behind it, great design, stalwart chronograph movement and somehow still looks modern for under a £10K. Something I think is pretty good going, considering todays current vintage chronograph climate.
I’d like to extend a massive thanks to the very kind gents over at Watches of Knightsbridge for loaning me this Breitling 765 AVI retailed by Lip. This timepiece is up for sale in the upcoming March 17th auction, for more information on this visit the official Watches of Knightsbridge website.
I would also like to extend a thanks to Louis Westphalen (formerly of Hodinkee now at Breitling SA) for his help and knowledge.