Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, said someone clever once. In the last few years we have seen a surge in the popularity of the Smartwatch, principally from Apple. It has led to the portent of doom being foisted on mechanical watchmaking which will sound familiar to anyone around in the 1970s during the height of the quartz crisis.
Back then, most of the luxury Swiss houses dismissed the new technology as a mere fad, and continued to do so even as the receivers moved in, boarded up the windows and sold off their machinery to the highest bidder. The ones that decided to engage with this novel world of crystals and electronics usually fared better, even though it was typically done somewhat begrudgingly.
Fast forward to the modern day and it would seem that the traditional luxury watch manufacturers remember the lessons learned back then and have dedicated more and more assets in order to embrace Smartwatch tech. What’s more, some have taken to one-upping the releases from the likes of Samsung, Huawei, and Apple themselves by investing their own watches with perhaps their most important asset – a sense of luxury. Today we are taking a look at the Breitling smartwatch collection.
Breitling Exospace B55 Connected
Breitling’s fortunes have been erratic over the last few decades, but the company has gone from strength to strength since it was acquired by Europe’s largest private equity firm, CVC Capital Partners, in 2017. Between that injection of much needed funds, and the appointment of Georges Kern as CEO, the manufacture has been transformed.
Yet, while Kern arrived heralding a return to a more simple, vintage-inspired aesthetic, they have also been among the most pioneering groups in wearable tech. The prototype B55 actually debuted at Baselworld 2015, with the production model released to the public later that year. It was the brainchild of one Jean-Paul Girardin, who manages to find time to be a professional helicopter pilot in-between his duties as Breitling’s vice-president.
As a brand possibly more associated with aviation than any other, the watch is set up specifically to be part of the Professional series – compulsory equipment for the world’s flying elite. The Exospace sits in the range alongside that other game changer from Breitling, the Emergency, with its built-in locator beacon. However, while the two share a digital-analogue readout (as do the rest of the ‘Instruments for Professionals’ line), the Exospace is very much out on its own.
As stylish as it is (in Breitling’s typically hyper-masculine way), the Exospace B55’s feature list marks it as a creation very much aimed at military pilots rather than merely fans of military watches. The dial is very closely modeled on the Cockpit B50 from 2014, but is given an even greater legibility with the use of a contrasting blue handset and digital numerals. A high intensity LCD backlight can be operated manually with a push of the crown, or much like the latest iPhone, can be activated by the built-in inclinometer. When the watch is tilted to 35 degrees (i.e. the angle you turn your wrist to check the time) the backlight activates to provide maximum readability, and shuts off again when not in use to eliminate distractions.
The digital display itself is night vision goggle compatible, preventing over-illumination in the dark which could endanger a pilot’s eyesight while wearing NVGs. It has an advanced flight timer which not only keeps track of takeoff, airborne, and landing times but also something known in the helicopter world as ‘block time’. Block time is that period from when the rotors first start moving to when they finally stop, something which is crucial to accounting for overall wear on the machine but easily forgotten in the heightened pressure of the cockpit, particularly a military one.
In addition, there is a two time zone function, one displayed digitally, the other with the hands, which can be swapped with the push of a button. There are various countdowns and count-ups, a perpetual calendar, a chronograph with flyback, an electronic tachymeter, and up to seven daily alarms. In all, the Exospace B55 is an awful lot of watch, wrapped up in a 46mm x 15mm titanium package.
Interestingly, Breitling avoids using the term ‘Smartwatch’ for the Exospace, opting instead to describe it as ‘Connected’. For those wondering about the difference, Smartwatch implies the timepiece being an extension of your phone, while Connected has your phone app as an extension of the watch. That means the B55 app (available on both Android and IOS) can be used to activate the many features more quickly and easily than on the watch itself.
Synchronization between the two is handled through BLE, or Bluetooth Low Energy, and in addition to taking care of data transfer and all the remote settings, it also gives the watch perfect precision. Your phone’s timekeeping is satellite controlled through an atomic time signal, as is the Exospace B55 when linked to it.
Because of the connection, the Exospace B55 is able to receive notifications, which are displayed on the dial’s twin digital readout. A very canny feature allows you to park the main hands at 3 and 9 o’clock in order to keep them out of the way of the screens, and a double tap of the crown sets them back to normal. Should you not want to connect to your phone for any reason, all functions can be controlled by manipulating the crown and the two push pieces.
Part of Breitling’s resurgence in the market has been their drive for complete self-sufficiency, and the Exospace B55 is no different. Both watch and movement are built entirely in-house, and the phone app has been custom-programmed exclusively for the brand in Switzerland.
The movement (the thermocompensated Caliber B55) joins Breitling’s line of SuperQuartz movements. Reportedly 10 times more accurate than even a standard quartz caliber, it surpasses the COSC’s demands of +/- 0.07 seconds a day.
Equally impressive (especially to iPhone owners like myself), is the battery life on the Exospace B55. The bespoke lithium ion cell, recharged through a nifty magnetic connector on the left side of the case, reportedly gives up to two months of power off a single charge. By comparison, I just took a 10 minute call and I’m now desperately searching for my charger!
On the wrist, while this is certainly no dress watch and is, in fact, a bit of a monster, it is surprisingly comfortable. A combination of its short curving lugs and titanium case mean that it is both light and sits very well on the wrist. Moving the unidirectional bezel is a breeze thanks to the familiar Breitling rider tabs, and the heavy knurling on the crown makes it similarly easy to turn, even with gloves.
Price-wise, the Exospace B55 stays in sight of the unconnected B50 Cockpit at around the $7,000 mark, rising to $8,100 or so for the Black Titanium version – not cheap by any means, but still about half the price of the Emergency. There are a number of models available, fitted on a range of bands, with the chunky blue rubber strap a particular favorite.
There is also the B55 Exospace Yachting, which crams in a regatta timer on top of everything else, and comes with a dash of color on its chapter ring and a carbon fiber dial. It adds a nicely distinctive element to the plain black of the rest of the range. All told, Breitling’s first foray into connected timepieces has certainly hit the ground running. A superb achievement that deserves a place on the wrist of any demanding aviator.
*All images courtesy of Breitling