I was fortunate to interview Fred Mandelbaum, “guardian of the heritage” for Breitling, the horological tastemakers, about collecting and collectables.
When a vintage watch collector receives a message from then-incoming Breitling CEO Georges Kern, he’s likely to take notice. Even when he’s on holiday. It’s what led Fred Mandelbaum to be appointed consultant to Breitling.
“I was on vacation with my wife, lying at the hotel pool in Venice, when my phone dinged. It was an Instagram message that read: ‘This is Georges Kern. Can you call me?’ That’s how it started,” says Mandelbaum.
They met in Vienna, and Mandelbaum led Kern through the early Breitling history, showed him his collection, and explained why particular watches are important. “In December 2017, he asked if I’d like to join him, to advise him, and to share my knowledge of the roots of the brand as a foundation of his strategy,” says Mandelbaum.
He has been active in Breitling collector circles for many years. There are different types of collectors, he explains. For example, “there are those who see watch collecting as an asset class. They care about the financial potential more than the watches. Then there are the me-too collectors, who want what everyone else is wearing. Finally, there are those who see collecting as studying. If you learn, you want to teach, inform, and enlarge the knowledge base,” says Mandelbaum.
Several in the vintage watch community, who have done that for many years. Mandelbaum started out using watches to time production processes at work and soon fell in love with the “wonderfully precise mechanical instrument” on his wrist. “I began slowly educating myself when there was no internet and nobody to ask. I read books and asked questions.”
Mandelbaum collects all relevant chronographs, across a number of brands, but as horological tastemakers Breitling is centre stage. “Breitling has been first adopter in most of the technological steps in chronograph horology – always trying new designs, new forms of cases, defining new standards. This is how Breitling came to be at the core of my collection. One day I decided to try to own one example of each relevant model Breitling produced between 1939 and 1979. I have been largely successful.”
Usability and interaction
Furthermore, he investigates the Breitling watch history after hours, pouring through the production ledgers from September 1944 (many were destroyed before then). “As a company Breitling was always trying to innovate. That was the defining element. They saw the watch as a tool for specific tasks.”
Leon Breitling filed a patent in 1905 for “the timer/tachymeter for sports”. This watch allowed the wearer to measure his feats. It took several decades to reach that point.
The next step, in 1915, was to convert the handheld pocket chronograph into something you could strap onto your wrist. Breitling’s addition of the pusher at 2 o’clock and a second pushpiece at 4 o’ clock (for which they filed patents in 1923 and 1934 respectively) were innovations that other manufacturers soon followed. From 1915 to 1933, Breitling filed several additional patents testing the perfect positioning of different operational elements, always looking at usability and changing the way people interacted with their watches.
While Willy Breitling, grandson of the founder, Leon Breitling, managed the company from 1932 until 1979, there were “fireworks of innovation, year after year”. He had the idea for the first “smartwatch chronograph”, the Chronomat, in 1939, for which he signed a patent in 1940. Then he combined the chronograph with a slide rule so that businessmen and engineers could have their computing device on their wrist. “It’s still the basis for today’s Navitimer. Willy’s design lives on,” says Mandelbaum.
He has seen his fair share of fake watches in his time and identifying one – when it means disappointing someone who believes they have inherited a valuable heirloom – is something he would rather not have to do. “It takes me about five seconds to see if a watch is authentic or not. It is quite disturbing. People have been faking Breitlings since the 1940s.”
He says the biggest finds are the rarest. In March 2021 he found one of the first Duographs dating back to the 1940s. The Duograph, recently relaunched by Breitling, was first manufactured in batches of six, and typically assembled on order. “Approximately 30 pieces have been found over the years. Any Duograph, clearly original, is a major find. This piece belonged to a wealthy businessman who had passed away in rural Michigan, in the US, of all places. His father had been a doctor and this is the only pulsation scale doctor’s watch Duograph we’ve ever seen.