How Georges Kern helped luxury watch brand Breitling move with the times

Georges Kern is no stranger to change. As one of the most powerful executives in the luxury watch world he revolutionised IWC, and stunned the industry by moving to Breitling last year after private equity group CVC Capital Partners acquired an 80 per cent stake in the brand.

In just a few months, the razor-sharp CEO has overhauled the classic brand, clipping Breitling's famous 'wings' with a new logo and going on a glamorous roadshow to promote a flagship range of Navitimer 8 pilot's watches.

Brooklyn bash

At a star-studded gala in a Brooklyn warehouse in February, Kern presented a new world order for Breitling, ditching the macho branding of old and looking back to the future for inspiration.

"We aim to simplify the collections and the structure of the brand, which is why we're touring around the world presenting the history and the relevance ... particularly [watches] of the '30s, '40s, through to the '70s," Kern told 51698009.

Sixty vintage Breitling timepieces from the brand's storied back catalogue were unveiled at the black-tie dinner for guests including actors Darren Criss, Olivia Munn and Armie Hammer, model Kate Upton and former astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly.

The jewel in the crown was of course a striking new collection of watches, the Navitimer 8 inspired by WWII-era aviation board instrument clocks.

"Nothing will be invented, everything is there," says Kern of the brand's new 'Legendary Future'. "Why would you invent something when you have such a rich history?"

Hello Navitimer 8

The flagship Navitimer 8 B01 comes in stainless steel as well as in 18k red gold and all the bells and whistles of a top-line Swiss chronograph. Creative director Guy Bove was inspired by Breitling's great early wristwatch models, specifically the luminescent Arabic numerals and skeletonised hands.

With the new watches comes a lofty mission statement: Breitling is reclaiming its place as an authentic brand for men (and increasingly more women) of "style, purpose and action", focusing on "heritage, quality, performance, elegance, and modernity".

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This means no more glossy girls and glossier jets, plastic casing and rubber straps, wild parties with midgets or overly sexist branding. "You cannot show this kind of girl anymore, "Betty-on-a-bomb" ... the world has changed," Kern says. "You will see this in our new campaign in June and July."

United squads

The multi-million dollar new campaign will feature a series of 'squads', themed teams of ambassadors which represent different facets of the brand.

First up, the Breitling Cinema Squad includes megastars Brad Pitt and Charlize Theron, up-and-comer Adam Driver and Hong Kong actor Daniel Wu.

Next, Breitling Explorers Squad spearhead social responsibility and "doing well in doing good" with trailblazing adventurers Bertrand Piccard, David de Rothschild, and Inge Solheim.

Finally, the Breitling Surfers Squad features world champion Australian boardriders Stephanie Gilmore and Sally Fitzgibbons alongside Kelly Slater.

"Water, earth and air are the fundamental elements of the brand: boats, cars and planes," Kern says.

The Navitimer represents Air, the Superocean represents the Sea, Premier represents Land and the Chronomat is the all-purpose Breitling.

Streamlined to buy

Breitling's 'Legendary Future' also sees a dynamic streamlining of sizing and price.Three models are clearly identified to make the watches easier to buy and sell.

"We want to be a generous brand priced between US$3500 and US$9000 dollars," Kern says. "We're going to stop anything below [that price], as we don't want to be seen as cheap. Our field is chronographs with an automatic movement ... we don't need to go above this because there are others who are more qualified."

How do you tell them apart? Breitling's top-level watches have three contrasting subdials at 3, 6 and 9, and feature an in-house movement with a clear case back priced at around AU$11,000.

Mid-range watches feature three 'tone-on-tone' subdials at 6, 9, 12, with 'Valjoux' external movements coming in at around AU$7000.

The new entry point for Breitling classic three hand watches with a date and feature no subdials priced from AU$5000.

Point of sale

The retail sector of the brand has also been overhauled, with a series of 'Breitling Lofts' to be rolled out globally, with Zermatt, Switzerland and Beijing first off the rank.

The lofts riff off the clean, sophisticated, undoubtedly masculine appeal of the brand, with pool tables, motorcycles, industrial and retro touches. It's a welcome new direction which will no doubt lift Breitling's fortunes in the competitive Swiss watch industry. 

"Remember when Porsche launched the Cayenne, when Range Rover launched the Evoque ... they thought it wouldn't work," says Kern, "but now it's number one, and cooler than ever. So who says you can't touch a brand?"

The writer attended the New York roadshow as a guest of Breitling.