Spending Time with the Breguet Type XXI Transatlantique
“We also do bespoke suits.”
I let that hang in the air for a moment while I took another sip of the single malt from the heavy tumbler in my hand. As the warmth crept down my throat, I stole another look at Breguet XXI I had just bought. The steel bracelet, initially frigid from its journey in the February night air, was slowly warming on my wrist. My attempts to look composed while inspecting the watch were undermined by the bursts of fog I kept decorating the cold crystal with. Each breath was a curtain.
“It looks good,” I managed.
“My brother in law also does custom shirts.”
Harry, whose brother in law does suits, is a prodigy of watch procurement. After studying gemology, he took over his family’s manufacturing business in the north end of Toronto and only got into watches when his cousin asked him to move some extra stock for him on a dare. Now, if a member of Drake’s crew, or a Toronto Raptor, want a showpiece on their wrist, they check with Harry first. It’s not just the famous who come to him for their timepieces: watch aficionados speed-dial Harry for their Pateks and hard-to-find Audemars Piguets as well. If your grail watch is out there, he’ll find it.
So, I found myself downtown with Harry in a gently decaying Art Deco office tower trying to warm chilled steel and sipping a celebratory scotch. For many collectors, the story of how we actually got the watch is almost as significant a part of the whole experience as wearing it on your wrist. The discovery, the hunt, the negotiation, the deal, and the pick up are part of the lore we dress our watches in. Harry, his brother in law’s bespoke clothing, the scotch, and the amber tones of the building’s marble-decorated lobby are embedded in the Breguet I’ve been wearing frequently for the past several months.
Why the delay in writing about it? Review watches grace our wrists for only a few days at most, so we can convey technical specifications and initial impressions, but not the deep, lived, experience of a watch across many contexts, experiences and moods. After spending several months with the Type XXI, I’m approaching the point where I feel I can do it some justice.
The Type XXI is not the kind of watch that you’d normally associate with a grande maison like Breguet. The Tradition 7057 and tourbillons, not a functional pilot’s watch with a solid military pedigree, are what we normally think of when we think of Breguet. But the company is steeped in aviation history, it just happens to come from a different branch of the family. Louis Charles Breguet, the great-great grandson of Abraham Louis Breguet, was a pioneer in French aviation history and his company, Breguet Aviation survived until 1971 when it merged with Dassault. In the 1950s, the French Ministry of War issued the Type XX and Type XXI specifications for pilot’s watches for the air force and navy. Breguet was one of five manufacturers who supplied watches that met the specification for the French military. In 1995, Breguet revived the Type XX (and later the Type XXI) in a modern, luxury, incarnation. The Type XXI (3810) I’ve been living with retains the military DNA of the original, but Breguet’s modern versions have been buffed, polished, and so thoroughly updated that they bear about the same relation to their originals as the platinum Daytona (the “Platona”) does to the watch Paul Newman owned.
The 3810 Harry found for me glitters in the weakest light. The shine of its polished case surfaces and faceted indices were multiplied by the gleam of the bracelet it came on. In short order, I got a leather strap for the watch. I like making statements as much as anyone else, but insist on some sort of volume control. A pilot’s watch should come on leather, and Breguet does offer a 3810 on a strap as well. Now, the watch is more versatile. On the bracelet, I can dial up the “power jewelry” quotient or, with the strap, I can tone things down and trick myself into thinking I’m wearing something more practical and faithful to the tool-watch origins of the Type XXI. The only downside is that do-it-yourself strap changes on a watch of this calibre can trigger a mild anxiety attack.
One paradox of having a grail watch and living with it for a while is that you have a lot of time to discover what’s “not perfect” about it. Fortunately, even after 5 months, the list of cons for the Type XXI is still very short. It’s large. The 42mm case diameter Breguet publishes on its website sounds reasonable, but the watch wears larger, feeling like 43-44mm on the wrist with its substantial bezel. Large also applies to its height. At 15.2mm, it sits tall on the wrist and won’t be fitting easily under a shirt cuff. For comparison, that’s as tall as my G-Shock. The effect is compounded by Breguet’s classic case design vocabulary: the coin edges are a tradition, but they add visual height to the case, making it look every bit as tall as it is. Another small complaint is the lack of hacking seconds. I’m not afraid to admit to being compulsive about getting the seconds right when I set the time on my watches and seeing the small seconds hand in the 9 o’clock subdial sweep happily along while I lined-up the minute hand was annoying. You can force to-the-second accuracy by counter-rotating (back hacking) the crown when setting the watch but I use this sparingly because: a) no one cares what second it is; b) scary visions of punitive repair bills haunt me.
Powered by the 584Q movement (based on the Lemania 1350), the Type XXI is a cam-actuated chronograph with flyback and date complications. Some commentators get sniffy about the “cam-actuated” part, especially at this price point, where column wheel seems to be table stakes. The chronograph works flawlessly with reassuring start/stop action and has the added bonus of a central minute totalizer. You don’t have to squint at a tiny sub dial to figure out how many minutes have passed. The flyback function, part of the original military specification, has few practical applications today but is a reminder of the watch’s aviation roots, where the seconds wasted on a typical start/stop/reset/start sequence of clicks could translate into significant navigation errors on a long voyage.
Over time, the watch’s beauty accumulates. The ruthenium dial can appear charcoal grey or metallic brown depending on the lighting. The date window at 6 o’clock, a trapezoid, sits at the bottom of the hour totalizer sub dial. In outline, the combination looks like a keyhole. The 24-hour dial at 3 o’clock has a horizontal-line guilloche that becomes increasingly fine as it steps towards the bottom of the sub dial, creating a woven visual effect when the light strikes it correctly. I could multiply examples but the point is that a grail watch should have real staying power in delighting you, and the Type XXI does.