Leaders / Watches

Longines CEO Matthias Breschan: Spirit of Aviation in Watchmaking

The watch veteran discusses the brand’s passion for aviation-inspired timepieces and his love for mechanical watches.

Apr 10, 2023 | By Ashok Soman
Longines CEO Matthias Breschan
Longines CEO Matthias Breschan

Longines is a brand on the move, and those moves are frequently airborne. This is literally true of CEO Matthias Breschan, whom we have met twice in the span of a few months, both in Asia but not in the same country. That is how this remarkable story came about, with two interviews and a couple of launch events. The more significant of the two took place in March this year as Longines revealed part of its slate of novelties for the year. We will get to those in due course, but first we should hear from Breschan himself about the brand’s plans for the future.

We have met the current CEO of Longines watches a few times, right back to his days of being in charge of Rado — Breschan has spent a good deal of time with The Swatch Group, counting his time at Hamilton, and Swatch too. This being the Swatch Group, only the chief executives are meant to make public statements that can be quoted. Thus Breschan has a tough job, always needing to field questions from the press, and all over the world too. He has been remarkably forthright about the impact of the pandemic on business, for example. He most recently told The Straits Times that Longines’ weaknesses in relying on tourist-spending rather than engaging them in their own markets made itself evident during the rocky period of Covid-19. The brand has since bounced back, reaching 2019 levels again in 2022; this is remarkable in itself, given that the travel situation has, arguably, not yet returned to 2019 levels, and shows that Longines did indeed react positively to the challenges it faced.

While Breschan is clearly enthusiastic about being able to visit various markets again, this visit is a little delicate. The reason for the difficulty on this occasion is actually the reason we are all gathered in Bangkok. Though we have seen the novelties, and Breschan has commented on them, most are still under embargo so we cannot say too much.

This means that we have to speak obliquely at times, and the interview has been edited as such. It also means we cannot showcase many of the novelties across these pages. Nevertheless, Breschan did talk about general strategies so we will go with those comments, supplemented by the earlier interview we did in Singapore. It all works out, as you will see from the very first question. Of course, that exchange is not the first one, chronologically speaking and all that follows has been edited and formatted for clarity and structure.

Our Bangkok meeting took place in the Four Seasons, where — purely by chance — the Czech boss at the hotel actually wears a vintage Longines Majetek watch. Breschan told us that this only became known to the brand when it approached the hotel about hosting the 2023 regional novelty launch there. Perhaps this is a fortuitous sign for both the new Majetek and for the novelties in general.

An old advertisement from Longines
Historic advertising showing the turning bezels Longines pioneered.

Before we dig into aviation watches and the themes of 2023, tell us about how the strategy developed in 2022?

I think you see in the collection of 2022 very well the strategy of how we are going to develop in the future. Because we launched in March last year, the Spirit Zulu GMT with a brand new exclusive GMT movement. It has state-of-the-art technology like a silicon balance spring, and a (true) GMT movement because you can adjust the hour hand independently from the minute hand. And of course, with our history of inventing the GMT movement in 1925… actually it began already in 1908 with a pocket watch with two time zones, requested by the (Ottoman) sultan. With the GMT watch, in history, pilots needed a reference time (to avoid air crashes), defined as GMT, which pilots called zero meridian… Zero is Zulu in aviation parlance, and this is why we named the Spirit Zulu as such.

Another example is the Ultra-Chron Diver where we have a high-frequency movement. Longines really revolutionised timekeeping in sporting events with the first such (pocket) watch already in 1914; it was then possible to measure time to an accuracy of 1/10th of a second. By 1916, we had taken it to 1/100th of a second. It was actually so popular that Longines got solicited by all organisers of sport events to time sporting events because the brand’s watches were known for such high precision. We integrated, in 1959 for the first time, high-frequency movements in a wristwatch. For 2022, we chose a dive watch from 1968 as the inspiration for the Ultra-Chron. It is exceptional not only in terms of the 36,000 VPH movement and 52-hour power reserve but also in the finishing of the watch itself, with the sapphire crystal insert on the bezel. When you look at the market for watches under US$5,000, there is nothing like this. It is also chronometer-certified (by Timelab, a Swiss outfit that certifies not only the movement, as COSC does, but also the entire watch head).

We cannot think of any watches at that price point, with a high-frequency movement, never mind all those characteristics!

Ultra-Chron Diver
Ultra-Chron Diver

Actually, there is a nice story about the Ultra-Chron (the contemporary model launched in 2022). Some of the first watches were delivered to France — to the famous Gallerie Lafayette department store, and a collector (well-known for collecting high-end pieces) came to our boutique there on the day the watches arrived and asked for the Ultra-Chron. I do not know how this person was aware of the exact date the watch would be arriving at the boutique, but nowadays collectors know everything! Anyway, he asked for the watch, and said he wanted to check the precision. Our store manager became quite nervous because this collector had a tool (a device that checks the amplitude of a mechanical movement, which in this case was portable and thus likely to be the Accuracy2 – Ed). The guy hooked up the device to his phone, and after five minutes he said he was done…(this is what he said) “I have never, ever, measured precision like you have on your Ultra-Chron watch.” He bought the watch and left.

That is a great story! It does bring up an issue I have probably discussed with you before, which is the pricing of Longines watches. It seems there is an upward trend now for 2023. Is that right?

First of all, Longines is positioned in the US$1,000 to $5,000 range, and has been for the past 20 years; it will continue to be this way for the next 20 years. Now with the new products for 2023, while we continue to stay in our space, we are moving towards the upper end of the range. Previously, the majority of our watches, I would say, were within the US$1,000 to $2,500 range, while now watches like the Majetek and the Spirit Flyback Chronograph are above that, but still below US$5,000. Like the Spirit Zulu GMT, the new watches all feature high-end technical innovations (in case construction and the use of Longines-exclusive movements) so they are priced accordingly, but still very reasonable for what they are. Like the Ultra-Chron, there is nothing like the Majetek out there at its price point (although technically, there is nothing at all in the market like the Majetek – Ed). So, despite the fact that Longines is offering all this innovation, we have never left our price segment — this is the beauty of being in the Swatch Group. We get both economies of scale, and have no need to go higher because (the group) has Omega, and similarly no need to go lower, because there is Tissot.

Offering a flyback chronograph for under US$5,000 is very bold! We also hear that there is a significance to this model so tell us about it please?

Pilot Majetek
Pilot Majetek

We have to look to the timekeeping history of Longines (for the answers). The knowledge that consumers have today about watches drastically increased in the past years. Today’s consumers are extremely knowledgeable and, in particular, young people. More and more, we see that they get passionate about watches — about mechanical movements, details in watchmaking, and the history of the craft. For example, (when we speak of the Flyback Chronograph), Longines invented the first wristwatch flyback chronograph in 1935 — we have a patent for this. In fact, Longines invented the first chronograph wristwatch in 1913 (equipped with the important calibre 13.33Z).

So, the flyback chronograph is really something that is a part of our heritage (this is the legendary manual-winding 13ZN movement that is so low-key that even Breschan reports being surprised to learn about it, after he joined the brand in 2020 -Ed). More than this, the flyback chronograph function was really important to pioneering aviators, because it allowed them to stop and reset the chronograph with the push of just a single pusher, so the chronograph does not lose time when starting to record a new period. This was important in those days because the aviators had to plan course changes based on how long they had been flying (at a specified speed), so the flyback chronograph offered an advantage.

Given the fact that the flyback chronograph, and the chronograph in general, are strong for Longines, why kick off the year with the Majetek, which is a harder piece to understand?

Because the original watch was a real breakthrough, and it allowed us to (highlight) that Longines actually pioneered the turning bezel back in 1935. Not many people know this; most think that this kind of bezel was invented for the dive watch (in the 1950s), but that’s not true. In fact, the function of this kind of bezel was meant for navigators to use at sea or in the air (to assist in helping stay on course), and these pioneers are important to the history of Longines. I don’t think that early aviators such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart would have been able to achieve what they did without Longines because they needed reliable timing instruments on their wrists (Longines also made cockpit timekeepers – Ed).

The Majetek also introduces some clever innovations, including an antimagnetic escapement in silicon. Of course, you could have had the same effect with quartz too, but we understand why you would not do that. How do you see the divide between quartz and mechanical timekeepers today, given that Longines has both in its range?

Spirit Zulu Time
Spirit Zulu Time

Well, I think the people who appreciate quartz movements, it’s a very specific clientele. They just want hassle-free watches; they don’t want to take a watch out of the drawer and then have to adjust it every time. The buyer of mechanical watches, he has a different understanding of what we make… You know, I remember this myself when I joined The Swatch Group at the very beginning. I attended a class where they explained the differences between quartz and mechanical movements. At the end of this class, they gave us a mechanical pocket watch movement, and every participant had to disassemble and reassemble it. From this moment, my appreciation for mechanical movements, the appreciation for the work of watchmakers, for micro-mechanics, totally changed. It also changed my perception of mechanical watches because from this moment on I really appreciated them as emotional accessories. Yeah, you keep it for your lifetime, even for the next generation; you do not change to another watch every six months or a year, and you never throw it away. This is when you begin to truly appreciate the mechanical movement; this realisation is when your perception of watchmaking totally changes.

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