The launch of Breitling’s new Premier B01 Chronograph 42 last May coincided with another important debut for the company: the publication of Premier Story, an illustrated history of Breitling’s flagship collection written by the world’s biggest collector of vintage Breitling, Fred Mandelbaum. For collectors of the brand, it marks a pivotal moment in any endeavor to track and authenticate vintage pieces from the company’s vast output over the years. The first Premier launched in 1943 as Breitling’s concept of taking the chronograph out of the cockpit and putting it on the wrist. (While the company did not invent the chronograph, it was the first to patent and launch the chronograph wristwatch as it is known today.) Willy Breitling, the grandson of the founder, knew it had to be something other than just a tool watch—it had to be elegant. The book tracks the trajectory of the high-flying collection, from its years as a watch favored by aviators and athletes to the addition of complications like the rattrapante and the date.
The Premier has a long and storied history, and as the keeper of the world’s largest private collection of them, Mandelbaum was the ideal person to author the book. Mandelbaum’s knowledge of Breitling’s history is so invaluable and singular that Georges Kern made him the company’s official historian shortly after he took over the brand in 2017. “My collection tries to document all Breitling chronographs from the early 1940s to 1979,” he says. “And so this a book about Breitling, and my collection covers that, so it’s a part of Breitling’s heritage and a part of my collection, but there are more books to come.”
In the book, Mandelbaum chronicles the inception of the Premier, including Willy Breitling’s quest to take the chronograph to the masses, and to its revitalization decades later by Kern. Last week, Robb Report caught up with the Austrian collector as he was honored at a reception at the Breitling boutique on 57th Street in New York City.
“Writing the book was a great chance to chronicle and structure the things I know, and work with others to make a logical and coherent story,” he says. “I worked with a team of editors and others to bring it all together. It was creatively fun to do, especially working with the photographer I found, who I managed to infect with the vintage watch lovers bug.”
The Premier is illustrated with vintage photographs and archival documents outlining the history and key identifying factors of Breitling Premiers, with tips on how to authenticate and date vintage models. “For this book, I was granted unprecedented access to relevant sources, both in the Breitling corporate archives,” says Mandelbaum. “Gregory Breitling, son of Willy Breitling, granted me access to the family collection of watches, archives, documents, photographs, and a wealth of personal memories. As Breitling’s historian, I’m living the wildest dreams of any passionate collector.”
Of the 240 watch photographs in the book, about 220 were owned by Mandelbaum, and that’s just a fraction of his expansive collection. He refuses to say exactly how many watches are in his vault, however. “Quantity is of no relevance whatsoever,” he says. “Quality and rarity are what matter. My approach to collecting is that what I have will probably keep its value over time, but definitely not in the way that some people promise crazy returns on certain brands or models. Many people got burned during the last year with some prices dropping by 30% or 40%, so there was a bubble, but the bubble has burst, and now it’s back to regular collecting, and I’m quite happy about that.”
So, is it still possible to find any of the vintage pieces covered in the book? “You just need to know what to look for and have some patience,” he says. “It’s like hunting deer; it’s not about the kill, it is about finding that beautiful outstanding beast and ideally, just taking a picture of it instead of killing it. That’s more what, for me, collecting is about.”
If the hunt yields no results, it’s good to know there are new models in the Premier line that stand up to the originals and then some. “The line is alive and well and will continue to grow,” says Mandelbaum.