The Breitling Emergency has long been a guilty pleasure of mine. For many fake watch enthusiasts, it's seen as a bit of a gimmick—an oversized analog-digital quartz(!) marketing tool for guys who fancy themselves minivan test pilots or Scout Leader commandos. But as I've indicated in the past, I have a weakness for uncompromising replica watches that are designed for a singular purpose and the Emergency is definitely that. After circling them for years while continuing to tread a safer path largely littered with mechanical dive watches, I finally pounced. I bought the unworn number 1,869 of the 1,999 limited edition replica watches Breitling made back in 2000 to commemorate the first nonstop round-the-world flight in a balloon, the Orbiter 3. I've owned the Emergency for a little over a month now and it hasn't been off my wrist for more than a day or two in that time. It's that satisfying.
To appreciate the Emergency, it's helpful to look at its history. In 1979, Breitling was pulled from the ashes of bankruptcy by Ernest Schneider, who had a long history serving in the Swiss military. Schneider's background in the Signal Corps replica watches for men and his later role spearheading the development of quartz replica watches at Sicura gave him an appreciation for practical wrist instruments. As a licensed pilot and fake watch enthusiast, he also had an appreciation for Breitling's history as a longtime maker of aviation timepieces. Once he bought Breitling, he set out an ambitious plan to revive mechanical watchmaking on the one hand, but also to push the development of pilots replica watches for the modern era on the other.
I recently picked up this unworn, limited edition Breitling Emergency and am enjoying it even more than I expected to.
The '80s was the decade when analog-digital replica watches came into prominence, with great ones like the Seiko H558, the Citizen Aqualand, and the cult favorite Chronosport Sea Quartz UDT. The earliest Breitling examples, the Pluton and the Jupiter, were actually based on the Chronosport. But Schneider spurred Breitling to develop its own model and in 1985 the Aerospace debuted, with its revolutionary crown-operated functionality and sleek aesthetics. Long after other analog-digital replica watches faded in popularity, the Aerospace evolved and thrived, spawning spinoffs, like the Breitling B-1, the Chronospace, and, of course, the Emergency.
Not long after taking over Breitling, Ernest Schneider participated in a NATO roundtable discussion about the unreliability of emergency locator beacons and came away thinking it would be good if there existed a small, auxiliary transmitter a pilot could wear in the event he becomes separated from his downed aircraft. Schneider's challenge to his engineers was to incorporate this sort of device into a wristwatch. To do so, they decided to build on the functional platform of the then-new Aerospace and partner with the French aviation firm Dassault to miniaturize the transmitter beacon and coiled antenna so it could fit underneath the fake watch itself.
The Emergency has a long history at Breitling, and is anything but a marketing gimmick.
After several years and $7 million of trial and error development, the Emergency finally made its debut in 1995. The locator beacon was designed to activate once the antenna was uncoiled, when it would then send a unique SOS signal on the official aviation emergency frequency of 121.5 mHz, helping rescuers to home in on a downed pilot's location. For its first five years, the fake watch was only available for purchase by licensed pilots, but Breitling finally persuaded regulatory authorities to allow them to sell to anyone willing to sign an agreement not to activate the distress signal unless it was in a real emergency situation.
This device lets you test the radio signal without activating the distress beacon (and getting you hit with a hefty fine).
The jaded and cynical among us might be inclined to say that the Emergency was merely a marketing exercise. But let's face it, there are much easier ways to sell replica watches than dumping millions into an unproven venture with a limited target market and a huge potential for failure. And that's one of the reasons I like this watch. It represents a pure desire to create not only a useful device but a potentially lifesaving one, with only a passing aim to make it attractive. The Emergency is pure form following function and, I believe, one of the last of the true tool replica watches from any of the big Swiss brands. And though I think the latest Emergency, with its dual frequency transmitter, is equally impressive, its eye-watering price tag and massive case size mean that it's inaccessible to regular adventurers like me and not nearly as charming a fake watch as the original Emergency was.ADVERTISEMENT
I'm not a pilot but I do like to get out and do a bit of adventuring from time to time, often in remote places. So the Emergency appeals to me not only for its engineering and history, but also for its potential usefulness. Much has been written and said about the obsolescence of the 121.5 mHz frequency for search-and-rescue, but the fact is, though that frequency isn't monitored by satellites anymore, it is still effective as a locator beacon and distress signal once a person is reported missing. Commercial aircraft and SAR professionals still monitor 121.5 on radios, so assuming I follow good adventuring practice and tell someone where I'm going and when I expect to return, if I don't show up and a rescue is initiated, my Emergency would be far more effective at getting me found than if I send smoke signals or spell out "SOS" with pebbles on the beach.
The Emergency's titanium back houses two antenae and is totally separate from the fake watch module.
There is a fairly lengthy list of cases in which the Emergency did aid in rescues. In 2002, a Swiss paratrooper landed in rough terrain and injured his ankle, separated from the rest of his team. He activated his Emergency transmitter and was found in fairly short order. And in perhaps the best known case, two British adventurers were plucked from a life-raft in the Southern Ocean after they were forced to ditch their crippled helicopter, take to survival suits, and deploy their watches?antennae. These are just two of dozens of examples. Not bad for a niche product from a luxury Swiss fake watch brand, and hardly a marketing gimmick, though these types of stories can't help but add to the watch's mystique.
Two other adventurers who wore Emergencies were Bertrand Piccard (now of Omega Solar Impulse fame) and Brian Jones, when they set off in a high-tech helium balloon from Switzerland on March 1, 1999 with the goal to circle the globe, on air currents, nonstop. They next touched down in Egypt, 20 days later, on the same line of longitude, having completed the journey successfully and with their Emergency antennae still safely stowed. It was this journey that my limited edition fake watch commemorates and it came packaged with a signed certificate and a B-shaped swatch of shiny Mylar from the skin of that globe-circling balloon.
In 1999, the Orbiter 3 balloon circled the globe in 20 days with two passengers (both wearing this watch).
Those goodies are all well and good but it's the rest of the package that I get more excited about. The watch, like all Emergencies sold, came in a large plastic briefcase, the inside of which is inscribed, "Warning: For Aeronautical Use Only," and which contains a thick manual and a small radio receiver for testing the beacon's operation. Switch it on, adjust the volume, press the Emergency firmly into the specially shaped cradle and the radio static is interrupted by an intermittent distress siren. Since big trouble and hefty fines await anyone who unscrews the antenna and cries "wolf," using the test unit is as close as I can get to the real deal, short of getting lost on a mountainside. And that is more than slightly maddening.
The Emergency's antenna is like a big red button with a sign that says, "DON'T PUSH," more tempting than I could have imagined. But there it is on the side of the watch—the biggest, grippiest knurled crown I've ever seen, just begging to be unscrewed. To do so would uncoil the antenna, sending a distress signal to passing aircraft and getting me into a lot of trouble. Surrounding that massive crown, there's even a black plastic tamper-proof ring that snaps off to add to the utter satisfaction of doing something you shouldn't. So far, I've resisted the urge.
The antenna, with its tamper-proof plastic ring, is just begging you to release it (but don't - seriously).
Aside from the tempting antenna, the fake watch functions are identical to those of a mid-90s Aerospace: a second time zone, digital chronograph, countdown alarm, digital running second, and day/date display, all useful features I use with some regularity. Breitling popularized and perfected the crown-operated functionality, which still feels modern 16 years after this fake watch was introduced. Spin the crown in either direction and the digital windows scroll the functions. Pressing the crown then activates these functions, while pulling it out is used for setting. It's a feature Breitling got right back in the 80s and still uses today on its new Emergency, B50 Cockpit, and B55 Connected, albeit with added functionality.ADVERTISEMENT
The form factor of this old Emergency is impressive as well. The bottom of the case, including the strap horns, is essentially a housing for the transmitter electronics and two antennae (the smaller one on top is to enhance the signal). This part of the case is matte titanium with minimal flourish, while the crowns are polished stainless steel. Four screws pass through from below and hold the fake watch module in place on top of the case. Once those screws are removed, this module lifts out intact, with its own snap-on caseback and separate movement electronics and battery.
Does the Emergency make me want to adventure a little more? Sure. And is that such a bad thing?
It would seem that the addition of the bulbous antenna and crown would make it unwieldy to wear, but it has turned out to be one of the most comfortable replica watches I own, thanks to the use of lightweight titanium and a reasonable 43mm diameter. Though the Emergency came mounted on a well-made titanium bracelet, I immediately swapped it for a 90s-era Breitling rubber strap nicknamed the "Hershey bar" for its raised lettering and texture. Perhaps for a pilot, the bracelet is a good fit, but for more rough and tumble pursuits, I think the long supple rubber strap is perfect. Topping off the adventure-ready kit is a bi-directional compass rose bezel, useful for wayfinding using the watch's hour hand and the sun to establish due South (or North if you're below the Equator), though best practice when you want to be rescued is to just stay put.
After all this gushing about the Emergency, I still have to admit that, despite its usefulness (and potential usefulness), this watch's best feature is also its least tangible. When I showed it to someone recently, he said, "that looks like a fake watch a Navy SEAL would wear!" and it does, bristling with knobs and digital readouts, big and chunky. Strapping it on just makes me feel a little braver, a little more adventurous and a little more inclined to plan new escapades. Does it make me more inclined to take additional risks, imbuing me with a false sense of security? Perhaps. After all, help is only a twist of a crown away. But isn't life safe and secure enough? Couldn't we could all stand to take a few more risks? If a wristwatch inspires that, all the better.
Photos by Gishani RatnayakeBreitling