There’s a new commemorative space watch in town. Breitling just resurrected the customised Navitimer it made in 1962 for astronaut Scott Carpenter—in more ways than one. The original Navitimer Cosmonaute, the first Swiss wristwatch worn in space, was shown publicly for the first time since it completed its mission, along with a new commemorative limited edition version of the watch, exactly 60 years after the original space flight on 24 May 1962.
Carpenter, who had been introduced to the Breitling Navitimer by a group of pilots from Britain’s Royal Air Force, contacted Willy Breitling, grandson of the founder, in 1962 to request a special-edition version for his mission on the Aurora 7 spacecraft. Carpenter wanted to keep the model’s signature slide rule in case he needed to perform manual navigation, but he had no need for the tachymeter scale, and he wanted Willy to replace it with a 24-hour scale. It is difficult to tell night from day in space, and Carpenter needed a watch that did more than distinguish between night and day on a 12-hour scale. There also had to be a stretch-style metal strap that would be easy to put on and fit comfortably over his spacesuit, and he wanted the bezel modified slightly to make it easier to grip with his spacesuit gloves. He gave Breitling less than two months to make it.
Willy accomplished the mission, and Carpenter wore the watch while orbiting the earth three times on the Aurora 7. Carpenter was one of the Mercury Seven, a crew of military test pilots selected in 1959 by NASA to become astronauts in its first human-crewed spaceflights. Carpenter was not the first human to fly in space—he was the sixth—and the Navitimer Cosmonaute was not the first watch in space. According to Breitling historian Fred Mandelbaum, a Russian watch was the first to launch into the stratosphere, and US astronaut John Glenn, another member of the Mercury 7, had previously taken a pocket watch with him on a mission. But the Breitling Navitimer Cosmonaute was the first Swiss wristwatch to make the journey to space.
When the mission was over, Carpenter splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, 250 nautical miles (460 km) from the target spot—the original plan had been a dry rescue on a ship—and it took nearly an hour for the rescue teams to locate him. The total recovery operation lasted three hours, during which time Carpenter and the watch were heavily exposed to seawater. The Navitimer was a pilot’s watch, not designed for diving, and it was irreparably damaged. Carpenter sent it back to Willy Breitling, who made him a new one.
Carpenter’s children, sons, Nick and Matt, and daughter, Kris Stoever, made a surprise appearance at a press conference in Zurich, to which they brought that replacement watch. Then, Gregory Breitling, Willy’s son, joined the presentation and brought with him a case containing the original Cosmonaute. The watch has remained in the Breitling family in unrestored condition for the past 60 years. Ironically, the heavily corroded dial looks like the surface of a faraway planet. The Zurich press conference was also attended by former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who co-hosted with Breitling CEO Georges Kern.
Mandelbaum mentioned that a commercial version of the Navitimer Cosmonaut was produced in late 1962 and that it was a hit not only with collectors but with other astronauts. The new model, the Navitimer B02 Chronograph 41 Cosmonaut Limited Edition, has the same all-black dial and 24-hour scale, but the bezel is platinum and the caseback is open to reveal a modern chronograph movement, caliber B02. The bridge is engraved with the words “Carpenter, Aurora 7,” “Mercury 7” and “3 orbits around the earth.” The outer caseback is engraved with the date of Carpenter’s mission, an engraving reading “One of 362,” and the phrase “First Swiss wristwatch in space.”
The 41 mm case is wide enough to make all the functions readable but reasonably slim at 13 mm thick, thanks to the manual wound movement. It comes on a black alligator strap, priced at RM48,350, or a seven-row steel bracelet, priced at RM49,900. It is limited to 362 pieces.
Previously published on Robb Report.