The Strange Story Of 40 Military-issued Cheap Fake Breitling Reference 817 Chronographs Auctioned By The Italian Government For A Mystery Price
Very rarely do you hear about watches being sold on a government website. Yet, the Italian Ministry of Defense made a spectacular announcement last September when it revealed that it would auction 40 pieces of the military-issued Official Breitling watches reference 817, all in one single lot. This was a very exciting news on many accounts, and not only for vintage Breitling enthusiasts. The Breitling reference 817 is an extremely elusive chronograph, manufactured in 1975 for the helicopter pilots of the Italian Army. One can only imagine the small size of the overall production, and the even smaller number of surviving pieces, with fewer than 40 having been accounted for up until now. A couple of months after the auction, it is now time to think about what effect these “new” Breitlings, all suddenly reaching the market at once, have on the vintage market and the value of this historic military chronograph.
The Breitling 817 looks like a military watch through and through; from its stark black dial and bezel to its outstanding legibility, everything on this watch is about functionality first. This chronograph actually looks very similar to the Leonidas CP-2 that was also utilized by the Italian Army, as well as to the Heuer Bund trusted by the pilots of the German Federal Republic Forces. The Breitling is nonetheless a successor of both better-known watches, being produced solely in 1975. Its features are far from random, as they answer the requirements of the Italian Army for its CP-1 and CP-2 classes, the 39.5mm case of the 817 matching the size of other CP-1 watches exactly. Interestingly, this Breitling was never offered in a civilian version.
The 1975 date deserves a bit of context: the 1970s were far from Breitling’s heyday, the company being on its way to a near-bankruptcy, which resulted in the 1979 sale to Ernest Schneider. It is not that Breitling had forgotten to evolve, on the contrary. Alongside Heuer, Buren, and Dubois-Depraz, Breitling was involved in the development of one of the first automatic chronograph calibers, the “Chronomatic” caliber 11, launched in 1969. But modernity went further than this mere technical feat, with quartz becoming sexy in the 1970s and Swiss brands lagging dramatically behind their Japanese competitors in that field.
So, the 1970s were not so happy for Breitling and its contemporaries, which explains how such a small military order could have gotten the green lights. From the few Breitling 817 that have surfaced, it seems that the total output was fairly modest, with a batch probably sitting somewhere between 500 and 1,000 units. Those watches were then each given a military service number engraved on the outside of the caseback, a different number from the Breitling serial number that can be found on the inside of the caseback.
These strings of digits allow us to establish that all reference 817 were produced in 1974/1975, and they also allow us to trace the surviving examples. A seasoned Breitling collector kept a list for years, and totaled 31 different examples, although this list does not claim to be fully comprehensive in any way. For instance, a bit of digging allows us to discover the numbers 054, 424, 475, and 462 too. Furthermore, Italian collectors confirm that they have seen many more examples in the local market (very logically since all 817 were issued to Italian forces), though there’s less documentation there.
These watches originally came on a Japanese-made expanding bracelet, and were housed in a box reading “Cronometro da Polso Mod. 1 Unif.,” again a mention of the CP-1 standard that this chronograph followed, with the notable exception of the flyback complication (maybe explaining the “Unificato” which would mark an evolution over the original CP-1). Note that the overall presence of the lume, which strangely ages differently between the painted numerals and the handset. The former tends to turn greenish while the hands take a darker yellow, if not orange, patina. This seems to be normal and correct across all the known examples.
This historical introduction leads us to the recent group sale, with 40 of these chronographs being offered all at once in October 2016. And this impressive sale did not happen in a fancy hotel ballroom or an exclusive auction house salon. Instead, it was much more of an administrative process through a silent tender offer. It sounds complicated, but it isn’t: the highest offer for all the 40 cheap imitation Breitling watches would win them all. The starting point was at €28,000 plus VAT (22%), and registration was a lengthy and cumbersome process (solely incorporated corporations were allowed to compete), with the government red tape you’d expect, so one might assume that most of the bidders were Italian themselves, very likely established Italian watch dealers. Interestingly, it was established up front that none of the bids would be disclosed, including the winning offer that triumphed in late October 2016. So, ultimately, we have no idea what these watches actually sold for, complicating the story a bit.
While the €28,000 entry price might sound like quite a price for vintage Breitling, remember this is for 40 watches, and it ends up averaging out to less than $1,000 per chronograph, less than 10% of the watch’s current value. Obviously, we can bet that the winning offer ended up much higher than this. And we can be also quasi-certain that the lot was immediately divided and sold to third parties, for those watches to individually appear on the secondary market, sometime soon if not already (we heard rumors of one appearing this week). Therefore, it will be interesting to witness them pop up and see whether this new pool of 817 has any impact on the value of this reference. After all, rarity (true or perceived) always play a big role in the valuation of vintage fake breitling watches, and here the newcomers will definitely change the established order. One single sale has more than doubled the known supply of these watches – that’s tough to overstate here. Although one should not forget that chronographs are currently hot, and military chronographs even hotter, so the new batch of 817 might just make 40 new collectors happy, and leave plenty of others still on the hunt.
Of course, it would be crucial to know whether those decommissioned pieces were sold with the service numbers intact on the caseback, or if those were preventively buffed out. A source close to the matter says he has seen one example from the auction with its military engravings intact, so there is at least a pretty decent chance that this is the case for all pieces. As with all military-issued pieces, this is truly the key driver for valuing such watches. In any case, it is amazing news that these best breitling replica uk can be enjoyed instead of having been destroyed, as so often happens with issued equipment. And for vintage geeks like myself, it was precious to receive a confirmation from the Italian Army itself that the Breitling 817 were exclusively manufactured for its own benefit, and only distributed to pilots and paratroopers, both facts confirming the small scale of the original order.