Among military watch enthusiasts, there are numerous hero pieces. Most famous are the 12 time-only-with-small-seconds W.W.W. watches commissioned by the British Ministry of Defence, and now known as the “Dirty Dozen”.
There are also the various military issued Submariners, from both sides of the Wilsdorf household, all of which are now commanding astronomical figures. Or Blancpain’s Tornek-Rayville watches that are now completely untouchable. That is if you can find one in half decent condition.
But among the most desirable, with hardly a dip in popularity or value since the watch industry’s revival began in the 1980s, are the French Aéronavale chronographs, best exemplified by the Breguet XX.
A bit about nomenclature before proceeding: only Breguet uses Roman numerals to identify its versions, and yet the company never featured it on the dials. Everyone else used the Arabic “Type 20” (and later Dodane’s and Seliva’s “Type 21”), many makers printing this on the dial above the 6 and one or two placing it below the company name at 12. What makes matters more confusing is that many Type 20s were produced with no manufacturer’s name at all on the dial. However, when authenticated, these unmarked dials make for some of the most sought after examples of the Type 20.
Although a post-war design, visually the Type 20 owes much of its layout to Second World War chronographs made by Hanhart, Tutima, Glashütte and others for the Luftwaffe. Mainly with two registers and two pushers, these watches featured white numerals against black dials, a 60-second counter at 9 o’clock, a 30-minute counter at 3 and oversized hands on the latter sub dial. Most also featured fluted rotating bezels with a single marker to help indicate elapsed time.
In 1954, the Type 20 chronographs were commissioned by the French government for the French Air Force, the CEV (Centre d’Essai en Vol) — the country’s state-sanctioned flight testing centre — and most famously for the Aéronautique navale, a.k.a. “Aéronavale.”
The air arm of the French Navy, it was created in 1912 at the birth of aviation and it is active to this day, with carrier squadrons and a naval patrol air force. Certain Type 20s have also been identified as being issued to French helicopter pilots. The watches issued to the various Mod services are distinguishable from each other only by the identification marks engraved on the casebacks.