That Elusive Type XX

Posted by Michael Friedberg on April 29, 1998 at 18:57:18:

A few years ago, when the Breguet Type XX was introduced, I greatly admired its styling: a sporty chronograph and, besides, it was a steel (and therefore almost affordable) Breguet. It had a wonderful military look, with its classic, easy to read black dial and Arabic numerals. But I didn’t even know how to pronounce its name, was it X-X or Double X? And why did it have that flyback function?

I started researching the XX and learned that it was based on a famous French military chronograph of the 1950s. In the early part of that decade, the French technical services authorized a specific chronograph to be used by the French Air Force, Flight Testing Center and Naval Air Alarm. It was called the Type 20, and not the X-X or Double X. International Wristwatch reports that these chronographs were state property and only issued to pilots on missions from 1954 to about 1960 (when it was succeeded by the Type 21, although use continued until the early 1970s).

The Type 20 had a number of features that apparently were military specifications. The case was relatively large for a military watch at 38mm. The dial looked very much like the classic Tutima and Hanhart chronographs of WWII, black dial,
luminous Arabic numerals and hands, a sweep second center column chronograph hand, and 2 subdials at 3 and 9 o’clock. The subdial at 9 was a small seconds indicator. The chronograph elapsed time subdial at 3 had special markings for 3, 6 and 9 minutes (like the new Breguet Type XX). The bezel rotated, in order to keep track of elapsed time. A classic watch in every respect and certainly beautiful.

The Type 20 had an unusual flyback feature pressing the lower chronograph pusher reset and restarted an already moving chronograph hand. Why? Just like a rattrapante measures a separate time interval within a measured time, the flyback allows easy measurement of consecutive time intervals. For example, assume a pilot has to perform a function for 20 seconds and then immediately perform a second function for 15 seconds. If he stopped and had to separately reset a chronograph after the first 20 seconds, time would be lost and the second measurement could be lost.

The 3,6 and 9 markings on the elapsed time subdial were equally useful. Since these measured 5%, 10% and 15% of a hour, time-motion studies were possible.

A great looking watch, a classically styled watch, an historical watch and a highly functional watch, but could I find one? Did they really exist? The search was on.

I first saw some original Type 20s in an old auction catalog, the famous Breguet auction held by Antiquorum in Switzerland about 6 years ago. They looked a lot like the current Breguet Type XX, but frankly neither as well-styled or
executed. They had a flimsier bezel, and these models looked like their dials were beat-up. They had sold for a lot, but I figured that others would pop up at auction. I was wrong: probably I missed several in catalogs, but I didn’t see another for some time. I
subsequently was told that original Breguet Type XXs sell for around 10,000 Swiss Francs and most were in bad condition.

At a used camera show, I found a dealer that had a Girard Perregaux watch that looked almost exactly like a Type 20, except it had no bezel and no words “Type 20” on the dial. I bought it, on the assumption that it was a Type 20 “style” for civilian sale. When another collector told me that the bezel probably had been removed, I decided to sell it and look for a real Type 20.

Another year elapsed and, while I still found no real Type 20, I did discover Ziggy Wesolowski’s excellent book on military timepieces. I learned from it that the Type 20 was made by Breguet and two other companies, J. Auricoste and Vixa (the Type 20 also was made by Dodane). It also was used by the Morroccan and Argentinian
air forces. It used Valjoux, Lemania or Hanhardt movements. Proper ones had screw backs showing inspection dates preceded by FG (Fin Garantie). I was now loaded with knowledge, but still not a Type 20 in sight.

Last week, I was in Basel for the annual Watch Fair. Hans Zbinden suggested that we make a detour to a used watch market held on a Sunday morning in Basel, having nothing to do with the famous Fair. There, laying on a table of a private dealer, was a real Type 20. A J. Auricoste from 1954 in excellent condition, unbelievable! It didn’t take very long to negotiate a price (or, more correctly, I hardly negotiated) and the watch was on my wrist.

Even more interesting is the movement. The watch came with two backs: the original steel back (with nice perlage on the inside and FG marks on the outside) and a display back showing a drop-dead gorgeous movement. A Lemania column wheel chronograph, 17 jewel movement and 18,000 bph. Further
research disclosed that it was a Lemania calibre 15TL, with a Swan’s neck fine regulator, a screw balance with a Breguet hairspring and incabloc shock resistance. The movement is a large one at 15 lignes (33.3 mm) and with a 6.5 mm height.

People ask me if I brought anything back from Basel. I show them the watch on my wrist and they ask “what brand is it”. I tell them its an Auricost and they just seem to drift away. I don’t understand why.