Fred Mandelbaum: Five Questions With Breitling’s Watch ArchivistWritten by Alvin Wong
“Breitling doesn't do things for fun or by 'feel'”
Fred Mandelbaum, the Austria-based vintage watch collector-turned-Breitling consultant isn’t your regular KOL with rare Breitling watches in his stash. Rather, having been enlisted by Breitling CEO Georges Kern in 2017 to help rebuild the brand following the latter’s appointment, Mandelbaum has played an instrumental role in Breitling’s recent resurgence.
Acting as a human authenticity gauge of sorts for Breitling, Mandelbaum bring decades of experience “buying, archiving and documenting” Breitling’s past. Though he stresses that the newly improved Breitling, marked by fresh creations and a clearly defined product strategy is all due to “the leadership and guidance of Georges Kern”, his contribution behind the scenes, which resulted in the likes of the new Premier collection and the Navitimer Ref. 806 1959 Re-edition, has been vital to the change.
How did your interest in Breitling start?
"I didn't start out to be a Breitling collector. I was a chronograph collector. And when you dig deeper into the field of chronographs, you notice that every important and relevant innovation throughout the course of history was always made by Breitling. And since information was scarce, I started doing the research for myself, collecting catalogues, references, documenting the findings, and so on."
Breitling ad from 1894
How do you approach watch collecting?
"There are two types of watch collectors. One is always trying to impress with his friends with new or rare watches. The other type, which I consider myself as, is interested in research and in-depth information; understanding the chronology of things, understanding the markets, building expertise to learn and share the information. To me, this is what watch collecting really ought to be about."
Tell us more about the Navitimer Ref. 806 1959 Re-edition, on which you obviously give important input.
"We took about a year, in which we reconstructed everything, decided on the modern technologies and features that would make it work, and even rediscovered old artisanal capabilities that Breitling used to have.
There was absolutely no comprise, the watch had to be perfect in all ways. Once I requested to reposition one of the numerals because it was 0.02mm off from the original. Another time, one of the indexes was 0.03mm shorter. Some might say that these details are so small that there is no need to be concerned. Well, nobody needs to be concerned, but if we start cutting corners to save one production run, where do we stop?"
Navitimer Ref. 806 1959 Re-edition (left) and the original
"This process, this kind of attention to details and respect for the past, is not just important for a re-edition watch. This is relevant to all watches that Breitling works on. We keep asking if a new watch is right; if it fits on the wrist as best as it can; if is relevant to the brand's history and culture. This is so that the brand doesn't do things for fun or by 'feel' - there is a stringent strategy and philosophy behind every step."
On hindsight, do you think that Breitling didn’t acquaint with its heritage well enough prior to Kern's revitalisation?
"In my opinion, Breitling has always been a very profitable and successful company. But marketing landscapes change and a brand needs to adapt and evolve. What might work in the early 2000s might not work today. In a way, Georges is repositioning Breitling as a socially and culturally aware brand. While that is a departure from the slightly more macho image of the early 2000s, it is also a return to Breitling's roots.
Fred Mandelbaum (left) and Breitling CEO Georges Kern
"Product-wise, there is also a culling of the bigger and louder creations that used to dominate the brand's repertoire. Take the Breitling for Bentley collection, which grew to be so big and loud that it didn't have anything to do with Bentley anymore. So we took a step back and asked ourselves who we are, what Bentley is, what the Bentley partnership means, and who our customers are - and went back to the drawing board to rework the collection."
How does a brand make 'respecting the past' work, as opposed to being a marketing soundbite?
"Walk around the watch fair, and you see some brands who suddenly decided that they have historic links with aviation but their watches don't reflect that. Just look at what Breitling is doing - we are looking into our heritage and analysing it, so that we don't claim incorrect things or do things that are not aligned with our legacy. To make it work, a brand needs to be true to its history, and not invent stories on a whim."
Breitling headquarters in Grenchen, Switzerland
This story first appeared in CROWN's Summer 2019 issue. For the full interview, you can subscribe to the magazine HERE.
Alvin promises not to be a douche when talking about watches. He may have scoured the Basel and Geneva watch fairs for the past 15 years, and played an instrumental role to the growth of Singapore's pioneering horological and men's lifestyle publications, but the intrepid scribe seeks to learn something new with each story he writes.