Breitling’s image has long been derring-do, even macho. But with a new CEO and smaller watches, the Swiss company is now getting in touch with its feminine side, says Chris Hall.

You know Breitling. You’ll have seen the ad campaigns – fronted by John Travolta, and until recently, David Beckham – at the airport. Perhaps you’ll have seen the enormous Bond Street premises in London, and the nearly as enormous watches.

Breitling has courted controversy with its boutique decorations of pop-art pin-up girls astride bulging missiles; it holds the industry’s largest and wildest party at the annual trade fair in Baselworld (helicopter displays, Jacuzzis, dancers and live animals); and it runs one of the world’s few private air display teams. It’s one of the larger manufacturers, making some 140,000 watches a year, but for all that it hasn’t quite been on top form recently.

If Breitling were a person, it would be that friend from university who hasn’t quite left his partying twenties behind. You know the type: a first-team lad with a crooked jaw and full-volume laugh, who scraped a 2.1 in Economics despite sitting his last exam in a skirt from the night before. Now he’s 43, and his friends have made partner at the firm, moved to the country and have a Porsche in the drive. Meanwhile, he’s still got the bachelor pad in east London and a hangover every morning. Natural talent, force of personality and a good family name have got him so far, but there’s a wake-up call in the post.

Having changed hands last year in a deal that valued the company at over a billion Swiss francs, Breitling lost no time in appointing a new CEO, Georges Kern (formerly of IWC), and he has his sights firmly set on a more grown-up approach.

What does that look like, you may wonder? In January Breitling launched a new range of watches called the Navitimer 8, a whole family of new models that riffs on its most famous watch, the Navitimer (which the company first launched in the early 1950s), and balances modern sensibilities with a backstory that connects it to chronographs produced by Breitling in the 1930s aimed specifically at aviators. This new set includes basic automatics as well as chronographs, and also does away with the slide-rule bezel, an iconic hallmark of the Navitimer (and one that very few today know how to operate). These steps had die-hard fans spitting feathers, and other scratching their heads, but it all needs a bit of context.

Kern is determined to simplify Breitling’s offering, and to that end is reducing the number of models offered by the brand from around 650 (that’s if you include strap and colour configurations) to around 120. These will all sit in four families: Navitimer, Superocean, Chronomat and Premier. Within those, there will be a range of complications and clearer visual indications as to where a model sits in the hierarchy.  For instance, a 3-6-9 high-contrast chronograph layout for watches with the in-house B01 movement; 6-9-12 monotone designs for those using third-party movements. It’s all overseen by newly poached creative director Guy Bove (who is ex-Chopard and IWC), but all aimed at making a Breitling as recognisable as a Rolex.

That’s a huge binning of models: the Colt, Avenger, Galactic, Chronoliner and Montbrillant ranges won’t be sorely missed, but I hope the Transocean gets a stay of execution. Also destined for the chop are the brand’s quartz watches, and the misogynistic image – new ad campaigns will show men and women conquering the great outdoors together.  Belatedly, Breitling will engage with trends such as the use of bronze, bi-metal designs and interchangeable straps, and there will be a concerted effort to sell watches to women.

The plan makes sense, so let’s look at the Navitimer 8 in that light. I’m not offended by the less-cluttered look; I think the simple automatics look even better than the chronographs (where I can’t help being vexed that the notched bezel looks like it should rotate, but doesn’t). We’ll see 38mm versions, ostensibly for women, and new colours on the Navitimer 01, in more familiar 46mm and 43mm sizes. Later in the year Breitling will introduce the Premier, a more elegant range that should take the brand yet further into the mainstream.