In this week’s #TBT, we take a look at an absolute classic, but one that’s decidedly niche in its execution: the Breitling 809 Cosmonaute. The Cosmonaute is certainly one of the brand’s better known models, but that’s likely due to its familial resemblance to one Breitling’s most famous creations: the Navitimer. Today, we’ll explore the model, its significance and, of course, I’ll prattle on a bit, but this time about why instant gratification is such a rare and beautiful thing. T-minus 3…2…1…it’s #TBT time on Fratello Watches!
I found the Breitling 809 Cosmonaute by accident…
As promised, let’s start with a ramble because I think it helps demonstrate what can be so fun about this hobby. Picture yourself on a sunny Saturday morning, coffee in hand, with little to do other than to mull the upcoming day’s tasks at hand. This was me just a short couple of weeks back and I was faced with the perfectly fine, albeit normal activity of walking downtown with my daughter to run some errands. I had wine pickup and, wait for it, the purchase of pen refills on my list of things to do. Normally, I’d use the opportunity of going downtown to look into the windows of several of the large watch shops, but this just didn’t appeal to me having just returned from Baselworld and also knowing that it’s a lull period before all the new watches hit the stores later this Summer. So, I walked and for some odd reason, I chose a slightly different route that took me by a consignment shop that’s normally filled with glitzy cocktail rings, questionable diamonds and bad 60’s/70’s dress watches. On this day, though, “mundane” took a holiday because, amongst all the rotted Junghans, BWC and Anker watches, a lovely Breitling 809 Cosmonaute sat behind the display.
I wedged my daughter’s stroller into the narrow entrance of the shop, still outside mind you, as the glass corridor is lined with items for sale. I looked closer and I could see that this Breitling 809 Cosmonaute looked damn clean, original and was priced fairly – more on the genesis of that pricing later – so, it was to my trusted iPhone for a quick snapshot and messages to Rene, @watchfred and Wayne Puckett. I then did something pretty crazy – I took a 20-minute breather in order to pick up the wine, but more importantly, to keep my anxious daughter in motion. Of course, this was all in the hopes of receiving some responses from the Breitling mafia: 2 out of 3 came back to me (it was pretty early for Wayne) and as Meatloaf once said, that ain’t bad. Rene and Fred both gave resolute “go’s” and so it was on…
I entered the consignment shop – by this time by the way, there was literally a protest of some sort with over a thousand marchers (and nearly as many “Polizei”) passing behind me on the street barely 10 meters in front of the store – this just served to heighten the whole experience. I asked the shop owner to see the Breitling 809 Cosmonaute and received a quizzical look; these shops focus on turnover and, therefore, the owners rarely know the detail of what’s in the store. Anyhow, once in hand, I knew the Cosmonaute was a winner. It wound nicely – the owner doing the age-old useless turning of the crown back and forth – and the chronograph registered correctly. I asked if he knew any background on the watch and he stated that a woman had brought it in late the night before and simply said, “put a fair value on it and sell it”. This is of note as most consignees actually place a value on the item themselves, but in this case, the seller knew nothing about it and trusted the shop owner. Also, the watch was on sale, but the contract for leasing a “slot” in the window didn’t officially start until the following Monday; yes, I was lucky to find this “Cossie” so quickly. With the brief story told, virtual approvals from two experts now in hand, I consummated the deal. During the receipt process, I was told there was no warranty and not to get it wet – ha!
Aside from a touch of green found on the outer ring of the slide rule – likely caused by perspiration entering through the edge of the crystal or rotating bezel – this Breitling 809 Cosmonaute is in wonderful condition. Notably, the applied lume numerals are showing a lovely aged tritium instead of the typical “black” that also points to prior moisture entry. The lugs on this example are also in fantastically sharp shape with their signature chamfers and a transition to perfectly matte sides. The big, fat signed crown and stubby pushers also speak to the production date of somewhere between 1966-1968. I don’t know where this watch came from or who owned it prior to it being put on consignment, but it was well taken care of in preparation of a rather flippant fate.
The Breitling 809 Cosmonaute…a touch of history
The history of the Breitling 809 Cosmonaute is one that perfectly mates with its aviation-inspired design. Breitling launched the Navitimer in 1954 and aviators – from commercial to those in the armed forces, heavily used this watch. In 1959, when NASA announced its initial lineup of astronauts for the space program, they chose from some of the USA’s best fighter and test pilots. Scott Carpenter was one of these and he apparently approached Breitling with a request: specifically, he asked for a Navitimer but with a 24-hour dial in order to aid accurate time telling in space. Breitling responded and they paired the dial with a modified Venus 178 – just as in the Navitimer – but geared to move the hour hand around the dial at half speed to correspond to 24-hours. The watch officially debuted in 1961 as the Cosmonaute (seemingly within the Navitimer line) and Carpenter famously – Breitling would go on to advertise the feat of the Cossie being the first watch on the wrist of an American astronaut– wore the watch on the Mercury-Aurora 7 program launch in 1962. Sadly, Carpenter submerged his arm in the ocean while floating in his capsule waiting for pickup and the watch was damaged and never seen again. NASA, of course, ended up choosing the Omega Speedmaster Professional as its official Moonwatch and it’s sad, but understandable, to note that the Cosmonaute was never considered due to its lack of water and pressure resistance. The Cosmonaute, however, lived on…
Why owning a Cosmonaute isn’t redundant if you own a Navi
Ever since tracking down a lovely transitional ref. 806 Navitimer, I realized that adding a Breitling 809 Cosmonaute was bound to happen at some point. On the one hand, one would ask why add a Cossie if you already own a Navi? Well, you wouldn’t bother a watch nut with that question, but the casual outsider would certainly wonder. After all, the watches are the same size and from about 3 meters away, the two look darn near identical – big with a maze of ringed numbers and different fonts. Oh, but the assumer would be wrong as these watches are really quite different.
Telling time on a Breitling 809 Cosmonaute is an adventure!
It goes without saying that the 24-hour dial is the star of the show on the Breitling 809 Cosmonaute. It’s damn near confounding to read at times and really requires one, while on earth, to think about whether you’re in the am or pm because the position of the hands challenges the traditional convention of being able to glance at one’s watch to quickly grasp the hour of the day. Seriously, seeing high noon as 6am or 6pm just looks funny. And therein lies the charm of the Cossie. Of course, this is movement related but I really enjoy the “payloads” of tritium applied to this dial in order to show big, weird numbers such as “16”, “20 and “22”. Other niceties abound such as the raft of fonts and verbiage that lie on the face of this watch. This 809 is labeled as a Cosmonaute and a Navitimer all at once! Yes, this is a Breitling in the Navi family and that means that varieties are par for the course: some contain Navitimer, some Cosmonaute, some with the twin plane logo and some with wings or AOPA logo – and there are combinations of several of these motifs.
I’ve been highly impressed with the Breitling 809 Cosmonaute. As a “beaded bezel” owner, I was excited to take ownership of a ridged or straight cut bezel. It gives the watch a less jeweled, more modern look versus earlier executions and also gives the appearance of more height. Likewise, this is my first Breitling with the twin planes – much like the 806 Navitimer worn by World Champion Jim Clark and I like that as well. In one’s collection, variety is a lovely thing. Wearing this Cossie is fantastic – I maintain that a Navi/Cossie throws about as much wrist presence as anything on the planet and this edition doesn’t stray from my statement. Add the dial detail of the Cosmonaute and it looks incredibly purpose-driven. As you can see, I’ve paired my watch with leather NATO straps and I think they look great. Every time I consider ordering a custom strap, I back off because the NATO’s just look great on these. By the way, don’t laugh, the green 22mm leather NATO was purchased at a Fossil outlet store – yes, really – for about $8.
I was chatting with Fred about the Breitling 809 Cosmonaute and professing my joy about acquiring one. It got me to thinking about the purpose of this watch and the fact it was purpose built and asked for by one man – ok, he was pretty darn important, but still – this watch is very niche. (Consequently, this 24-hour dial and functionality must have been seen as quite useful to pilots as Breitling made other models such as the 765 and Unitime with the same movement.) The fact that Breitling produced the Cossie as a serial model is very, very cool and not unlike if Rolex had decided to build regular production of its Mariana Trench watch or if Omega had truly built the Alaska Project pieces in the 1970’s. It did cause me to ask Fred what he thinks about production of Cossies as compared to Navis. His guess is that in the 1960’s, Navi’s were produced in a ratio of roughly 10:1 versus Cossies – niche indeed.
Searching for your Breitling 809 Cosmonaute…good luck!
The Breitling 809 Cosmonaute is not a terribly difficult piece to find, but finding a good, correct one is challenging. Heavily damaged dials, replaced or damaged slide rules and incorrect/replaced hands are just some of the things to watch. Replacements of such things are becoming nonexistent and expensive. If you’re, looking for a mid-60’s Cossie such as this piece, budget $4,000 – 4,500. With luck on your side, you may find a decent piece for less, but ensure that all is correct. Furthermore, with Navis and Cossies, I always tell people to look for gold-filled pieces; they are seriously classy, beautiful and contain amazing gilt dials. And…they’re cheaper by anywhere from $500 – 1,000!
Thanks for taking the time to hear my watch-buying story firsthand. It’s so rare that one randomly finds something like a Breitling 809 Cosmonaute while perusing a shop window. Honestly, I cannot remember the last time I didn’t buy something online and then, of course, I had to wait – and wait some more – for it. This was a real joy for me to find a watch that was on my “shortlist” and to be able to inspect it by hand and then take it home right away. Until next week…