In 1958, the French Aéronavale (the naval air arm of the French Navy), commissioned six watchmakers to create Type 20 and Type 21 chronographs for use by French Navy Pilots.
As of 2021, four of the six companies are operating: Airain, Auricoste, Breguet, and Dodane (Mathey Tissot and Vixa are no longer in business). Of the four, Airain, just relaunched in 2020, and while they have not stayed in business since the 1950s when the Type 20s were introduced — they make the most faithful recreation of the famed military spec timepiece.
Breguet’s original Type 20 timepieces were awesome, and are very rare, however, the modern versions don’t quite achieve the aesthetic appeal of their vintage models, many of which you see in our in-depth Type 20 report. The modern Breguet Type 20s, or Type XX as Breguet calls them, are quite expensive, although they’re available at steep discounts both new and pre-owned.
That said, Airain achieves more of a true throwback — that’s faithful to the original — for under three grand, which is a good price considering the aesthetic, heritage of the brand, and the movement inside. The 4Hz, 28-jewel, hand-wound movement was developed by La Joux-Perret S.A. for Airain and features the Type 20 prerequisite column-wheel and flyback chronograph mechanism. The maximum power reserve is 55-hours.
The 12-hour countdown bezel, also a requirement of all Type 20s, allows for additional timing calculations to be performed, on the fly. Protected by a period-correct domed Hesalite (plexiglass) crystal, the Airain Type 20 Re-Edition dial, available in black or brown, has the same Arabic numerals as the original 1950s Type 20, and the same two registers layout, with a 30-minute chronograph counter at 3 and a running small seconds display at 9 o’clock.
Applied by hand, the lume color, according to Airain, “has been carefully chosen to recall the original luminescent material of the original Type 20.” The same style of pencil-shaped hour and minute hands — which have a polished rhodium finish and are lume filled — carry over to the new Type 20. The center chronograph hand has an arrow tip and a fletching-shaped counterweight. Interestingly, the entire tip and shaft of this chronograph seconds hand have been lumed. The small seconds counter has a matte white baton hand, and the chronograph minutes has a matter white arrow-shaped hand to visually coordinate with the shape of the chrono seconds hand, which should slightly enhance the readability of the chronograph.
While the chronograph counters fully overlap where the 9 and 3 o’clock numerals would go — this is how it was on the original, and it does not negatively affect legibility much at all. Had more than two numerals been obstructed, it might be an issue, especially for a purpose-built professional watch such as. Type 20.
At 39.5 mm the stainless steel case is slightly larger and in tune with modern preferences. The lugs have a flat angular design, just like Airain’s original Type 20s. There’s a mixture of brushed and polished surfaces, however, it’s not super reflective like the finish on Breguet’s modern Type XX. An engraved flat steel screw-down caseback protects the back and keeps the total thickness to a minimal (necessitated by the movement design, modern Breguet Type XX watches are noticeably thicker). Seeing the movement is nice, but so is wearing a watch that’s not overly thick, and that sits comfortably on the wrist. The pump chronograph pushers are a little different than the original, but not significantly. While, the crown — which looks proportionally well done on the original — has been replaced with a much flatter and wider crown for the modern Type 20. I’d argue the new crown is more comfortable but perhaps not quite as attractive in the grand scheme. Not a deal-breaker though.
(Ref. 421.436 – black dial with cognac suede strap, 421.437 – black dial with black suede strap, 421.458 – brown dial with brown/mocha suede strap)
The Airain Type 20 Re-Edition black dial standard production versions retail for $2,920 and the limited edition brown dial model retails for $2,980.