One of the most popular modern watch categories has been thriving for more than 100 years now. And there are a number of reasons for such a success, including the timeless style, the solid-tool sturdiness, and the everlasting human dream of the flight.

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What exactly is a pilot’s watch?

The watch design generally known as pilot’s is surely one of the most timeless and classical. In its most basic and pure form this combination of visual attributes has survived intact for almost a century. Of course, this doesn’t mean the history of pilot’s watches lacks drama or experiments, however the very word ‘history’ – so heavily overused in most watch-related conversations – really gets the spotlight here. Unlike divers, the aviation-themed watches do not have any official ISO standards, so historical roots and design traditions are indeed the main forces behind their distinctive identity.
Louis Blériot's watch that accompanied him in crossing the English Channel
Louis Blériot's watch that accompanied him in crossing the English Channel
In this case the tradition means purpose and if we’re talking aviation it’s a rather obvious number of legibility improvement issues including large clean dials – black is the most common colour here, – broad central hands, contrasting Arabic numerals and a triangle at 12 o’clock. Some details are typically oversized for the practical reasons, for example the straps and the crown. Originally, these watches were worn on the leather jacket for there was no such thing as hermetically sealed cockpits in the early XX century. Making adjustments without taking of the gloves was also a must. To imagine the seriousness of such an affair, one needs to remember that watches were used for navigation, for calculating the amount of remaining fuel, for synchronizing bomb attacks, etc. The military pilots and their crews were getting their pieces right before the mission to ensure the accurate condition of each tool. After the mission they were to be returned.

Designed for the air

Santos de Cartier
Santos de Cartier
The first ever pilot’s wristwatch was a unique Cartier, presented in 1904 to the aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont by Louis Cartier himself. And while 115 years later that watch is alive and well, and is still produced in several variants, the funny thing is, it doesn’t look anything like the sum of the attributes we’ve just mentioned. First aviators were more or less superstars, and the marketing part of the watch business wasn’t that different then. Cartier has got tons of publicity thanks to the Santos’ wrist item. The same goes to Zenith with Louis Blériot crossing the English Channel in 1909 and Longines with Charles Lindbergh flying over Atlantics in 1927. But at the certain point aviation had become a full-blown market rather than just a marketing opportunity.

A piece of aviation heritage on your wrist

Nowadays, one may stumble upon the pieces with the names like Mark V or Type ХХ produced by various brands but looking like twins. Again, this is a result of a turbulent history, in other words – wars. Such creative naming was used by the military of different countries that actually ordered aviation watches matching certain specs. Because the air force needed them in quantity, the task often went to several brands at once. Some 70 years ago, the list of suppliers included such prestigious names as IWC, Zenith, Omega and A. Lange & Söhne next to the companies now known for more affordable products like Laco, Stowa, or Doxa. A 100% defined looks and specs meant that you could use any of these watches to do the job. And again, as the years went by, the functional necessities made way for the pure pleasure. Strapping a wrist with an item of the exact same design as used by the real combat pilots is just pure fun.

When function meets style

Rolex GMT Master Ad, 1956
Rolex GMT Master Ad, 1956
After the WWII the pilot’s watch evolution made a step in a slightly different direction. The 1950-s premiers of Breitling Navitimer with its stylish slide rule and Rolex GMT-Master were kind of reacting on the commercial aviation growth. More and more people started flying between different time zones – and thus could use the help of a GMT complication. People occupying the cockpits were no longer soldiers, but highly respected civil men with almost heroic day-to-day jobs and a cool uniform. And as long there were a lot more Navitimer owners than the aviation pros, we’d bet a lot of folks loved the watch just for their adventurous vibe.
As one of the tree major categories of what is widely addressed to as a sport watch category, most pilots are everyday wearers. They are tough, visually balanced, and a real fun to collect. There were tons of technical milestones like the 1936 anti-magnetic escapement in the IWC Pilots, countless oddities, such as pocket watches of WWI suspended from a fob and featuring inverted dials for reading time with a single move of your hand. Lastly there’re enough modern hi-tech variations of the aircraft aesthetic like square Bell & Ross collections with round dials. In case your lifestyle requires a suit, there are enough precious metal pieces available like Patek Philippe Ref. 5524G or the Le Petit Prince line by IWC featuring various complications. And if the fact that Patek has never supplied any air force with watches – that would be ridiculous considering the possible pricing – bothers you, just let those superb movement finishings do the talking.
Bell & Ross BR 03 MA-1
Bell & Ross BR 03 MA-1