A Brief History of Pilot’s Watches
A Brief History of Pilot’s Watches
From the cockpit to the wrist, we delve into the history of pilot’s watches.
Two major events were instrumental in the development of the pilot’s watch: initial record-breaking attempts at aviation in the early twentieth century and the arrival of war. Both world changing events propelled the creation and design of the pilot’s watch, as we know it today.
A large case, clear dial, oversized Arabic numerals and luminous markers for easy reading, this distinctive look has become a style category in itself; with many of today’s pilot’s watch fans having never stepped foot in a cockpit. But the origins of these attributes are very much steeped in aviation. In this article, we explore the history of pilot’s watches, the brands that made them and some of the world-famous models we admire so much.
A Brief History
1904: Louis Cartier created the first pilot wristwatch for aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, namely the Santos-Dumont.
Aviation enthusiast Alberto Santos-Dumont complained to his good friend, Louis Cartier, that it was difficult for him to check his pocket watch whilst flying, so Cartier designed a watch for him. The first wristwatch for a pilot was created, namely the Santos-Dumont.
1909: Pilot Louis Blériot broke records and flew across the English Channel wearing a Zenith watch.
Dare devil aviator Louis Blériot flew across the English Channel (from Calais to Dover) with a Zenith watch strapped to his wrist. The watch featured many of the attributes associated with today’s pilot watch style including a clean dial for legibility, oversized Arabic numerals and a large crown for turning when wearing gloves. Despite great danger, he made the crossing and his flight time was 40 minutes.
1911: The first Cartier Santos pilot’s watch went on sale to the public.
Hot on the heels of his bespoke Santos-Dumont, Louis Cartier decided to take this pilot’s watch design to the masses, by collaborating with movement maker Edmond Jaeger to create the very first Santos de Cartier watch.
1914: Cockpit watches were created for British military pilots during World War I, namely the Mark IV.A and Mark V.
With the advent of World War I, airplanes started to be used as weapons for the first time. Along with this military advancement came the development of cockpit watches, enabling pilots to co-ordinate attacks at precise moments. British pilots flew with these pocket watches (Mark IV.A, 1914 and Mark V, 1916), the latter being created by Zenith, Omega, Doxa and Electa. Luminous hands first appeared on watches during the war, as night flying required the dials to still be visible.
1927: Pilot Charles Lindbergh made his record-breaking, non-stop solo Atlantic flight, timed by Longines.
In the period between WWI and WWII, Longines was an official Olympics timekeeper. The brand also timed Charles Lindbergh on his solo flight across the Atlantic. He flew from New York to Paris in 33 hours and 30 minutes catapulting him to instant worldwide fame.
1931: World famous pilot Charles Lindbergh launches his Hour Angle watch with Longines.
Based on his experience flying over the Atlantic, Charles Lindbergh went about creating his own watch, which he designed in partnership with Longines. A distinctive, over-sized wristwatch, it allowed the pilot to not only time but also calculate longitude during a flight. This was a big publicity launch for Longines and the watch was sold to both working pilots and the public alike. Longines has re-issued this famous model as part of its Heritage collection.
1935: Adolf Hitler establishes the Luftwaffe and develops the B-Uhren watch, worn by German bombers during WWII.
The B-Uhren (or B-Uhr) is an abbreviation for Beobachtungs-uhren, literally meaning observation watches. The design of this watch was so iconic, that it is the model for most aviation watches today. Case sizes were big at 55mm, made so to accommodate the large, hand-wound movements which were used in pocket watches. The size made the black dial highly legible, with white Arabic numerals and luminous covered sword hands. The leather strap was long enough to fit over the pilot’s flight jacket. IWC’s Big Pilot is an evolution of the B-Uhren, with some of the DNA but an adapted, more luxurious design.
1939: Zenith creates the Montre d’Aéronef Type 20, a chronometric instrument for French aircraft.
Zenith’s Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 featured on the instrument panel of the cockpit where its large, luminous numerals were visible during the day or night. These cockpit clocks are the inspiration for Zenith’s new Pilot watches.
4 WORLD FAMOUS PILOT’S WATCHES
IWC BIG PILOT
In the mid-1930’s IWC launched its Special Pilot’s Watch, featuring a rotating bezel with an arrow head index to register take-off times and an anti-magnetic escapement. A few years later (in response to high demand) it developed the now world-famous Big Pilot watch, which was created for military pilots.
The original Big Pilot, based on distinctive B-Uhren designs from the 1930’s, was a very large watch at 55mm and featured a black dial, white Arabic numerals, triangular index at 12 o’clock and an over-sized crown for easy turning when wearing gloves. In the late 1940’s, IWC went on to develop its Mark 11 navigator watch for pilots of the British RAF.
Today’s IWC Pilot watches come in a variety of different styles, with Classic, Top Gun and Le Petit Prince amongst some of the families, offering functionality ranging from a basic date watch to an all singing Perpetual Calendar (see below). But all models are very much in keeping with the original design DNA of a clear, highly legible dial and matching case. Cases are now too made from a variety of materials including steel, precious metals and high-tech ceramic.
IWC PILOT: NEW FOR 2017
ZENITH PILOT TYPE 20
When French aviator Louis Blériot became the first man to fly across the English Channel in 1909, he did so wearing a Zenith. And, so began a long-standing relationship between the brand and the world of aviation.
Some thirty years later, Zenith created the Montre d’Aéronef Type 20, a hand wound clock which was fitted into the instrument cockpit panel of French aircraft. It featured large luminous numerals that were visible during the day and night. This distinctive piece of flight equipment soon became the inspiration for Zenith’s Type 20 models, which make up most of the Zenith pilot watch collection today.
Modern day versions come with a variety of functions and complications including chronographs, GMT’s and even tourbillons, using materials such as steel, bronze and titanium. The more complicated models are all powered by Zenith’s world remowned El Primero movement.
Zenith’s 45mm Pilot Special Edition men’s watch (pictured below) was designed specially for The Watch Gallery, with just 35 pieces worldwide. Its vintage, military look features all the characteristics of the typical Type 20 models including an over-sized, stainless steel case, distinctive crown and in-house movement.
ZENITH TYPE 20 MODELS TODAY
Breitling’s Navitimer watch has been the “favourite of pilot’s and aviation fans alike” since in launch in 1952, according to the brand. Now a best-selling collection, this was originally a watch created for pilots, so featured a lot of tools essential to flying. This included the ability to measure flight times and fuel requirements, using its patented slide rule bezel. The Navitimer was a step on from the 1942 Breitling Chronomat, which also featured a slide rule bezel and was the official watch of the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association).
The distinctive look of a Navitimer is instantly recognisable, with its signature high-contrast dial design, chronograph sub-dials and rotating bezel and it is this design which has captured the imagination of pilot’s and pilot watch fans alike. In recent years, Breitling has introduced its in-house movement into the Navitimer 01models.
BREITLING NAVITIMER MODELS
ROLEX GMT MASTER
One of the most famous travel watches on the market, the GMT Master was originally designed for pilots in the 1950’s, at a time when the jet engine first took off and air travel was both adventurous and glamorous. It became one of the most distinctive pilot’s watches in the world, with its red and blue two-tone bezel (which marked daytime from night time hours) and the ability to simultaneously track two time zones, an important function for long-haul pilots. It also became the official watch of several airlines including the famous Pan American World Airways (Pan Am).
Today’s GMT-Master II is an evolution of this original model, but still with its strong design DNA throughout. The bi-directional, rotatable bezel of the GMT-Master II now features a 24-hour graduated Cerachrom insert, which is virtually scratch-proof, in a variety of colour options including the original red and blue, black and blue or black. Materials include steel, yellow gold and white gold and all models feature the world-famous Oyster bracelet.
PILOTS WATCHES TODAY
Pilot’s watches today offer a huge variety of style and functionality, from simple 3-hand dials to complicated designs with multi-functional displays and complications.
Alongside the world-famous models we’ve discussed, launched during the first half of the twentieth century, there have also brands in more recent years which have made a huge impact on the pilot’s watch category. These brands include British-made Bremont and Bell & Ross, both created within the last 30 years.
Bremont’s journey began in the cockpit, with a plane accident that tragically resulted in the death of the co-founders’ (Nick and Giles English) father, but spurred them on to launch the brand. Quitting their City jobs, the brothers (also keen pilots themselves) went about creating a quintessentially British watch brand, with aviation at its core. Established in 2002, the very first watches were aimed at pilots who desired accuracy, robustness and visibility.
The very first Bremont models were pilot’s watch chronographs, all COSC certified for precision and warranting them the name ‘chronometers’. The brand subsequently launched many designs linked to aircraft and flying and continues to design watches with the DNA of its original pilot’s watches today.
Aviation models include the Martin Baker (MBI and MBII), made in conjunction with ejector seat manufacturers Martin-Baker, Spitfire-based EP120 and Mustang-based P51 limited editions, Wright Flyer limited editions containing genuine wing fabric from the famous Wright Brother’s plane (pictured below) and other watches made in partnership with the Boeing aircraft company. Bremont is now a world-renowned watch brand with fans amongst pilots, non-pilots and celebrities alike.
BREMONT AVIATION WATCHES
BELL & ROSS
Bell & Ross had to be included in this article, although not strictly the same style as previous pilot’s models we’ve discussed, its BR 01 range of watches have taken direct inspiration from cockpit instruments, even sporting the strapline ‘from the cockpit to the wrist’. First released in 2005, the iconic square-cased BR01 pieces became an instant hit and it remains one of the best-selling collections to this day.
Today’s Bell & Ross aviation collection is a contemporary take on these distinctive flight instruments, split into watches with three different sizes and a variety of complications. The cockpit influence is still very much part of the BR DNA, with its square case shape and enlarged polished screws. The BR 01 range is the largest at 46mm, then the BR 03 at 42mm with the BR S a mid-size watch at 39mm.
BELL & ROSS AVIATION WATCHES
The pilot’s watch began life as a critical tool for flying, with key design characteristics such as a highly legible dial or large crown born out of function rather than style. But, like the trend for utilitarian fashion, ‘pilot’s watches’ has grown into a style category itself. Brands have responded to this, with many more models and variations on the market today which now appeal to both pilots and non-pilots alike.