Today, the rugged charm of the pilot’s watch is no longer solely the preserve of those who take to the skies. All those who, lured by its accuracy, reliability and legibility, hanker after a contemporary iteration, will be fascinated by its intriguing history.
The original aim of the pilot’s watch was simple: to move timekeeping from the pocket to the wrist – a quest for greater convenience that led to the development of a style that has endured for over a century. The model became ever more complex as it evolved, becoming an essential device to calculate how long an aircraft had been flying and how much fuel had been used, and later, an instrument for navigation. It’s the legacy of those features that lends the pilot’s watch the appeal it still enjoys today.
Take off: Cartier’s original design
The first model designed for a pilot was very different to that which we’d recognise as a pilot’s watch today. The expected oversized case and large crown were not features of the Cartier Santos that began the legacy.
The Santos was launched in 1904 – a year after American aviation pioneers the Wright brothers accomplished the first-ever powered, sustained and controlled flight of an aircraft. Brazilian pilot Alberto Santos-Dumont, inspired by their efforts, became not only the first to achieve the feat in Europe, but also to take off unaided, flying an aircraft with a wheeled undercarriage rather than using a rail track like the Wrights’.
While preparing for this attempt, he complained to his good friend, horologist Louis Cartier, about the inconvenience of reading a pocket watch while handling aviation controls. It’s not known if Santos-Dumont specifically asked for a model he could wear on his wrist or if it was Cartier who thought up the concept, but, either way, this was the moment the world’s first purpose-designed wristwatch was created.
The timepiece – which had a square case, Roman numerals and a comfortable leather strap – came to the attention of the public in newspaper photographs of Santos-Dumont’s feat. The pilot wore the watch on every flight thereafter and, noting the interest generated by this publicity, Cartier put the watch into production in 1911.
Top flight: Zenith crosses the Channel
Wristwatches become a mainstay for many brands over the following few years. When, in 1909, Louis Blériot became the first man to fly across the English Channel, he sported a large steel Zenith timepiece. A few years after this record-breaking flight, he remained full of praise for it, saying, ‘I’m extremely satisfied with the Zenith watch, which I use regularly, and cannot recommend it highly enough to people in search of precision.’
It had many characteristics we would recognise as being those of a classic pilot’s watch: the large case had a black dial with highly legible white indexes and broad hands, making it very easy to be read at a glance. But perhaps the most obvious was the outsized crown, which could be operated while wearing thick leather gloves, as pilots did in the early days of aviation, cockpits not being heated.
In 1939, in the lead-up to the Second World War, Zenith’s instrument-panel chronometers became the go-to timing tool for all French aircraft. This mark of approval lent the brand real kudos within the world of pilot’s watches. To this day, Zenith remains the only watchmaker to hold the licence to use the word ‘pilot’ on a dial.
Flying aces: IWC’s wartime designs
The advent of two World Wars, in which aviation had played a crucial part, gave the pilot’s watch’s popularity a real boost. IWC Schaffhausen created its Big Pilot for the German Air Force in 1940 and the design is still easily identifiable today, thanks to its distinctive, highly legible appearance.
The original piece had a huge 55mm case, a clear sans serif font for the indexes, large rhombic hands and – its most recognisable feature – an oversized conical crown. Many of these elements remain in the watch’s aesthetic today; however, when it was relaunched in 2002, the case size had been reduced to a more wearable 46mm. Nonetheless, its familiar silhouette and some recognisable dial elements, such as the two dots and upward-facing triangle at 12 o’clock, had been retained. The latter symbol first appeared because, the indexes, rather than the numbers, were originally luminescent. So as to ensure the watch could be read accurately in the dark, the 12 was replaced with a glowing triangle to help the pilot determine the upward orientation of the dial.
Since that time, IWC’s pilot’s-watch collection has grown into one of its most popular, and the brand has adapted its classic model to offer variations with complications such as a chronograph and a perpetual calendar.
New horizons: Breitling’s post-war productions
After the Second World War, there was a big surge in commercial aviation, with many former military aircrafts being used to transport both people and cargo. The pilot’s watch became a cornerstone of many horology houses’ collections as a result, and was adapted to include innovations that improved its usefulness for this new breed of aviator. Brands shifted their focus for a time to making intricate and technical bezels that were comprehensible to a pilot, but too complex for non-professional use.
Breitling had been working on aircraft instruments for many years before the war, and partnered up with the RAF in 1918, with the first aviation chronograph was completed in 1936. The house was granted the patent for a slide-rule bezel in 1940, and this was adapted into its first Chronomat variation.
However, its most notable launch came in 1952, with the Navitimer chronograph. A portmanteau of ‘navigation’ and ‘timer’, it allowed pilots to quickly calculate speed and fuel consumption. It featured a slide rule displaying STAT for standard mileage, NAUT for nautical miles and KM for kilometres, and is often referred to as the flagship model of pilot’s watches.
Globe trotter: Rolex traverses time zones
The 1950s saw Rolex develop its tool watches, which were intended for use by adventurers of all types, including divers, mountain climbers and aviators. Intercontinental travel became more accessible during this decade, so airlines needed to know the exact time in different zones across the world. Pan American World Airways – better known as Pan Am – requested a wristwatch that would enable the time to be read in two time zones at once and Rolex developed the GMT-Master to meet this need, launching in 1955.
The iconic red and blue two-tone bezel marked daytime and night-time hours and is still a recognisable feature in the collection today. The watch was remarkable for its fourth-hand complication, which allowed the pilot to calculate the time in two zones by rotating the 24-hour bezel and reading the hour from this extra hand.
Since the watches referenced here were designed to serve specific aeronautical purposes, many contemporary watch wearers are unlikely to fully utilise all their functions. Being a pilot is still unequivocally ‘cool’ and timepieces intended for use in the cockpit remain enduringly popular. Today, they’re favoured for their masculine appeal, clean lines and unbeatable legibility, and remain many brands’ best-sellers. And so the legacy of the pilot’s watch – and the golden age of aviation – lives on.