It’s a familiar type of watch. Black dial, white numbers, large size, lots of SuperLuminova, Pilot’s watches were originally designed to be easily legible in an aircraft cockpit, and so simplicity was essential. Today, pilots have all sorts of electronic equipment to help them, but even so, the pilot’s watch is great for everyday use because it is so clear. And for anyone interested in flying, it immediately becomes a source of fascination. It conjurs up images of exploring the deep blue sky in a Spitfire or a Typhoon… The technical features of pilot’s watches are generally anti-magnetic qualities, good shock protection, and sometimes hacking seconds for synchronization.
There are several German brands that make watches based on the wartime B-Uhr watches used by the Luftwaffe. Unfortunately, the Glashütte Original version, Senator Navigator Panorama Date Ref. 100-03-07-05-04 (about €7,600), is no longer in production. Similar watches are made by German companies Mühle Glashütte, Tourby, Stowa and Archimede.
Anyway, here are my top 10 pilot’s watches for 2014, in ascending order of price. Prices are generally approximate. I have privileged the simplest versions, with just time indications. Because it’s a simple watch pattern, in many cases it’s also good as an entry-level mechanical watch.
1. Archimede Pilot 42 Bronze Automatic
Archimede is, like Tourby and Stowa, based in Pforzheim, important German centre for watchmaking, and its pilot’s watches are tributes to the wartime B-Uhr type. B-Uhr watches were originally supplied to the Luftwaffe by a number of brands, A. Lange & Sohne, IWC, Wempe, Laco, and Stowa (IWC supplied both the Luftwaffe and the R.A.F.). The name is an abbreviation of Beobachtungs-uhren, or Observation watches. They are characteristic for the triangle at 12 o’clock, sometimes with two dots at the top of the triangle. I have chosen this model, amongst the numerous designs by Archimede, because it pairs a bronze case, 42 mm in diameter, 9.9 mm thick, with the classic black dial and white, SuperLuminova numerals and hands. Bronze is an interesting material, now being adopted by several high-end brands such as IWC, because it develops a patina over time, and so each watch becomes an individual object, whose appearance depends on your lifestyle. When it’s new, it starts off looking a bit like gold, but it very soon develops its characteristic weathered look. I think that the Archimede B-Uhr is great with a brown strap as in the photos shown. It has an ETA 2824-2 movement, the case is made by Pforzheim-based company Ickler, and it has the typical large pilot’s watch crown. Straps are available in black, and in three shades of brown. Other variations include case size (36, 39, 42, 45 mm), case material (stainless steel, titanium, bronze), functions (chronometer, hand-wound, automatic), and whether the Archimede logo is present or not. The version shown here costs €695 (in the European Union).
Order from their website http://www.archimede-watches.com. Delivery time is 1-2 weeks.
2. Tourby Aviator C3 Automatic B3e
Tourby is a German company based in Westfalen that sells online, with the possibility of choosing from various options so that you can personalize your watch. The Aviator C3 Automatic B3e is the classic pilot’s watch, 42 mm in diameter, 12.7 mm thick, with solid caseback engraved with a map of Europe. The piece is not branded, like several of the B-Uhr type watches included here. The SuperLuminova dial provides excellent visibility in the dark. The movement is the ETA 2824-2 automatic, with stop-seconds or hacking seconds (when you pull out the crown to set the time, the second hand stops, so you can synchronize it precisely to the second and keep an eye on how the watch is performing in terms of accuracy) and a power reserve of 38-42 hours. The watch is fitted with a leather strap, and you can choose from their selection of straps. Price for EU customers is €749, for international customers €680. Take a look at http://www.tourbywatches.com/; they don’t have a shopping cart, you just order by email. Alternatively you can visit them at their store in Hagen Westfalen, Germany.
3. Stowa Flieger
Stowa has been making pilot’s watches since the late 1930s, and they are based in Engelsbrand, near Pforzheim in Germany, where they also have a museum of their watches running back to 1927. The Stowa Flieger is based on a historical B-Uhr model which was very large – 55 millimetres – with a long strap so that it could be worn over the sleeve of a flying jacket. Today the version is more suitable for everyday use, with a diameter of 40 mm, thickness 10.2 millimetres, and a black or brown strap with two rivets on each side. The dial is perfect simplicity, with no logo, and just hour, minute and seconds indications, very clearly made on the black background. Dials are made by German company Schätzle. Hands are made by Swiss company Universo, in blued steel. This is why they have that attractive detail, looking like blue outlines – the white is the SuperLuminova. The movement is the ETA 2824-2 automatic, 38-42 hours power reserve. The watch costs €840, you can buy online at http://www.stowa.de/, delivery in about 6 weeks.
4. Mühle Glashütte Terrasport III
The Terrasport III, reference M1-37-84-LB, by Mühle Glashütte, has most of the characteristics of the B-Uhr pattern (it’s missing the rivets on the strap, but to be honest, I think that it looks better without), in a relatively small 34 mm format, 10 mm thick. It suits even more slender wrists, and the clarity of the dial, with hands and hour markings coated in SuperLuminova, makes it perfectly legible. The SW 200-1 automatic movement has a personalized Mühle rotor with the characteristic concentric slots, Glashütte solarisation and perlage finish on the plates, stop-second regulation (hacking seconds) and a 38-hour power reserve. This movement is made by Sellita, and it is a modified version of the ETA 2824-2. (ETA is the company, now part of the Swatch Group, that makes many of the movements for brands that don’t make their own movements. Swatch Group comprises 20 watch brands, and the Group is beginning to restrict ETA’s supply to brands within the group. So in 2003 Sellita, founded as a movement assembly company in 1950, stepped in, and began to make their own movements for use by other watch companies, essentially copies of the tried and trusted ETA movements). The case is in brushed and polished stainless steel, with a black buffalo leather strap and a stainless steel pin buckle. The watch is also available with white dial, black numerals and brown leather strap. The price of the watch is €990. Find Mühle Glashütte retailers here: http://www.muehle-glashuette.de/en/our-family-business/retailers/
Mühle Glashütte is one of the classic companies based in Glashütte, Germany; it was founded in 1869, making precision instruments for the watch trade and later speedometers, rev counters and car clocks. After 1945, Glashütte became part of East Germany, and the Russian occupants expropriated the equipment of all the manufacturing companies in the town, sending it to Russia, but the people who had worked for companies like A. Lange & Sohne, Glashütte Original and Mühle Glashütte pooled their resources of skill, began reconstructing the tools and resurrected the watch industry. In 1994, Hans-Jürgen Mühle was able to reopen the family business as Mühle Glashütte and they began making marine chronometers and wristwatches.
5. Longines Avigation Oversize Crown
This watch, reference L2.777.4.53 introduced in 2013, is based on a Longines watch dating back to the 1920s, and it has some features that recall the pioneering years of aviation. Visibility is good, with luminous markings and hands, and a 41-mm dial. As in the original, the fluted bezel can be rotated, so that it could be used to measure short periods of time, considering that back in the 1920s, chronograph watches were rare. The large, long-stemmed crown can be handled when you are wearing gloves. The loop-type lugs are a reference to the earliest designs, and they carry a black alligator strap. The movement is the L615 automatic, a modified ETA 2895/2 based on the ETA 2892, with small seconds and date at 6 o’clock. Price about €1,900. Find Longines boutiques here: http://www.longines.com/retailers Longines has a fine range of classical aviation watches, click here to read more.
6. Alpina Startimer Pilot Manufacture Automatic Small Date
This Pilot Manufacture by Alpina, reference AL-710B4S6, is a large watch at 44 mm diameter and 13.5 mm thickness, with a large crown. It has the Alpina AL-710 in-house movement, with date shown on a small dial at 6 o’clock, and 42 hours power reserve. The hands and hour indications on the anthracite-colour dial have SuperLuminova for night-time visibility. The seconds hand has a red Alpina triangle counterweight, the only mark of colour on the watch. The transparent caseback reveals details of the movement. Stainless steel case, water resistance 100 metres, dark grey leather bracelet. It is a limited edition of 8,888 pieces, and it can be bought online at about €2,056 (CHF 2,490), without doubt an excellent price for a watch with an in-house movement. Click here to see the Alpina website. http://www.alpina-watches.com/
7. Hamilton TakeOff Auto Chrono
This watch is more complex, in terms of its dial layout, than the other models listed in this article, but its aviation credentials are impeccable – Hamilton has a cooperation with Swiss air rescue service Air Zermatt – and the name of the watch is brilliant. Take off, in the sense of getting the plane into the air, and take off, because the watch has been designed so that it can be taken off the strap and attached to the instrument panel by means of a special bracket, or used as a table watch with its presentation stand. It detaches from the instrument panel – or the strap – by means of a small angle of rotation. It is very large at 46 mm, and the crown is at 12 o’clock, with the two chronograph pushers on either side. The case is in black PVD-coated steel, and the details are in yellow, making this an ejector-seat-type watch rather than a WWII nostalgic piece. The yellow is on the inner bezel, a timing ring that is rotated using the bi-directional bezel, on the chronograph seconds hand, and the strap stitching. The two subdials are chronograph minutes at 12 o’clock, and continuous seconds at 6 o’clock. There is a date window at 3 o’clock. The movement is the Hamilton H-31, with 60 hours power reserve. It is based on the ETA 7753 movement, introduced in the mid 1970s, and has an improved mainspring that gives it an extra 18 hours of power reserve. Good for when you leave your watch in a drawer (or fixed to the instrument panel) at the weekend: when you return, it will still be running. It is a limited edition of 1,999 pieces. Price about €2,500. Find Hamilton stores here: http://www.hamiltonwatch.com/store-locator
8. Bell & Ross BR 03 Ceramic
Bell & Ross’s watches mimic the instruments of an aircraft’s cockpit. The BR 03 presented in 2014 is made in ceramic, strong and scratch-proof, and matt black like aircraft instruments. The Swiss-made automatic movement (ETA 2892) provides hours, minutes, seconds and date, in a large 42-mm case, with 100 metres water resistance. The strap is in black rubber or black heavy-duty canvas, with black PVD-coated steel pin buckle. About €2,990; see the brand’s e-boutique on http://www.bellross.com/
9. IWC Schaffhausen Pilots Watch Mark XVII
IWC renews one of its families every year, and it was the turn of its pilot’s watches in 2012. The collection includes the Pilots Watch Mark XVII (Ref. 326501, 326504), which is based on the IWC Mark II model dating back to 1936, for many years the official service watch for R.A.F. pilots and navigators, and now only slightly modified in design. It has an automatic 30110-calibre movement with 42 hours power reserve, a soft iron inner case, and central hacking seconds. The date display shows three visible figures vertically against a red-triangular index, a reference to a cockpit panel altimeter. The movement is not in-house: it is a modified ETA 2892, which may come as a surprise considering IWC’s massive capabilities for in-house movement design and production, but it helps keep the price down. It has a 41-mm dial, and the watch is 11 mm in thickness. It is supplied with a black leather strap, or a new stainless steel bracelet that can be adjusted with precision to wrist size without the use of tools, just by pushing a button on the folding clasp. Price approximately €3,900. Find IWC boutiques here. http://www.iwc.com/en/retail/
10. Bremont MB III
The MB I and MB II have become classics in the area of pilot’s watches, with the MB I reserved for pilots who have had to use an ejector seat (the MB stands for Martin-Baker, the company that makes ejector seats) and the MB II available for all. The MB III adds the GMT function, shown with a hand with triangular tip on a 24-hour scale on the inner face of the bezel. The yellow and black loop at the counterweight end of the seconds hand is a direct reference to the ejector handle; there is a date window at 3 o’clock. The two crowns have a knurled finish (another reference to cockpit equipment), and so does the caseband, which is available in three colours, bronze, orange and anthracite. The watch undergoes a comprehensive testing schedule, including being taken up to an altitude of about 30,000 metres, vibration tests that simulate use in a helicopter, and ejection tests, putting the watch under extreme g loads. The movement is a Swiss-made BE-93-2AE calibre (a modified ETA 2893), with 42 hours power reserve, with Bremont personalized oscillating weight, but this cannot be seen because the movement is protected from magnetism by a soft iron Faraday cage that runs all the way around, and so the caseback is in stainless steel. The watch has a water-resistance rating of 100 metres depth, and it has COSC certification for precision. Straps are in black calf skin with pin buckle, or a NATO military nylon strap. Price about €4,800. More information at http://www.bremont.com/
Update 9 October 2014: new Hamilton pilot’s watch
Here is a quick update (9 October 2014) on another pilot’s watch by Hamilton. The Khaki Pilot Pioneer Aluminum is the first time that Hamilton has used the light, aeronautical metal, in a series of four colours, sand, khaki, black and navy blue. The design was inspired by watches that Hamilton made for the R.A.F. in the 1970s, with an asymmetric case, wider on the right hand side than on the left. A crown at 2 o’clock can be used to rotate the internal bezel, whose markings make it possible to use the watch for a countdown. The H-10 movement has an 80-hour power reserve. The watch is very light, and mounted on a NATO strap of the same colour as the case, with leather details and aluminium pin buckle.