Several watch brands are presenting models with a distinct resemblance to the earliest style of pilot’s watch, with large, chunky Art Deco numerals with generous luminescent paint, and a small seconds subdial at 6 o’clock. Other classical characteristics are a large case size, and a large crown, so that pilots could operate it while wearing gloves.
Patek Philippe Calatrava Pilot Travel Time
In this watch presented by Patek Philippe at Baselworld 2015, while the numerals are classic pilots, the subdial at 6 o’clock is not for continuous seconds, but date; there is a central-sweep seconds hand, an additional skeletonized hour hand for a second time zone, and two day/night indicators for local and home time. But it’s striking to what degree the Patek Philippe designers endeavoured to stay close to to the early pilots type. Read more here.
Zenith Pilot Type 20 GMT
The Pilot Type 20 GMT by Zenith was originally presented in the black-dial version in 2013, and the brand is currently (July 2015) promoting a boutique edition of this model with blue dial. The 2013 version has a steel case, and it is large at 48 mm diameter, 15.8 mm thick, a size consistent with the characteristics of the original pilot’s watches. It has a 100 metres water resistance rating. The dial has the classic Art Deco style numerals with luminescent paint, and the equally characteristic hands. Differently to the historical version, this watch has the small seconds dial at 9 o’clock, and an extra hand, a red-tipped skeletonized hand that indicates a second time zone (home time) on the 24-hour scale right at the outside of the dial. On the caseband, at about 10 o’clock, there is a large pusher, which moves the GMT hand by one hour at a time, for rapid time zone adjustment. Just below the pusher there is a small plate with the watch’s identification number. And – fantastic! – the watch doesn’t have a date display. One of the benefits of making your own movements. The Zenith Elite 693 automatic movement is designed and made in-house, with 186 components, running at 28,800 vph (4 Hertz), with a power reserve of 50 hours. The classic Pilot Type 20 GMT, with black dial, reference 03.2430.693/21.C723 (shown below), costs 7,400 Swiss francs.
Hamilton Khaki Field Pioneer Auto
This watch has something of the early pilot’s, with its vintage-colour dials and hands, the tulip-shaped tip of the hour hand, and a traditional style of fluting on bezel and crown. The central-sweep seconds hand and the date window are a compromise with modernity. Read more here.
IWC Schaffhausen Big Pilot’s Watch Edition “Le Petit Prince”
This watch has the classic Art Deco numeral design; the subdial has been moved from 6 o’clock to 3 o’clock, and instead of seconds, it is for power reserve, with a central-sweep seconds hand. There is a date window at 6 o’clock, and the characteristic conical crown. Read more here.
Longines Avigation Oversize Crown
This watch, L2.777.4.53, is based on a Longines model produced in the 1920s. It is a limited edition, with 41-mm case, and fluted decoration around the bezel which can be rotated in order to measure periods of time. Read more here.
Breguet Type XXI chronograph
The latest new pilot’s watch is the Breguet Type XXI chronograph, in a platinum version made for the Only Watch charity auction. As in the other watches above, this is also a compromise between the classic pilot’s watch design and the need to make something recognisably unique, and so it has three subdials, two centre-sweep chronograph hands, and a date window. Read more here.
Bell & Ross Vintage WW1 Guynemer
The Bell & Ross Vintage WW1 Guynemer is the French brand’s piece closest to the early pilot’s watch pattern, and not surprisingly they dedicated it to French WW1 aviator Georges Guynemer. The 45-mm case has welded wire lugs and gunmetal-grey (grey PVD-coated) steel case, narrow natural vintage-style leather strap, and oversized fluted crown. The numerals on the dial are painted in vintage-style beige SuperLuminova, and the blued hour and minute hands are also filled with luminescent material. Guynemer’s stork symbol appears at the bottom of the dial, and the caseback is engraved with a portrait of the pilot. The watchglass is domed in shape, made in sapphire. The watch was released in 2014 for the anniversary of the start of the Great War. Read more here.
Historical precedents – IWC
In most cases, there are pieces in a brand’s history that provide a model on which to base the contemporary versions of this early pilot’s watch format. For example, the numerals on the IWC Big Pilot’s Watch Edition “Le Petit Prince” above have been part of IWC’s design heritage from 1936, when its first ‘Special Watch for Pilots’ was launched (shown in the photo below).
Rolex’s history also includes an interesting echo of the pilot’s watch format. The watch below is a 1933 Rolex Oyster Perpetual (photo courtesy of Rolex):
The dial reflects an even earlier Rolex, a model dating back to 1914:
(Photo on left courtesy of www.christopherwardforum.com; photo on right, courtesy of http://watchestobuy.com). The watch on the left is a 1914 Rolex that includes one of the classic pilot’s watch features, the tulip-style hour hand, sometimes known as the Mercedes star. Rolex were possibly the first brand to use the pattern, which comes from earlier motifs known as the tulip or cathedral format. In this watch, the functional reasons for using the tulip pattern are to differentiate the hour hand from the minute hand, and to provide additional area for the luminescent paint. The piece on the right is a heavily restored vintage Rolex, described as a Marconi, one of the brand names that Hans Wilsdorf used before 1920, inspired by radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi. It is a 33-mm piece in a silver case.
The pilot’s watch story probably originates with Zenith, and their watch made for Louis Bleriot. On 25 July 1909, Bleriot made his epic crossing of the English Channel from Calais to Dover, wearing a watch made by Zenith:
The perfect testimonial
The question is, why are brands continuing to make versions of this historical pattern? Probably because there are lots of people who find the pilot’s aesthetic attractive. And also because early aviation has a romantic pioneering character and a set of moral values that makes it perfect as a testimonial. Aviation enthusiasts still speak of the Spitfire, for example, using the language of love, and being able to tap into this source of values is a powerful marketing tool. I think that what we are seeing now, with new watches reflecting the early pilot’s watch pattern, is just an anticipation of a whole wave of contemporary pieces that will arrive next year. Though as yet unannounced, 2016 will probably be the pilot’s watch year for IWC, and other brands will want to accompany them with their own models. (In the photo below, Spitfires in formation, photo courtesy of IWC).