It’s not hard to see that there is increasing interest in pilot’s watches from major brands, with Patek Philippe introducing a classic pilot’s watch out of the blue last year (2015), a traditional pilot’s watch from Montblanc also launched in 2015, and the Senator Observer from Glashütte Original. At SIHH in January, IWC renewed its entire pilot’s watch collection, with two Heritage watches based closely on their historic 1940s pilot’s watches.
What makes a classic pilot’s watch inspiring? It’s more about looks today than technical characteristics. The 1940s B-Uhr specifications included things like visibility in the dark, central seconds hand, and anti-magnetic capabilities provided by a soft iron inner case, which meant a solid caseback. Today, it’s up to watch designers to decide what to keep, what to add and what to subtract. For example, in their two Heritage watches, IWC chose to maintain the soft iron inner case, the solid caseback and the conical crown, but deviated from tradition by using a subdial for continuous seconds (a throwback to even earlier watches) and adding a date window in the 48mm version.
Some brands stay as close as possible to the B-Uhr origins of the format. Others maintain just the general looks of the dial, and add a display caseback to reveal the movement, perhaps with new functions. An example is the Patek Philippe Calatrava Pilot Travel Time, with a dual time zone function, and date on a subdial.
This list of the most inspiring pilot’s watches is entirely subjective. Its objective is above all to show what is going on in the area of traditional pilot’s watches. They are ordered starting from the piece that (in my opinion) is the most inspiring of them all.
1. Zenith Pilot Type 20 Extra Special
What I love: the 47mm bronze case, that develops a patina over time. Each watch becomes unique. The classic dial, with faceted hands for separate areas of SuperLuminova. No date window. The large conical crown. 100 metres water resistance. Plate with serial number attached to the caseband. Titanium caseback (bronze would discolour your skin). The Nubuck distressed-look leather strap with rubber lining. The in-house Zenith Elite Calibre 679 movement.
What I don’t like: I like it all… though I would have loved a display caseback. Read more here.
Price: €6,900. Brand website: www.zenith-watches.com
2. IWC Big Pilot’s Heritage Watch 48, reference IW510301
What I love: the design is close to the brand’s 1940s 52-calibre T.S.C. watch. It’s large, but still wearable, at 48 mm. The dial and crown are pure pilot’s. The brown calfskin leather strap with double rivets is also close to tradition. The hand-wound IWC 59215 calibre provides a massive 8 day power reserve, 192 hours. Friction clutch to prevent overwinding damage. Power reserve is shown through a window on the caseback. Stop-seconds function. Soft-iron inner case for magnetic protection.
What I don’t like: the date window. I would have preferred centre seconds (as in the 1940s original). The small sapphire window in the caseback for power reserve display is a bit like a tiny porthole. Read more here.
Price: €15,200, limited edition of 1,000. Brand website: www.iwc.com
3. Montblanc 1858 Small Second Special Edition
What I love: The 1930s look, reinforced by the use of the older Montblanc symbol on the dial. The Unitas movement is perfectly sized for the 44mm case. The large crown makes hand-winding a daily pleasure. Case, dial and movement are beautifully finished. Aggressively priced at €3,220. A limited edition of 858 pieces.
What I don’t like: it’s beautiful watch, but it translates the pilot’s aesthetic into a very genteel piece, ideal for everyday wear, which is exactly what Montblanc intended. Read more here. Brand website: www.montblanc.com
4. Patek Philippe Calatrava Pilot Travel Time
What I love: A pilot’s watch by Patek Philippe is fantastic just because it’s Patek. The addition of the second time zone function is logical for a pilot’s watch, and superbly designed and engineered. The treatment of the date, on a subdial at 6 o’clock, is smart, justified by the earliest pilot’s watches that were based on pocket watches with a seconds subdial in that position. The movement seen through the sapphire caseback is spectacular. The lockable pushers on the left-hand side of the case add extra character.
Price: 42,000 Swiss francs
5. Tourby Pilot Vintage Manual 45 Center Second
What I love: The authentic vintage look, provided by vintage construction techniques, hand-made case, hand-lacquered dial with recessed hour markings filled with SuperLuminova. The resulting luminescence is exceptionally good. The SuperLuminova colour is similar to that of the old radium-based substances. 45 mm is a good size, and perfectly matched to the movement, the hand-wound Tourby Calibre 75.1, running at 21,600 vibrations per hour (3 Hertz), 20 jewels, 44-52 hours power reserve. The movement looks great through the sapphire caseback, with brass bridges and gears, blued screws and swan-neck fine adjustment. Even though the watch doesn’t have a soft iron inner case, it is anti-magnetic to the DIN 8309 standard. The crown can be used for precise time setting, as it has the stop-second function. The black strap has the classic double rivets.
What I don’t like: nothing, it’s a fine piece. Possibly a bit thick, 12.7 mm without glass presumably means about 15 mm with the watchglass. Brand website: www.tourbywatches.com
6. Archimede Pilot 45 Hand Wound
What I love: the case size, 45 mm is getting to the sort of size that becomes noticeable. It is very slim at 10.5mm thickness. The hand-wound ETA 6498 movement is visible through the sapphire caseback, with its large balance running at a sedate 18,000 vibrations per hour, 2.5 Hertz. Power reserve 46 hours It is a savonnette pocket watch movement with small seconds at 6 o’clock. The conical crown is suitably prominent. You can choose from black, dark brown or light brown leather strap with rivets, with other options including the milanaise bracelet shown below..Price point is incredible, a feature of Archimede which has become well-known for its high quality at affordable prices.
What I don’t like: no problems here. Considering the price, finish of case and movement is satisfactory.
Price: €675, available at the website www.archimede-watches.com
7. Tutima Grand Flieger Classic Automatic
What I love: the coin-edge bezel adds character, it’s based on the brand’s 1930s chronograph. It can be rotated so that you can time minutes using the red marker. The tulip-shaped hour hand, a throwback to the earliest pilot’s watches. The display caseback. Screw-down conical crown, and an impressive 200 metres water resistance.
What I don’t like: oh no! The day and the date windows make me think of the office, not a plane… And wouldn’t it be nice if Tutima made a re-edition of that 1930s chronograph watch shown below? Read more here. Brand website: tutima.com
8. Stowa Flieger Chronograph Classic
What I love: it’s the classic pilot’s watch, no date, no logo, leather strap with the double rivets. Stowa adds a useful complication, the chronograph, in the simplest way possible, chronograph seconds, and a 30 chronograph minute counter on a subdial. Slightly conical, rounded crown. The touches of blued steel on the hands. 50 metres water resistance. SuperLuminova on hour and minute hands, and on hour numerals and minute markers. Valjoux 7753 movement visible through the sapphire caseback. Several strap options are available, I am sure they will get more interesting as they age.
What I don’t like: The B-Uhr typology has been tamed and downsized, 41 mm is quite small. The brand made a beautiful 55 mm watch built in 1939, that’s too large for an everyday watch, but a larger case would add character.
Price: €1,830, available on the website www.stowa.de
9. Glashütte Original Senator Observer
What I love: the balance of the dial, the power reserve function, the display caseback. Glashütte Original used to make a classic pilot’s watch, but at the moment this is the only watch by the brand that comes close to the genre. The name Observer seems to suggest the WWII B-Uhr type, but the brand links it to naval observation watches.
What I don’t like: It’s a pilot’s watch, but with a lot of added extras, and a sleek, modern case that brings it away from the sky and closer to land. Read more here. Brand website: www.glashuette-original.com
10. Laco Pilot Watch Type A Mini-Replica
What I love: it’s a very authentic piece, based on the watches that Laco made for the Luftwaffe in the Second World War. Its 45 mm diameter makes it large enough to be noticeable on the wrist, but wearable – certainly in comparison to their Aviator Observation Watch Replica which has the same size as the original, 55 mm. The Laco 04 hand-wound movement (ETA 2804.2), visible through a circular sapphire glass pane. The stainless steel case is sandblasted to be as close as possible to the original B-Uhr. The crown is also similar to the WWII original. Hands and dial indications with C3 SuperLuminova. Leather strap with double rivets. Even the presentation box is based on the original packaging. Price €1,498, reference 861950, available from the Laco website, shop.laco.de
What I don’t like: I like it all! Just a note about the small window in the caseback. This is due to the ETA 2804.2 movement, which is 25.6 mm in diameter, so the window has to be about that size.