Many watch brands include one or more models based on the earliest style of pilot’s and military watches, with large, chunky numerals in Art Deco style reflecting the years (1905-1920) in which they first appeared. Other characteristic features may include a small seconds subdial at 6 o’clock, and a large case size, because in those early years, military wristwatches were simply conversions of pocket watches. They often had luminescent hands and numerals, and a large crown for practical operation even while wearing gloves in the cockpit. The selection below is in increasing price order.
1. Berthet Heritage watch
French brand Berthet make this Heritage watch, with a 43 mm case in stainless steel, nicely finished with fluting on the caseband. The movement, visible through the sapphire caseback, is built by the company on the basis of the classic Unitas hand-wound movement 6498-1, with Côtes de Genève, blued screws, and chatons for the bearing rubies. The movement provides 46 hours power reserve, and the balance runs at 18,000 vph (2.5 Hertz). At a price of €495 before tax, this watch is a very attractive proposition.
2. Terra Cielo Mare Avio Tipo F pilot’s watch
The new Avio Tipo F by Terra Cielo Mare has a design that recalls early aviator models with stylized numerals, and hands with faceted areas of SuperLuminova. The dial is a dark blue instead of the classic black, and the seconds hand has a tip with a dot of lume. The 44-mm case in 316L stainless steel contains the ETA 2824 movement, automatic with a 38-40 hour power reserve. At the centre of the caseback is an engraving of the Schneider Trophy MC-72 seaplane. The watch has a fine strap in rolled leather, made by artisans in Italy. The watch is a limited edition of 20 pieces, price €1,390. Read more here.
3. Longines Heritage 1918
The Longines Longines Heritage 1918 is revival of a 1918 wristwatch which was based on the classic pocket watch design. It is made in two versions, a 38.5 mm model with a narrower strap, and the 41 mm version shown here. Both have blued steel hands coated in honey-coloured paint, and blued steel seconds hand in a subdial at 6 o’clock. The same honey colour is used for the large Art Deco-style numerals that help give the pieces their vintage look. Both watches are powered by the self-winding L615 calibre. This is the classic 2895/2 made by ETA, providing 42 hours power reserve and running at 28,800 vibrations per hour. The Longines Heritage 1918 costs €1,540 in the stainless steel version with smooth bezel. Read more here.
4. Longines Heritage Military
The Longines Heritage Military is a modern version of a classic early 20th-century military watch. It has a steel case 44 mm in diameter, with the standard 3 bar/30 metres water resistance (no swimming or showering). Inside is the self-winding L615.3 movement, made by ETA, calibre 2895/2, running at 28,800 vibrations per hour, 4 Hertz, power reserve 42 hours. Solid caseback. The watch costs €1,720. Read more here.
5. Oris Big Crown 1917 Limited Edition
The earliest pilot’s watches were often pocket watches adapted for a strap by welding wire loop lugs to the case. Oris recently discovered a watch of this type dating back to the 1910s, and for 2017 it has presented a new edition of this historical piece. While the 1910s watch was large and had a brass case with an aluminium dial, the new Big Crown 1917 Limited Edition has a steel case at a very wearable size of 40 mm, a silver dial and a domed sapphire crystal watchglass. The crown is large, and there is a pusher on the caseband at 2 o’clock. This is a direct reference to the original, which had this safety device so that you can only change the time when the pusher is pressed. Inside the watch is the new self-winding calibre 732, a modified Sellita SW 200-1 running at 28,800 vibrations per hour, 4 Hertz, with about 38 hours power reserve. The watch is supplied with a travel pouch containing an additional riveted leather strap with stainless steel pin buckle. Available from August 2017, price €2,300. Read more here.
6. Bell & Ross Vintage WW1 Guynemer
This watch was released in 2014 for the anniversary of the start of the Great War, and it celebrates World War I French air ace Georges Guynemer. The Bell & Ross Vintage WW1 Guynemer is the wrist-watch version of their 2011 Pocket Watch 1, which has a 49 mm case. In the same way that wrist watches supplanted pocket watches in the air, this WW1 (Wrist Watch 1) piece has the same simple design of its predecessor, with welded wire lugs and gunmetal-grey (grey PVD-coated) steel case, 45 mm in diameter, waterproof to 50 metres, narrow natural 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 watch, reference BRWW192-GUYNEMER, is a limited edition of 500 pieces. Price €2,800, available on the Bell & Ross e-boutique. Read more here.
7. Longines Avigation Watch Type A-7 1935
The Avigation Type A-7 by Longines has a classic military appearance, and its dial format, rotated 40° right, is based on specifications from the U.S. military in 1935. The slewed dial enabled the watch to be worn on the inside of the wrist, and, with the hands on the control column of an aircraft, the dial was perfectly vertical and aligned with the cockpit instruments. Today, a watch like this, worn normally, is perfect for someone using a computer, or with his hands on the steering wheel of a car. The watch is powered by the self-winding L788.2 movement, made by ETA as the A08.L11, a variant of the ETA 7753 that was introduced in 2012. It has a crown wheel with horizontal clutch to control the chronograph functions, which are operated by the pusher in the crown. The watch is 41 mm in diameter, 3 bar/30 metres water resistance. Price €2,960. Read more here.
8. Montblanc 1858 Automatic
The Montblanc 1858 Automatic has all the looks of a vintage military watch, with deep black dial, cathedral-shaped hands, Arabic numerals, and beige SuperLuminova that enhances the period feel as well as ensuring legibility in low light conditions. The case is 44 mm in diameter, 11.8 mm thick, in stainless steel, with bronze bezel and crown. The watch is powered by the Calibre MB 24.16, an automatic movement that is in fact the Sellita SW260-1, providing 38 hours power reserve and running at 28,800 vibrations per hour, 4 Hertz. The watch has a cognac-coloured calfskin strap with beige stitching. Price €3,490. Read more here.
9. Zenith Pilot Type 20 Extra Special 40 mm
Zenith has downsized its Pilot Type 20 Extra Special and given it colours that make it ideal for women. It is 40 mm in diameter, 12.95 mm thick, with strap colours mustard, khaki, blue or burgundy, with corresponding dials, slate-grey, khaki, blue or burgundy. A vintage spirit is retained by the case and caseback in aged steel, the grained-finish dial, and the large, fluted crown. The watch becomes a practical, everyday timepiece with its excellent water resistance of 100 metres, and good visibility in low lighting provided by the numerals entirely in SuperLuminova. The straps are in leather or oily nubuck with a protective rubber lining and a titanium pin buckle. Inside, there is an in-house movement, the self-winding Zenith Elite 679 calibre, which provides a 50-hour power reserve. Price €5,900. Read more here.
10. Breguet Type XXI 3817
Breguet began making pilot’s chronographs in 1955, with the Type XX commissioned by the French air force and naval air arm. This was followed by the Types XXI and XXII, and they have been in production ever since. In 2016, Breguet presented the new Type XXI 3817 chronograph, an evocative piece with a vintage-look dial that conceals a 21st-century movement. The dial is in slate grey, with luminescent Arabic numerals, hands and dots. The flyback chronograph unusually has central hands for both seconds and minutes, with a 12-hour chronograph hour totalizer at 6 o’clock, and small seconds at 9 o’clock. There is a date window a 6 o’clock, and a 24-hour subdial at 3 o’clock which also operates as a day/night indicator. The case is in stainless steel, with fluted caseband and bi-directional rotating bezel, and for the first time in the history of Breguet’s pilot’s watches, the piece has a sapphire caseback revealing the movement. This is one of the most important differences with respect to the previous version of the Type XXI. It has a screw-down crown, contributing to its excellent water resistance of 10 bar, 100 metres. It is mounted on a calfskin leather strap that is so supple that it feels as comfortable as a strap that you have worn for many months. The self-winding movement is the Breguet Calibre 584Q/2, with 48 hours power reserve. All considered, a beautiful piece, and a flyback chronograph with Breguet movement at a very interesting price, €13,700, when compared to most Breguet watches. Read more here.
This article was first published in July 2015 and was updated with new content on 29 May 2017. The 2015 text is available 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” 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. (In the photo below, Spitfires in formation, photo courtesy of IWC).