Posted on March 29 2019
The story of the aviation watch is, from the beginning, intertwined with the earliest history of flight. From the first tentative flights to the race to land on the moon, wherever men were pushing boundaries they were also taking timepieces with them.
We’ve previously looked at how watches were crucial to the reliable function of railways and how the need for astronauts to record time in space led to the development of new watchmaking technologies. In between these two periods there was the introduction of flight - and inevitability a need to record time whilst in the air.
The Wright brothers first flew an airplane in 1903 and by 1906 Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont was wearing a specially designed pilots watch created by his friend Louis Cartier. The watch had an easy to read and clear dial, but most importantly it came on a leather wrist strap. Santos-Dumont had requested a watch that he could consult without the need to retrieve it from a pocket. He wanted both hands free to control his plane. A wrist watch was suggested rather than the usual mens pocket watch.
The resulting Cartier watch that the fashionable Santos-Dumont wore then inspired other men to wear watches on their own wrists, something previously more prevalent among women.
Then the world was plunged into the great war and the new warfare required this new type of watch. Officers were expected to have synchronised watches and the wristwatch became a much more common sight. WWI was the first war to include aerial combat and this form of fighting became of even greater importance during WWII. As the significance of aviation increased so did the various air forces need for specific tools - the watch being one them. It’s really from this war that we see the development of a recognisable style to pilots watches. The oversized case, minimalist dial with lumed markers, large crown and long strap to allow the watch to be worn on top of clothing. Particularly popular are the watches that build on and emulate the styling of the German Luftwaffe, but we’re also including styles introduced by later air forces and civilian designs.
Although technology was to advance with the introduction of digital displays and later GPS features, most of the watches on this list are heavily influenced by mechanical watches from the period around the middle of the 1900’s.
German Pilots Watches
Among the best known companies currently producing pilots watches are Swiss company IWC. Indeed, they were originally responsible for one of the iconic designs for what we now consider a classic pilots watch.
During WWII they produced a run of 1000 watches for the Luftwaffe. This watch was housed in a massive 55mm cases and came with an oversized crown to allow the watch to be wound and set with gloves on. It was named simply ‘Big Pilots Watch’. The dial is basic affair, functional but also pleasing to the eye. Subsequent watches in this style had two common dial variations, types A and B.
This ‘flieger’ design as it's known, has been recreated or developed by a number of brands over the years including Laco, Stowa and more recently Archimedes and Steinhart.
One such company is MWC.
Swiss based MWC produce a number of aviator watches in this style and have an automatic version of both Type-A and Type-B dials. This current watch comes in at a more modest 46mm. Both models are powered by a reliable Seiko NH35A movement and have exhibition case backs and the requisite large crown.
Navitimer style pilots watches were created by another Swiss company, Breitling. The company started as a small enterprise, founded by Leon Breitling and stayed as a family run business for nearly a century. The evolution of their most famous watch began with the introduction of a Slide Rule on the 1942 Chronomat model - two circular scales which can be used to perform basic arithmetic. A surprisingly useful feature in the pre-calculator age.
The Navitimer was introduced in 1952 and featured the design we’re now familiar with. The name itself is self explanatory, a shortening of Navigation and Timer. It’s an iconic and instantly recognisable design with a busy dial, detailed slide rule and double pushers. Quite a contrast to the basic flieger style above.
The brand became the official supplier of on board instruments for the large airlines and has also contributed to NASA’s space program. In 1962 astronaut Scott Carpenter suggested that Breitling create a 24hr dialled Navitimer for his mission with Aurora 7. He wore the custom watch when he became only the second American to orbit the Earth.
Todays Breitling Navitimer is an expensive watch and the style is often imitated by others - we looked at some of the best offerings here. At the absolute opposite end of the watch buying spectrum to the Breitling original is the Rotary Chronospeed - a very affordable quartz watch available on the high street.
Sea-Gull 1963 Chronograph
For those unfamiliar with the watch trade it may seem surprising that China would make it on to this list. It’s not usually seen as the home of innovation or iconic design. However, like the Russians, the Chinese have a strong watchmaking heritage and in many ways are the world's leader. Indeed, Chinese manufacturer Seagull now produce a quarter of all mechanical watch movements, making it the largest producer in the world.
Founded in 1955 the company that now trades as Seagull has created some very attractive designs, none more recognisable than their 1963 Chronograph which was produced for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. For a functional watch that was actually issued to the military it’s quite a bold watch with some nice touches of colour.
There’s currently two sizes available with the 38mm being the more authentic. I own the 42mm and with the large pushers it’s a little bigger than I find comfortable.
Either way, the watch evokes pictures of both a time and place. The red star and Chinese script unashamedly display the watches rich heritage as a part of Communist China. The intricate and high quality dial, with the gold applied markers and blue and red hands, oozes a vintage aesthetic. All the more appealing as the watch was issued to actual pilots.
A nice touch is the addition of an exhibition case back that displays the beautiful Seagull ST19 mechanical chronograph movement.
Hamilton Pilot Pioneer
We’ve highlighted Hamilton in a few of our articles, particularly their fine history of producing watches for the railroads and the US army. Like Seagull, Hamilton issued watches to the military, this included their marine chronometers that were used by both the US and Allied navies in WWII.
However, having ceased manufacturing watches in America in 1969 the company is now Swiss owned – a part of the Swatch group of brands. But both its American heritage and current Swiss ownership make this a well respected and popular brand that is usually available on the high street.
Their current aviation range includes the modern X-Wind and Air-Race lines, and the vintage inspired Pilot Day Date range, many models influenced by the Flieger Type-B dial design. The model featured here is from the Pilot Pioneer series, this particular model giving a nod to 1970’s aviator design used by the British Royal Air Force.
The dial is clear and legible despite the addition of the Chronograph subdials. This is complimented by a domed sapphire crystal to give that authentic vintage look. The 41mm case is slightly asymmetrical like that used for navigator styled watches and the pictured model is an automatic that uses Hamilton’s H-31 mechanical movement. There are some more affordable quartz variations in the line, although none with the same exact dial layout. There’s also an MWC model based on the same RAF design.
Japanese giants Citizen make watches that you’ll see on every high street. Don’t let that put you off. They've released some great quality watches that are definitely worth taking a closer look at.
Mention Citizen and the first thought that comes to mind is Eco Drive, the brands solar technology that charges the watch through exposure to light. As expected the model we’re interested in is a part of that Eco drive line.
At first glance it’s obviously a watch that takes cues from the earlier Flieger designs, specifically the Type-B dial design. What stands out, like the Seagull, are the touches of colour. Small additions that build on the simple black and white of the early German watches. So the inspiration is clear, but so are the nods to a more modern, fashionable aesthetic. The brown, distressed leather strap works the same - it looks traditional but also adds another colour and texture.
The watch comes in at a substantial 45mm and is powered by a quartz movement. You can pick this model up for a little over £100.
Like Breitling German watchmakers Sinn have historic links to aviation, having been founded in 1961 by ex-pilot Helmut Sinn. They too have links to space programs.The first use of a Sinn watch in space came in 1985 when German astronaut Reinhard Furrer wore a PVD version of the 140S during Spacelab D1. As you’d expect with a brand with this kind of heritage, the 556 just about qualifies as affordable despite being one of the brands entry level watches.
The 556 is a very straightforward tool watch, designed with the brands historic military and aviation links in mind and manufactured to a very high standard. Although German made it’s powered by a Swiss ETA-2824-2 movement, and with the sapphire crystal display back the movement, with its customised rotor, is visible. Sized at 38mm it’s a modestly sized watch.
AVI-8 Flyboy Automatic
AVI-8 are a very recent addition to the watch trade and the name alone explains the major theme behind the brands designs.
They only make aviation inspired watches.
We're saying inspired as a lot of their designs seem a little too elaborate for truly functional pilots tools, but then again, most of us aren’t pilots.
The AVI-8 range is broken down into a number of lines, most notably the collections inspired by Hawker aircraft from the Hurricane to the Harrier and the Lancaster Bomber line. There’s a large mix of aviation styles from Bell & Ross inspired square models, to vintage inspired chronographs with RAF colouring. The one we’ve picked out is very much at the plain end of their range and is from the Flyboy line.
This watch was released as a part of the manufacturers 2013 collection and features a reliable Japanese Miyota 8215 automatic movement, again with an exhibition back. Like the Citizen the designers have taken a standard aviation watch as the base and added small touches to bring it more up to date. With this watch that means a textured dial and the red tipped plane second hand. The dial has the full series of numbers rather than simple markers and a date at 6 o’clock.
But to retain that vintage aesthetic it comes on a leather NATO strap and has the typical larger crown.
Junkers 6644M-2 Series Hugo Junkers
Hugo Junkers was a German aircraft engineer and designer whose company was influential between the two world wars. Placed under house arrest by the Nazi government he died in 1935 before the outbreak of war - where his planes would go on to successfully perform for the Luftwaffe.
All the Junkers range are inspired by the companies aviation background or by Hugo Junker’s personal passion for the Bauhaus art movement.
This watch has all the elements you would expect of a German aviator, with the addition of a dual time zone hand. It's the only GMT watch on this list. There are variations on a leather strap or stainless steel bracelet, with both coming in at 40mm - in the middle of the range for pilots watches. At under £200 it’s one of the more affordable German watches.