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History of Pilot’s Watches

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‘The pilot’s watch is now among the most popular watch styles, not least for its fascinating history and dashing looks. Ever since the early days of aviation, watches have played an integral part in pushing the boundaries of technological innovation.’

The pilot’s watch is now among the most popular watch styles, not least for its fascinating history and dashing looks. Ever since the early days of aviation, watches have played an integral part in pushing the boundaries of technological innovation. Built for purpose, these timepieces have served as functional instruments that have unfalteringly navigated pilots, even in most adverse conditions.

The First Pilot’s Watch

The history of the pilot’s watch can be traced to 1904 and the development of the Cartier Santos. A year prior, the American Wright brothers had invented the first successful heavier-than-air aircraft in 1903. Shortly after, the Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont followed their example, becoming the first to conduct a powered flight in Europe in 1906. In preparation for his daring flight, Santos-Dumont turned to his good friend Louis Cartier. He made a request for a timepiece that would allow him to use both hands to control an aircraft. Within two years, Cartier devised the timepiece Santos-Dumont was looking for. Especially designed to offer easy readability with minimum hassle, the first ‘pilot’s watch’ came on a leather strap fastened by a buckle. This development overturned horological tradition of pocket watches and effectively popularised wristwatches among men.

 

Alberto Santos-Dumont

 

The Zenith that Crossed the English Channel

The next significant milestone in pilot’s watches occurred in 1909. That year, when the French aviator and engineer Louis Charles Joseph Blériot became world-famous for making the first flight across the English Channel. On that fateful day, Blériot wore his reliable Zenith watch. Later, he publicly endorsed the timepiece, famously saying, ‘I am extremely satisfied with the Zenith watch, which I use regularly, and cannot recommend it highly enough to people in search of precision.’ His fame helped propel Zenith’s reputation as a maker of reliable and precise navigation instruments.

 

Louis Charles Joseph Blériot

 

Pilot’s Watches Develop Their Own Identity

The next decade saw advancements in aero technology and a growth of popularity of aviation. As a result, many watch manufacturers began to develop their own pilot’s watches. The context of the two World Wars, which were significantly fought in the air, also facilitated these developments. It was then that pilot’s watches gained a characteristically rugged and functional look that prevails to this day. To meet the demands of pilot’s who were often challenged by adverse conditions and poor lighting, watch manufacturers designed large timepieces with a simplistic layout. In addition, they incorporated luminous hands and hour markers that served to improve readability at night. Lastly, a quintessential trait of these early pilot’s watches was a long leather strap that could be easily worn over the pilot’s jacket.

The Longines that Crossed the Atlantic

Another significant player that shortly entered the scene of pilot’s watches was Longines. In the period between the two World Wars, Longines had already established itself, serving an honourable role as an official Olympics timekeeper. It’s durability and reliability was soon put to the test again. In 1927, Longines accompanied the American aviator Charles A. Lindbergh in the first solo airplane flight across the Atlantic Ocean. The watch was largely designed by Lindbergh himself. He sought a multipurpose instrument that would allow for accurate determination of the longitude during long-distance flights. As a result, the watch helped him to easily establish his geographic location with great accuracy.

 

Charles Lindbergh and the Longines Watch

 

Modern Pilot’s Watches Begin to Evolve

Following an industry-wide trend, in the 1930s, IWC began working on their first professional pilot’s watches. This endeavour culminated in 1936 with the launch of the Special Pilot’s Watch. Four years later, the company released the extra large and rugged Big Pilot’s Watch, which they supplied to the Luftwaffe in a limited edition of 1,000 pieces. With a case diameter measuring 55mm, it was the biggest IWC had ever made. Built for maximum functionality and easy readability, it has come to serve as the emblematic pilot’s watch we think of today.

 

Original IWC Big Pilot’s Watch

 

The Post-War Aviation Boom

As the post-war years saw a boom in general aviation, both private and commercial, it triggered an increased demand for aviation instruments. In response to this, brands such as Breitling and Rolex jumped at the opportunity to become associated with functionality in the spirit of exploration. As a result, in 1952, Breitling introduced its now iconic watch – the Navitimer. Offering a well-balanced display that merged multiple functions, it served both as a navigation tool and timepiece. Similarly, in 1955, Rolex entered a collaboration with Pan American Airways, designing the GMT-Master model. An instant success, the watch was developed to meet the specific needs of intercontinental airline pilots travelling across time zones. Like the Navitimer, the GMT-Master is a hugely popular line to this day. Its technical appeal continues to attract many professional pilots and watch aficionados alike.

 

Breitling Navitimer from 1952

 

The Pilot Watch Today

Since the development of the first pilot’s watch, aviation timepieces continue to fascinate us. With their effortless style and impressive functionality, they remind us that rather than being simple ornaments, they serve as complex navigational tools built for purpose. Although pilots now depend on computerised systems built into their planes, pilot’s watches continue to be a popular model for their rugged looks and timeless charm.

 

Images ©: Header. Rare Historical Photos  1. Wikipedia 2. The Pioneers  3. Watch Doctor 4. Luxos 5. Breitling Museum 

 

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