Take To The Skies: Unmissable Pilot Watches for your Timepiece Collection
There are watches that make the wearer feel like a gentleman spy, replete with eye-watering complications and multitudinous dials. There are those destined for deep sea exploration, and timepieces which evoke Oval Office authority. Some are bedazzled with jewels, others celebrate stripped-back minimalism. Today, however, we’re casting our eyes upwards, and launching into an exploration of aviator watches – a timepiece style that’s never fallen from fashion.
Pilot or aviator watches have a distinguished history; one which harks back to the early days of aviation and those magnificent men in their flying machines. It was an era of rapid technological advancement, imbued with the spirit of exploration and excitement. Matching style with functionality, it’s a testament to those early innovations that pilot watches remain as popular and collectible as ever.
Easily recognised for their oversized features and a design which elevates the practical to the flawless, pilot watches first rose to prominence in the very earliest years of the 20th century. How did they make their mark on history? To answer this, we’ll start at their genesis way back in 1904.
Watches in the Golden Age of Aviation
Early forays into the air – carried on the wings of rudimentary aircraft set to transform the world of travel – presented pilots with a unique set of challenges. At this time, as we all know, the pocket watch reigned supreme as far as horological fashion was concerned. However, pocket watches proved highly impractical for pilots at the time. Early planes (understandably) required pilots to have both hands permanently at the controls, meaning checking the time on their pocket watches was impractical at best, and mortally dangerous at worst.
The year 1906 saw a milestone in aviation history: pioneering aeronaut Alberto Santos-Dumont took the first powered flight on the European continent. He specifically requested the creation of a timepiece that pilots could use mid-flight, which addressed the inherent issues with wearing a pocket watch. Two years of ferocious innovation went underway, leading to nothing less than the invention of the first practical wristwatch, by no other producer than Cartier, who came up with a large dial, a leather strap, and easily-readable features. The creation of this first pilot watch led to a boom in popularity of wristwatches among style-conscious and intrepid men across Europe; a sea change that had an impact on the industry that was felt forevermore.
1909 saw pilot watches hit the headlines once again. Zenith Watches produced the timepiece worn by aviator Louis Charles Joseph Blériot as he flew across the English Channel – an event that drew huge crowds and attracted the world’s press. Consultations with the growing elite class of pilots resulted in many of the refinements that would come to define aviator watches, but it wasn’t until war came to Europe – and widespread aviation became central to the allies’ success – that the pilot watch as we know it today was truly born.
Innovations borne of conflict and necessity
Pilots commanding Spitfires in the Royal Air Force had to fly under the cover of night, and often in challenging conditions with poor visibility. Watchmakers were commissioned to meet an entirely new set of demands in short timeframes; a situation which gave rise to the rugged, functional and pared-down design we associate with pilot watches over a century later. A simple layout that was easy to read, paired with luminous markers and hands for night-time reading, became de rigueur in pilot watch manufacturing. The role these innovations played in the allies’ success is unknown, but one can imagine the difference such simple but effective changes made.
Following the end of both world wars, aviation as an industry took flight like never before. Commercial, political and business travel united the world, and the demand for pilot watches entered a new phase, driven as much by fashion as by necessity.
Horological powerhouses, most notably Breitling and Rolex, entered the aviator watch industry. The iconic Navitimer was launched by Breitling in 1952, laying down a blueprint that would be followed by countless imitators. By combining accurate timekeeping with navigation, the watch maison kick-started a key accessory for a growing global jet-set of transatlantic style icons. Rolex soon followed suit with the enormously inspirational GMT-Master, which reflected the development of long-haul air travel. By enabling pilots to keep accurate time across multiple time zones, Rolex established another must-have complication within this sector of the timepiece scene.
Today, pilot watches may have vastly superseded their original purpose and intentions; they’re far from being exclusive to airline pilots or military aviators. However, they continue to inspire those with intrepid hearts and jet-setting ambitions, and send a clear signal of the international credentials and sophistication of their wearers. Stylish yet ruggedly masculine, offering razor-sharp accuracy and a bold, outgoing and adventurous appearance… What’s not to love?
Let’s dive a little deeper into the world of high-end pilot watches for UHNW collectors, and select a few of the most iconic iterations that belong on any serious timepiece enthusiast’s wishlist.
As far as aviator watches with historical pedigree are concerned, the Bundeswehr Chronograph is something of a legend. Military-issued and with incredible finesse for its time, this groundbreaking timepiece featured a (now somewhat exotic) flyback chronograph… and it still looks as sleek and stylish as ever.
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Perhaps also adding to its enduring appeal, the Bundeswehr Chronograph is something of an outlier when it comes to size and weight. Most vintage watches seem remarkably small on contemporary wrists, but the “Bund” – as it’s known in collector’s circles – is a modern-feeling 42mm.
No list of iconic pilot watches would be complete without mention of the Breitling Navitimer. While there have been dozens of iterations and releases of this instantly-recognisable timepiece over the past century, it remains true to its original design with thrilling retrofuturist appeal.
While most pilot’s watches are notable for their minimalist appearance (understandably so, as they were always valued for their legibility), the Navitimer has a look that’s entirely its own, boasting a dizzying array of scales, dials and complications.
There’s not only a chronograph with multiple subdials, but also a slide rule bezel capable of undertaking numerous calculations and a tachymeter as standard. Unlike most iconic pilot watches, the Navitimer wasn’t originally produced for military pilots. Instead, it was developed for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association in the mid-20th century, evoking a peerless era of glamorous international travel.
Although it was originally conceived as a racing chronograph (which is more than hinted at by its name), the Omega Speedmaster became perhaps the most renowned pilot’s watch in the world. Why? Because it was the timepiece selected by NASA for its legendary space missions, taking aviator timepieces to literal new heights beyond the stratosphere.
Not only does the Speedmaster have everything required of a high-performance pilot watch – as one might expect, being a preferred timepiece for aviators and astronauts alike – it also looks and feels fantastic.
Few horological houses can boast a watch that’s as suited for black tie events as it is for Apollo missions, but it’s a reputation Omega quite rightly bears with significant pride. Although there have been countless iterations and re-releases over the years, collectors can – and very much do – purchase a watch almost identical to those worn by the astronauts of the 1960s and beyond.
Rolex GMT Master
Ever one step ahead of the trend, Rolex rewrote the rulebook with their release of the GMT Master in 1954. Prior to this groundbreaking model, pilot watches were mainly concerned with complications involving navigation and measurement. Rolex embraced a new age of international travel by crafting a watch which allowed pilots to track different time zones, allowing them to see both the time at home and that of their destination.
The combination of a 24 hour hand and a rotating 24 hour bezel might be relatively commonplace nowadays, but Rolex pioneered this feature, and did so in inimitable style. The bicoloured bezel has since become a Rolex icon in its own right, and can be traced back to the need to offer pilots a simple visualisation of both day and nighttime hours. Today, original and re-released GMT Master timepieces are the stuff of auctioneers’ dreams, frequently topping the wishlists of collectors across the globe.
Innovations in aeronautics and the needs of contemporary fighter pilots continue to influence watchmakers, and the Bremont MBI – crafted by leading British watchmaker Bremont, who have something of a cult following in the horological world – was commissioned by military engineering firm Martin-Baker in 2007. Martin-Baker is the world’s leading manufacturer of the ejector seats found in contemporary ultrasonic aircraft, and they needed a mechanical watch capable of withstanding the pressure of being ejected from a fighter plane.
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Bremont rose to the task in spectacular fashion, producing a sleek and performative timepiece that could survive the bone-crushing 19Gs of pressure the manoeuvre involves. Tested under intensely rigorous conditions, the watch’s credentials made it an instant collector’s item among those passionate about pilot watches… and the fact it looks fantastic surely doesn’t harm its phenomenal appeal.
Montblanc watches have skyrocketed in popularity over recent years, and horology enthusiasts will be more than familiar with the impressive 1858 collection from the iconic Swiss brand. Inspired by Minerva chronographs (and indeed, the Minerva haute horlogerie maison merged with Montblanc in 2006, elevating the brand to a new level of sophistication), the 1858 showcases a thrillingly vintage aesthetic alongside a contemporary size and impressive durability.
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Established from the get-go as a pilot’s watch for those seeking a timepiece straddling the vintage and the avant-garde, the 1858 boasts a gorgeous large dial and bronze bezel for on-the-wing navigation calculations. Montblanc opted for the now highly sought-after ‘Cathedral Hands’ for this collection, so-called as they resemble windows in European cathedrals.
Finishing flourishes include a fluted crown and oversized numerals, providing an understated essence of glamour that we’ve seen time and time again in contemporary aviator timepieces. It’s a watch that harks back to the moustache-twirling antics of 1930s fighter pilots, and we love it all the more for being that way.
Garmin D2 Delta PX Aviator Smartwatch
The vast majority of pilot watches are designed more for jet-setters, frequent flyers and those who aspire to that cross-continental lifestyle than those who actually sit in the cockpit.
This isn’t the case with the D2 Delta from luxury watch manufacturer Garmin – it’s a bonafide aviator watch, meticulously crafted to meet the needs and demands of contemporary pilots. For one thing, it’s the only watch on this list with a Pulse Ox sensor (for tracking blood oxygen levels and the amount of hemoglobin in your veins), and that’s just for starters.
Other covetable complications on the D2 Delta include NEXRAD weather features, automatic flight logging, airport data, dynamic color mapping and avionic connectivity via your smart device. It’s serious stuff, but you don’t have to be a professional pilot to make the most of this technological marvel. Indeed, most of the key features of this impressive smartwatch make it a fine fit for health and fitness enthusiasts too, and ultimately it’s a sleek and stylish watch that’s perfect for all day, everyday, everywhere wear. The fact it makes you feel like you’re zipping alongside Tom Cruise in Top Gun is merely one of many additional bonuses.
Panerai Luminor Base 8 Days Titanio
Luxury timepiece followers will be more than familiar with decades of beautiful releases from Panerai, a brand which consistently outdoes itself when it comes to beauty, flair, and undeniably trendsetting watches.
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The Luminor collection is a tried-and-tested Panerai classic, and the Base 8 Days release is a thoroughly modern and alluringly sleek reimagining of the classic model. Indices finished in Super Luminova put it squarely into aviator territory, and coupled with the distinctive crown-protecting bridge, it’s a 21st century pilot watch through and through.
We especially appreciated the choice of material for this reimagining of the Luminor – a beautiful lightweight titanium, which gives it fantastic wrist appeal while remaining comfortable and versatile for a range of events, seasons and outfits.
Of course, the P.5000 calibre movement is present and correct – hand-wound and with the eponymous eight-day power reserve. Is it the most complicated or bedazzling pilot watch on our list? Absolutely not. However, simplicity, practicality and style are at the heart of what makes pilot watches so appealing, and the Luminor has (as it always did) these factors in spades.