Aviation is without a doubt, one of humankind’s greatest technological feats, made possible by the power of invention and passion. Knowing this, it only makes sense that watches and aviation have become seemingly synonymous in the 21st century, partially due to the influx of pilot-themed marketing campaigns, but also due to the increased awareness of watchmaking history. Among the different types of watches currently available on the market, pilot’s watches could arguably be described as the most historically rich.
Going back nearly 115 years ago, some of these specially engineered watches still in existence today were taken to the skies and relied upon heavily as an essential piece of equipment. Pilot’s watches were once a crucial tool in the cockpit and now represent a time of tremendous excitement in aviation and legendary watch design. Let’s now go through the history of the pilot’s watch by looking at selected stories celebrated universally by watch aficionados.
Among experts and notable authorities, the tale of the pilot’s watch is believed to have begun in Paris in 1904, with famed Brazilian pioneer of aviation Alberto Santos-Dumont. With piloting experience, Santos-Dumont quickly found a pocket watch to be an inconvenience when airborne, so he called upon Louis Cartier to produce a wristwatch suited to his needs.
Much like the Santos collection watches of today, the original Santos-Dumont was not designed in the way the typical pilot watch is, but with a roman numeral covered dial, rectangular case, and signature cabochon sapphire crown. Still, this piece played a pivotal role in the evolution of pilot’s watches, as it was the very first. It also played a role in the widespread popularity of the wristwatch, as Santos-Dumont’s use of the wristwatch had the public questioning just what it was that he had strapped to his wrist.
Blériot’s Channel Crossing
Following Santos-Dumont, French aviator Louis Blériot made his mark on history when he crossed the English Channel in his monoplane in 1909, winning himself 1,000 GBP in prize money from the Daily Mail newspaper in the UK. Yet again, there’s an horological connection to this accomplishment.
Along for the ride with Blériot was a highly-legible Zenith watch strapped to his wrist. Blériot went on to vocally praise Zenith’s craftsmanship and timekeeping abilities, which resulted in the adoption of Zenith Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 instruments in French aircraft panels.
Return to the Pocket
Pilot’s watches would then take a brief absence from being mounted on the wrist to return to the pocket during WWI, as in war, precision trumped convenience. Though fear not, wristwatch enthusiasts, the pilot’s watch would soon return to the wrist. In between the first and second World War, airplanes were used in a number of new applications like mail delivery and crop dusting, along with the occasional exuberant displays of stunt flying and challenges taken on by those seeking to do what no individual had ever done before.
One of those men was Charles Lindbergh. While he travelled 33 hours and 30 minutes across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis, his solo flight was timed by Longines, the official timekeeper of the Olympics at the time. After completing his famed journey, he worked with Longines to create an updated and more precise navigating pilot’s watch, based upon the previously used Weems watches. The watch was released in 1931 and significantly eased the task of holding one’s position when travelling over water. Needless to say, the Longines Lindbergh is widely regarded as one of the most important pilot’s watches of all time.
B-Uhren in WWII
Conflict returned in 1939 with the beginning of World War II. In this time, a rather formidable timepiece was born that was closely associated with horrific acts of war, the B-Uhr. These were the watches that Luftwaffe pilots wore. Yet despite their history, their design is still lauded as one of the best functional watch designs ever. It is simply everything a pilot’s watch should be. Legible, with large, luminous dials that could be easily read in poor conditions, precise, with a 55mm case to house a trusted pocket watch movement, and well documented, in a distinctly German way, with all necessary details engraved neatly on the inside of the caseback. In total, five manufacturers are believed to have produced B-Uhren, including Laco, Wempe, Stowa, A. Lange & Söhne, and IWC. In the minds of many, the B-Uhr is the single biggest influence on modern pilot’s watches like the IWC Big Pilot and Laco/Stowa reissues, from an aesthetic standpoint at minimum.
Through all of these moments in history, a picture is painted of just how important a role pilot’s watches have played in the dawn of flight, wartime aviation, and in humankind’s never-ending quest to achieve the impossible. Just by strapping a pilot’s watch on your wrist, you’re reminded of why it is that collectors have become so obsessed with these wrist-mounted marvels: It’s because they allow us to channel a fascinating time in the past.
Thanks to a small mechanical instrument, we’re instantly connected back to icons like Santos-Dumont seeking a wrist-mounted alternative to the pocket watch, Lindbergh and Blériot doing the unthinkable, and the dark times of the war – thus creating an ownership experience like no other, especially when backed by scholarship and enthusiasm. Pilot’s watches are truly a remarkable class of watches to be collected and are most certainly deserving of your attention.