Pilot’s watches are an essential part of the world of watches and aviation. Flying is without a doubt one of the biggest engineering feats of humankind and was made possible by passion and ingenuity. Around 115 years ago, a few specially developed watch models took over the skies and served as essential pieces of equipment. Pilot’s watches were an important instrument in the cockpit, and today they harken back to a time when flying was still exciting and now-legendary watches were first being designed. We’ll use some select pieces that are prized by watch enthusiasts to tell the history of pilot’s watches.
What distinguishes a pilot’s watch from other watches?
Pilot’s watches are characterized by three features in particular: their band, their robustness, and their reliability. The bands were a big sensation at a time when pocket watches were still the norm. They allowed pilots to keep an eye on the time without taking their hands off the controls. These timepieces are still popular today, in large part due to their precision and simple designs. Keep reading to learn about some of the most legendary pilot’s watches!
1. Cartier Santos-Dumont: The First Wristwatch
According to experts and connoisseurs, the history of pilot’s watches starts in 1904 with the famous Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos Dumont. As he gained more and more experience as a pilot, Santos Dumont realized that pocket watches were impractical for flying. He thus asked Louis Cartier to create a watch tailored to his needs.
Much like the watches from today’s Santos collection, the first Santos-Dumont watch didn’t have the typical pilot’s watch design. Instead, it had a dial with roman numerals in a square case with the unmistakable sapphire cabochon crown. Nonetheless, the watch had an important role in the development of pilot’s watches, being of course the very first one of them. It also contributed to the increasing popularity of the wristwatch, since people were curious about what Santos Dumont was wearing on his wrist.
2. Zenith Pilot: Blériot’s Crossing of the English Channel
After Santos Dumont, the French aviation pioneer Louis Blériot went down in history for crossing the English Channel in his monoplane in 1909. The feat won him 1,000 pounds in prize money from the English newspaper the Daily Mail. There was also a watch present for this aviation milestone:
An easy-to-read Zenith was along for the ride on Blériot’s wrist. Afterwards, Blériot was full of praise for the craftsmanship and precision of the Zenith, which led to the integration of Zenith Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 instruments in French airplane dashboards.
3. Longines Lindbergh: A Watch for Breaking Records
Charles Lindbergh is another legend of early aviation. During his 33.5-hour solo crossing of the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis, Longines served as his timekeeper. After this legendary trip, Lindbergh worked with Longines, then the official timekeeper of the Olympics, on a more precise and modern navigation watch based on the Weems watches that had been used up until then. The resulting watch came to the market in 1931 and made positioning when flying over water significantly easier. It goes without saying that the Longines Lindberg is widely considered one of the most important pilot’s watches of all time.
4. B-Uhr Watches During the Second World War
In 1939, the Second World War brought conflict to Europe. These years saw the debut of an impressive timepiece closely connected with the horrors of war: the German Beobachtungsuhr or “observation watch.” These watches were worn by pilots in the German Air Force. Despite this dark history, their design is still regarded as one of the most functional watch designs of all time. It is simply everything a pilot’s watch is supposed to be.
Thanks to its large luminous hands it can be read easily even in adverse conditions, its reliable pocket watch caliber in a 55-mm case provides the highest level of precision, and all of its most important technical specifications are engraved on the case back. It’s thought that at least five manufacturers produced B-Uhr watches: Laco, Wempe, Stow, A. Lange & Söhne, and IWC Schaffhausen. Many people consider the B-Uhr the most important inspiration for modern pilot’s watches like the IWC Big Pilot and remakes from Laco and Stowa, at least as far as aesthetics are concerned.
All of these historical moments illustrate how significant the role of the pilot’s watch was in the early days of aviation, in military flight, and in humanity’s never-ending quest to achieve the impossible. As soon as you put a pilot’s watch on, you understand why many collectors are so captivated by these wristwatch wonders: They take us back to fascinating years of the past.
A small mechanical device can connect us with icons like Santos Dumont, who was looking for a practical alternative to the pocket watch, or to Lindbergh and Blériot, who achieved unimaginable feats, but also to the darkness of war time. This creates a very special experience for the wearer – especially when curiosity and enthusiasm enter the equation. As collector’s items, pilot’s watches are in a class of their own and absolutely deserve your attention.