Up In The Air: Pilot’s Watches

Designed with aviators in mind, pilot’s watches have long been favoured by the earthbound, too.

Article by T Australia

From top: Rolex Oyster Perpetual Air-King; Tag Heuer Autavia; Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch Professional; and Bell & Ross BR 03-92 Golden Heritage. Photography by Jennifer Livingston.From top: Rolex Oyster Perpetual Air-King; Tag Heuer Autavia; Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch Professional; and Bell & Ross BR 03-92 Golden Heritage. Photography by Jennifer Livingston.

While the label denotes a target audience united by profession, the specific attributes of a pilot watch can vary from brand to brand. Bell & Ross provides an exemplar of the category with its BR 03-92 Golden Heritage: The bold numbers are highly legible, the large screw-lock crown is easily wound and the crystal surface is coated to be anti-reflective and scratch resistant. What’s more, the square-cased model mimics the gauges in an aircraft. The other three here, from Rolex, Tag Heuer and Omega, also stress utility with their prominent crowns and dials that would benefit a wearer too focused on the task at hand to fiddle with their watch. At the same time, any one from this crop would make for an appealing statement piece, even if you don’t often find yourself in a cockpit.

Time flies: the pilot’s watch

The enduring appeal of the pilot’s watch taps into the human psyche.

Article by Luke Benedictus

Pilot's watchAs the romance of aviation became intertwined with the gung-ho exploits of war, the mythology of pilot's watches was assured. Photography by Jeremy Beadle.

Some people think Icarus gets a raw deal. The Greek myth tells how, after soaring into the air, propelled by wings made of feathers, string and wax, the son of Daedalus allows hubris to cloud his judgement. Exhilarated by the giddy sensation of flight, he climbs higher and higher until the sun melts his wings, causing him to plummet into the Aegean Sea and drown. As a result, Icarus is often held up as a cautionary tale about the perils of reckless audacity. But as Jack Gilbert writes in his poem “Failing and Flying”, “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.”

And doesn’t that deserve some recognition? After all, for hundreds of years humans have conspired to take to the skies through all manner of harebrained schemes. Early attempts to fly were often fraught with disaster. Take the 11th-century British monk Eilmer of Malmesbury who, inspired by Icarus, fashioned his own pair of feathered wings. Described by a chronicler of the time as a plucky fellow of “remarkable boldness”, Eilmer launched himself from the highest tower at Malmesbury Abbey and flew for a good 15 seconds before crashing to the earth and breaking both legs, leaving him “lame ever after”.

Pilot's Watch Zenith
Zenith Pilot Type 20 Chronograph Extra Special, $11,400. Photography courtesy Zenith.
Pilot's Watch Rolex
Rolex GMT-Master II “Pepsi”, $13,600. Photography courtesy Rolex.

Whether it is pedal-powered helicopters or our childlike fascination with jet packs, the willingness to risk our necks in such daredevil bids reflects the grip that flight exerts on the human imagination. Defying the law of gravity is literally the stuff of dreams — redolent of adventure, escape and transcendence. Today, even with the heavens long since conquered, flight seems to retain its visceral thrill.

After its cinematic release in 1986, “Top Gun” reportedly boosted US Navy applications by 500 per cent. The film’s forthcoming sequel this year suggests the appeal of the fighter jet still holds. Indeed, such is the allure of flight that a certain residual glamour still clings to the paraphernalia surrounding air travel, whether in the form of aviator sunglasses, bomber jackets or pilot’s watches.

The first pilot’s watch was inspired by the exploits of the Brazilian aeronaut and socialite Alberto Santos-Dumont. The son of a wealthy coffee planter, Santos-Dumont moved to Paris to study engineering and became fascinated by flight.

Pilot's watch Cartier
Cartier Santos-Dumont, $12,600. Photography courtesy Cartier.
Pilot's Watch Breguet
Breguet Type XXI 3817, $20,200. Photography courtest Breguet.

He got a taste for the high life when he became the first to fly around the Eiffel Tower in an airship in 1901. Manoeuvring the unwieldy craft through the air, however, was a cumbersome process that he compared to “pushing a candle through a brick wall”. Complaining to his friend Louis Cartier of the impracticality of using a pocket watch when he flew, Santos-Dumont pleaded for a solution that didn’t require him to take his hands off the dirigible’s controls to tell the time.

Cartier subsequently designed a watch that could be accessed with greater ease. The timepiece he created was not only the first ever pilot’s watch, it is also widely credited as the first mass-produced men’s watch to be worn on the wrist. In 1906, Santos-Dumont, who had graduated to primitive flying machines, proceeded to make the first public flight in Europe in a powered aircraft, with Cartier’s watch his horological co-pilot.

The watch in question was made square to evoke a stylised view of the Eiffel Tower, as seen from above. Exposed screws on the bezel suggest the rivets on an aeroplane and reassert the watch’s functional purpose. Yet Cartier could not resist adding some trademark flourishes. The dial is bedecked with Roman numerals while the ornate cabochon crown offers a reminder of Cartier’s renown as a world-famous jeweller.

The Cartier Santos-Dumont timepiece is still widely available and extremely wearable — its staying power a tribute to the watchmaker’s enduring language of design. But the square-jawed model is now considered to be more of a dress watch and doesn’t offer the characteristics that a modern buyer has come to expect from a pilot’s watch. The model that would define the DNA for future pilot’s watches, in fact, came three years after Santos-Dumont’s record-setting flight.

Pilot's watch Omega
Omega Moonwatch Professional Co-axial Master Chronometer Chronograph, $9,575. Photography courtesy Omega.
Pilot's watch Longines
Longines Spirit, $4,150. Photography courtesy Longines.

The Frenchman Louis Blériot was determined to become the first to fly across the English Channel. This required perseverance, guts and a high tolerance for pain. Blériot’s initial aviation efforts involved so many dire crashes — one of which left him with third-degree burns — that he was nicknamed the “king of wrecks”. But on July 25, 1909, dressed in a khaki jacket lined with wool, he climbed into the cockpit to fly across the 50 kilometres of open water from Calais, France, to Dover, England.

He travelled at a terrifyingly low altitude — about 80 metres above the water (as he later recounted to The New York Times, “the motion of the waves beneath me is not pleasant”. Yet after battling winds, getting blown off course and becoming totally “lost” for 10 minutes, Blériot managed to complete the 40-minute flight unscathed. He accomplished this record without a compass — his navigational instrument of choice was his Zenith timepiece.

Although Zenith had been making watches for aviators since the turn of the century (it later trademarked the word “pilot” and remains the only brand permitted to use it on its dials), it was Blériot’s timepiece that became the stylistic trailblazer for pilot’s watches for years to come.

It offered a large black enamel dial with chunky Arabic numerals, which were slathered in a luminescent coating for legibility. The orientation triangle at 12 o’clock was designed to combat spatial disorientation — whatever angle the plane was flying at, you could tell which way was up just by glancing at the dial. An oversize crown on the side of the chrome-plated case was designed to be easily manipulated by pilots, who wore thick gloves to stave off the cold in unheated cockpits. The watch was also built to be tough and laugh off the various jolts, temperature fluctuations and magnetic fields that early flights tended to involve. “I am very satisfied with my Zenith watch that I generally use,” Blériot later admitted in a letter. “And I cannot but recommend it to all those with a concern for precision.”

Pilot's watch IWC
IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41, $9,800. Photography courtesy IWC.
Pilot's watch Blancpain
Blancpain Air Command AC02, $42,500. Photography courtesy Blancpain.

These early aviation efforts might have shaped the first pilot’s watches and instilled in them an intrepid personality, but the spirit of derring-do was consolidated over decades to come. In the subsequent world wars, when combat took to the skies, the utilitarian features of a pilot’s watch became even more pronounced. No longer simply a time-telling device, they soon became vital tools that were synchronised to coordinate attacks and intercept targets. As the romance of aviation became intertwined with the gung-ho exploits of war, the mythology of these watches was assured.

Today, the pilot’s watch shows no signs of succumbing to stylistic jet lag — the IWC website alone currently offers more than 60 variations, each combining robust functionality with a certain swagger. It’s clear that many of us are still reaching for the sky.

A version of this article appears in print in our fifth edition, Page 36 of T Australia with the headline:
“Time Flies”
Order a copy | Subscribe

The Diving Watch that gets Deep and Meaningful

On land or sea, this upgraded TAG Heuer Aquaracer will make a big splash

Article by Luke Benedictus

Photography courtesy of TAG Heuer.

The Lowdown

How on earth did diving watches ever get so popular? It’s a reasonable question given that scuba diving is a niche pursuit at best and few of us, to paraphrase Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, truly love the smell of neoprene in the morning. Despite being purpose-built for aquatic exploration, in reality few diving watches ever get to backroll their way into the ocean. The point of that bezel may be to check how long you’ve been submerged underwater, but should you actually use it to ensure you don’t overcook the pasta well, hey, you’re hardly alone.

Despite all this, diving watches remain one of the biggest categories of watch around, because they’re tough, durable and, would you believe it, waterproof, too. Since launching in 2004, TAG Heuer’s Aquaracer has become extremely popular as a sporty watch that can handle the bumps and bruises of an active lifestyle. This year, the range has been spruced up with a range of upgrades and seven new models. But one of the most eye-catching is this green-dialled model hewn from grade 2 titanium.

Photography courtesy of TAG Heuer.

The hardware

“Lightweight” is often a byword for insubstantial. But when it comes to performance, it makes a lot of sense. With a diameter of 43mm, this isn’t some dainty sliver of a timepiece that’s designed to quietly protrude from a tailored cuff. It’s a sizable watch that delivers serious wrist presence.  Yet, when you strap it on, the titanium build makes it deceptively light and comfortable.

That unobtrusive feel does not come at the expense of hard-knock functionality.  This Aquaracer packs a ceramic bezel insert, 300 metres of water resistance, a screw-down crown and a solid caseback. On the dial, the rhodium-plated indices and sword hands are bedecked in white Super-Luminova to guarantee easy visibility. If you’re going to dive, in other words, it won’t let you down. Further reassurance comes from the watch being propelled by TAG Heuer’s Caliber 5, an automatic movement with 42 hours of power reserve and a date display at six o’clock. In short, it’s a strong all-rounder on land or sea.

Photography courtesy of TAG Heuer.

The verdict

While these rugged capabilities are undeniable, this is no pug-nosed bruiser with a cauliflower ear. The titanium may have been sandblasted to tone down the sheen and ram home the tool-watch credentials, but there’s no disguising this is a good-looking timepiece. The olive green adds pleasing depth to the dial by bringing out the horizontal striations. It’s matched by the similarly hued bezel with the colour scheme ignited by perky orange accents.  Compared to previous models in the range, the overall design has become slightly more streamlined with shorter lugs and a thinner build that offers greater finesse. Whether you’re after a diver for the life aquatic or just a hardy everyday wearer, the Aquaracer will ensure you’re never out of your depth. Price: $6,100

Made for High-Flyers, the IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41

Pilot’s watches sit alongside divers, chronographs and field watches as perennial favourites in the tool-watch department.

Article by Luke Benedictus

While the smaller case will broaden the watch’s appeal to the more slender of wrist, it doesn’t significantly diminish the watch’s overall presence. Photography courtesy of IWC.

The Context

Let’s be honest, chances are you can’t actually fly a plane. In fact, your most testing aerial experience was probably that one time you’d just got on a long-haul flight and the person in front reclined their seat all the way back right at the beginning of the journey. Despite this lack of time in the cockpit, you might still be quite partial to a pilot’s watch for the way in which they combine tough functionality with clean looks and a touch of Top Gun panache. Pilot’s watches, after all, sit alongside divers, chronographs and field watches as perennial favourites in the tool-watch department. They’re also the speciality of IWC, whose website lists more than 60 different varieties of the species. But even with all that competition, the IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41 is well worth a closer look.

Photography courtesy of IWC.
Photography courtesy of IWC.

The Hardware

This watch is more evolution than revolution. Essentially IWC has tinkered with some of the finer details to make this watch more inviting. More specifically, they whittled down the case size to 41mm, offered a choice of quick-change straps and beefed up the water resistance to 100m. Because why reinvent the wheel when it’s already taxiing down the runway so comfortably.

While the smaller case will broaden the watch’s appeal to the more slender of wrist, it doesn’t significantly diminish the watch’s overall presence. That’s because the bezel that encircles the dial is extremely thin, affording the face plenty of real estate to pack in the various chronograph sub dials and date window. Its deep green colours gleams with a rich sunburst finish, but not so much to compromise the legibility for which IWC’s pilot’s watches are renowned. There’s a lot going on here, but all the details have the space to breathe.

The watch also delivers maximum versatility due to its range of straps. You can choose between a dressy five-link bracelet or a tapered leather or rubber strap. The good news is that you can switch things up easily without the assistance of a watchmaker or fiddly tools, due to the use of Richemont’s quick-change technology. This allows you to effortlessly change between your preferred options, altering the look and feel from dressy to sporty.

Featuring the five-link bracelet strap. Photography courtesy of IWC.

The verdict

Also available in a blue dial version, the IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41 is a quietly formidable all-rounder. With a 46-hour power reserve, decent water resistance and chronograph functionality, it offers no shortage of practical utility as a tool watch. But with a mesmerising green dial and an open caseback putting the movement on full display, it’s also an indisputably handsome watch that’s suitable for the high life in every respect. Price: $9800, iwc.com

The Longines Spirit Titanium, One of the Best Daily Wearers of the Year

If you’re looking for a one-watch collection that can transition from beach to boardroom, Longines may have a tempting solution.

Article by Luke Benedictus

The Longines Spirit collection offers contemporary pilot’s watches that leverage a slightly heritage-driven aesthetic without getting too misty-eyed about the past. Photography courtesy of Longines.

The lowdown

How many watches do you really need? Admittedly, that’s kind of a trick question given that our omnipresent smartphones mean watches are now largely unnecessary for their original time-telling purpose. But acknowledging this truth also implies that, even if you are the nostalgic watch-wearing type, from a utility perspective you can probably edit your wrist wardrobe right down.

Consequently, when buying a timepiece, many people are looking for versatility – a jack-of-all-trades that works in multiple scenarios. What that often translates to is a watch that’s sufficiently rugged that it can handle a full-contact lifestyle and offer a reassuring level of water and shock resistance. At the same time, however, it’s also dressy enough to wear in a more formal scenario and won’t look out of place with, say, a tailored jacket. This horological unicorn is known as a “one-watch collection” and, with the Spirit Titanium, Longines present a strong contender for the role.

The appeal of this watch is enhanced by its availability in two sizes, with both a 40mm and 42mm dial on offer. Photography courtesy of Longines.

The hardware

Like any self-respecting pilot’s watch, the Spirit Titanium offers easy legibility and decent lume alongside a decent-sized crown and – in good news for lovers of symmetry no date window. A respectful nod to the past comes in the form of the semi-gilt colour scheme that warms up the black sandblasted dial.

So it’s a handsome watch, but its resourceful appeal is enhanced by its availability in two sizes, with both a 40mm and 42mm dial on offer. But where this pilot’s watch truly excels is its functionality. The case is titanium to ensure lightweight comfort on the wrist, but it’s still a hardy customer nonetheless. The case delivers 100m of water-resistance and comes with a screw-down crown to ensure this is a watch that you can happily swim in. Meanwhile the movement contains a silicon balance to make it anti-magnetic, while it’s also COSC-certified to guarantee accuracy of -4 to +6 seconds a day. This impressive engine is topped off with a 72-hour power reserve. In other words, it’s unusually well-equipped for the practical rigours of daily wear.

The verdict

Longines may be a Swiss watch brand with a storied heritage, but where it really shines these days is in the bang-for-your-buck department.  It’s unusual to get a watch with these aforementioned specifications – let alone a titanium bracelet – for under $5000. But you can snap up the 40mm version of this piece on bracelet for $4475 and if you prefer the utilitarian chic of the black NATO strap, the price slides down to $4000. Sure, that’s not dirt-cheap, but that’s because its technical chops are quietly formidable. As a daily companion, the Longines Spirit Titanium is a truly compelling proposition. longines.com