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”
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