While nobody here at OT has a pilot’s licence (I’m working on it) that doesn’t stop us appreciating aviation-inspired timepieces. They’re some of the finest watches ever built, both modern and historical, and have a special place in the horological pantheon. Here then are five of the most iconic pilots’ watches ever built.
Let’s start with the grandaddy of all Pilots’ watches, the Santos, designed by Monsieur Cartier himself for his friend Alberto Santos Dumont. Dumont was a pilot instrumental in making manned flight a reality and in 1904, when he confided to Cartier that he needed a watch dedicated to flying, this was the result.
For the first aviator’s watch, it’s a remarkably modern piece that hasn’t changed all that much over the 100+ years since. It hasn’t needed to. Between its clear, legible dial and square case with its visible screws, it became a horological icon overnight. It’s seen a bit of an overhaul recently, emphasising its bold silhouette, but remains the first and (some might say) one of the finest pilots’ watches in the world.
Breguet Type XX
If you only know Breguet for classically elegant dress watches, you’ve been missing out. The Swiss watchmaker has a long history of aviation. Like many iconic watches, the Type XX (20, not a hipster electro duo) has a military connection, in this case the Aéronavale, the French air force. They commissioned a few ‘Type 20’ chronographs in the same vein as the British ‘Dirty Dozen’, of which the Breguet became the most sought after.
The Type XX returned to action in the civilian sphere during the 90s and ever since has been a mainstay of Breguet’s renowned collection. It has all the hallmarks of a traditional haute horology manufacture, just with a more rugged, sportier case and more military aesthetic. It’s the crown of any aviator’s collection.
The Navitimer is one of the bestselling pilots’ watches of all time. Released in 1952, it was one of the few what you’d call ‘tool’ watches available to aviators. Its iconic bezel was used by pilots to calculate all manners of vital in-flight navigational calculations, back when autopilot was mere science fiction. It was so effective that it became an essential piece of equipment for US pilots, with the signature wings on the dial a byword for aviation excellence.
In style it balanced its technical dial with an elegant case design that suited the well-dressed pilots during the golden age of aviation. The Navitimer came to all but define Breitling and remains one of the mainstays of their modern collection, particularly in the sleekly-designed Navitimer 1.
Rolex GMT Master II
Pretty much any dual time zone or worldtimer watch was originally designed to spend most of its time in the cockpit and the instantly-recognisable GMT Master II is no exception. With the inception of trans-Atlantic flights came the need to keep track of multiple time zones and Rolex was quick with a solution: a watch that could tell you both departure and arrival times at once.
Day one it became the official watch of Pan-Am, an association that had more to do with its usefulness than sharing the same red and blue livery. That bezel has seen a few variations, but the red and blue – ‘Pepsi Cola’ to collectors – is by far the most famous. If any vintage store has this in stock, you’ll see it front and centre; it’s not just an iconic pilots’ watch, but one of the most iconic timepieces of all time.
IWC Big Pilot
War breeds innovation and it shouldn’t come as a surprise by now that IWC’s iconic Big Pilot also has its roots in the military – in this case the German Air Force of the 1940s. Yes, yes, not the most auspicious of beginnings but they also made a version for the Royal Air Force in 1949 so it’s all fine – except for the watch itself, which is a good deal more than fine.
In the last 60-70 years it’s barely changed. It still retains the iron sights-esque dots at 12 o’clock, the oversized 46mm+ case and, most key, that famous crown, designed to be handled easily even with thick flight gloves on. It’s pure, militaristic style – and in the modern incarnation, its in-house seven-day movement – make it my personal favourite… even if I can’t really wear it. Not everyone has the wrists for this beast.
Bell & Ross BR 01
This is a newbie compared to the other watches on this list; in fact, Bell & Ross didn’t exist by the time all of these were already dubbed ‘iconic.’ Still, the watchmaker – founded back in 2005 – has carved a name for themselves with what has become one of the most recognisable watches in the world.
The square design is meant to imitate the cockpit instruments of vintage aircraft but does as good a job on the wrist too. It’s as minimal as a watch can be without straying into H. Moser & Cie territory and the cool square case with big, visible screws, made it an instant hit. Today there’s a myriad of models to choose from, including some cutting-edge concepts, but the original is still the heart Bell & Ross.