Longines designed a watch for Charles Lindbergh in 1927 after his trans-Atlantic solo flight; and the astronaut Neil Armstrong gave the Omega Speedmaster the ultimate endorsement when he wore it on his historic moonwalk in 1969: But Cartier takes credit for being first into the field, unlikely as that might seem for a brand famous for its dress-watch pedigree. Louis Cartier produced a wristwatch for a Brazilian aviator, Alberto Santos-Dumont, in 1904 to meet his need for a time- telling instrument that he could use when both hands were occupied. Today, the Santos is a brand icon, but it is not considered a true pilot's watch because it lacks features typically seen on aviator models — like a large black dial, rotating bezel, chronograph functionality, antireflective coating on the crystal, and luminescent hands and numerals for readability. It also lacks a certain ruggedness.
Traditionally sold on calf leather straps that were wrapped around thighs or bulky gloves, pilot's watches are nothing if not manly. Several contemporary models draw on military associations to make the point crystal-clear.
Tutima, a watch manufacturer with roots in the German watchmaking region of Saxony, supplied military chronographs to the German government during World War II and developed a NATO-approved chronograph in 1985.
The French brand Bell & Ross retaliates this month with a round- faced watch bearing the official logo of the Force Aéronavale, the French Navy's aviation division. The watch is being issued in two limited series of 150 pieces, and 50 of each have been reserved by Aéronavale members, the company's founder, Carlos Rosillo, said. Stylistically, the model is a departure from the brand's well-received Instrument BR-01 watch, introduced in 2005 and distinguished by a chunky, square case that looks to have been yanked straight out of the cockpit.
Besides boasting stylishly large components — size being the overarching trend in watch aesthetics today — pilot's watches are popular because "what's good for pilots is good for civilians," said Jean-Paul Girardin, vice president of Breitling, the brand, beside IWC, most closely connected to aviation.
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"If the watch is made for an aviation environment, which is top and unforgiving, then it has certain attributes they desire," said Lieutenant Commander Ted Steelman, the lead pilot for the Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy's elite flight team. "When I'm in a cockpit, I don't care if it cost $10 or $10,000, I want to know that my watch is going to be accurate within one second."
As implied by its tagline, "Instruments for Professionals," Breitling has no doubt that its watches meet Steelman's criteria. The company, which became the official supplier to Britain's Royal Air Force in 1936, is the only major manufacturer to have all its movements certified as chronometers, or high-precision watches, by the Swiss Official Chronometer Testing Institute, said a Breitling spokeswoman, Lisa Roman.
Breitling's signature pilot's watch remains the 54-year-old Navitimer, the oldest mechanical chronograph in continuous production, but its Professional range also includes the Emergency, a chronograph containing a microtransmitter that can broadcast over 160 kilometers, or 100 miles, for 48 hours on the 121.5 MHz aviation distress frequency. Two British helicopter pilots, Steve Brooks and Hugh Quentin-Smith, used the watch to summon rescuers during a failed South Pole mission in 2003.
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Breitling's recently introduced Airwolf is a gadget-laden chronograph whose handiest feature may be its ability to display Coordinated Universal Time, the time standard that keeps air traffic flowing around the world.
For those who prefer lean Bauhaus design to clutter, there is Breitling's longtime rival, IWC, which dates its history in this niche to its 1936 Special Watch for Pilots. Rather than complicating its streamlined dials and cases with redundant functionality — GPS has, in reality, made the watch virtually obsolete as an aviation instrument — IWC opts to evoke the form-follows- function simplicity of vintage aviation.
The company, which markets itself as a maker of watches for real fliers, this year overhauled its entire range of pilot's watches.
Demand for IWC's watches is now so strong that "we sell whatever we get," said Andrew Block, vice president of marketing for Tourneau, the largest watch-only retailer in the world, with stores in Shanghai, the Caribbean and across the United States. "But I don't know how many people are buying them for their functionality.
"You know what most people use chronographs for today?" he added. "For barbecuing, so they know when to flip the steak on the grill."