It’s little wonder that pilot’s watches have always fascinated gentlemen of taste and style, no matter how earthbound. In the plainest terms, the wristwatch owes its very existence to pilots; specifically pioneering Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, who commissioned the very first one from Cartier in 1904.
The stylish inventor wanted to be able to look at the time without removing his hands from the controls of his aircraft, pocket watches being too cumbersome while performing maneuvers in midair.
While pilot’s watches have since evolved into, in some cases, complex machines for performing all sorts of calculations and functions, it’s their essential utility (why collectors call them “tool” watches) that remains a large part of the appeal.
And they’ve always been at the forefront of innovation, since Santos-Dumont’s time. The iconic Rolex GMT-Master for instance was initially created for Pan-Am pilots flying new transatlantic routes who needed to keep track of two time zones simultaneously.
Pilot’s watches are the focus of Air Time: Watches Inspired by Aviation, Aeronautics and Pilots, a fascinating new book from Rizzoli that is the latest release in the Timepiece series created by Aaron Sigmond.
In a comprehensive and beautifully-illustrated look at nearly a century of aviation-inspired watches, beginning with Santos-Dumont’s Cartier, author Mark Bernardo offers in-depth looks at pilot’s important timepieces.
These include Charles Lindbergh’s invention of the Longines Hour Angle; the Omega Speedmaster, which became the first watch worn on the moon; the Breitling Navitimer, which incorporates a slide rule in its bezel; and the Breguet Type XX, designed in the 1950s for the French naval air army.
He also holds forth on more modern watches from the likes of IWC, Bell & Ross, Bremont, Patek Philippe, and Zenith, among others. “Pilots’ watches, unlike divers’ watches, don’t have to adhere to strict international criteria—e.g., water resistance, unidirectional bezel—before they can be marketed for professional use,” Bernardo notes.
“To the contrary, pilots’ watches can range from simple and minimalist, like the IWC Big Pilot’s Watch or Zenith Type 20, to fully loaded with complex calculations, like the Breitling Navitimer or Longines Hour Angle.
They can be geared toward split-second timing, like the Tutima Fliegerchronograph, or engineered to traverse multiple time zones, like the Rolex GMT-Master. A handful of watches even manage to incorporate all of these attributes and more.”
As Captain Jim “Guido” DiMatteo, a former TOPGUN Commander who spent nearly 30 years flying fighter jets for the U.S. Navy, writes in the book’s foreword, “Time has played an important role in aviation since the Wright Brothers’ first flight nearly 120 years ago. Nowadays, our jets have sophisticated avionics systems with embedded satellite-synchronized clocks, but fighter pilots use our wristwatches before, during, and after our flights.”
For most aviators, DiMatteo notes, “the timepiece of choice is the mechanical watch. There are many reasons why, but for me, one of the most important is the emotional connection. Mine not only reminds me of the brilliant heritage of fighter aviation, but of my father, a naval aviator and fighter pilot from 1940 to 1970. He adored his mechanical watch and wore it every day. I recall it was always pretty banged up and scratched; he even wore it with the watch’s face on the underside of his wrist to minimize damage.”