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The aviator watch is a classic among wristwatches - and one that can already look back on more than 100 years of success. And since there is already a lot to tell in the eventful history of pilot's watches, we would like to take a closer look at this type of watch.

History and development of pilots watches

The first pilot’s watch was developed in 1906 by the famous Parisian watchmaker Louis Cartier as a gift for his friend, the pilot Alberto Santos-Dumont. The Cartier Santos, which the aviation pioneer wore in the world’s first scheduled engine-powered flight,  later become an icon of the luxury watch world and today it would no longer be considered a typical aviator watch. Rather it looks like a fashionable dress watch. Optically it is characterised by its angular design and the strikingly set screws on bracelet and bezel. It has set a milestone, not only in the history of the pilot’s watches, but also in the history of the wristwatch: Until then pocket watches were the most popular timepieces – which were less practical when trying to steer a plane at dizzying heights.

Black dial of a Breitling Navitimer World A24322 pilot's watch

Other watch manufacturers quickly adapted the idea of ​​the pilot’s watch. On one hand, the two world wars that took place, caused the rapid rise of the pilot’s watch. On the other hand, it also found popularity amongst those who would never enter a cockpit, but appreciated the symbolism of the watch. So it was combined with one of the most modern engineering achievements of its time and the early 20th-century popular myth of high technology. The dream of flying and the associated sense of freedom made the pilot’s watch attractive to non-pilots as well. The pilot’s watch also replaced the idea of ​​the watch as a mere decorative element and added a new, technical oriented and then primarily male target group. Many aviator watches have their origin in wartime. During the mid-50s developing air traffic gave aviator watches a specific area of ​​application. The Breitling Navitimer from 1952, for example, was useful for aviation calculations through its bezel.

Soon after the First World War, watches took over most of the tasks pilots had to perform during flight. At first, the pilot’s watch remained in use as a replacement for special tasks. Further developments of the pilot’s watch were available for astronomical navigation, but also for military use. It was equipped for extreme climatic and kinetic conditions. Today you no longer need the pilot’s watch in aeronautics. Nevertheless, it is still firmly established in the market of luxury watches. In function and design, it has always oriented to its long history of predecessors. Manufacturers stay true to certain criteria of the classic pilot’s watch, but they also experiment with new design concepts and update the idea of ​​the pilot’s watch from time to time.

What makes a pilot’s watch?

Important features of the pilot’s watch are its easy handling and good readability. The high ease of use is indeed still a feature most aviator watches possess, but some features have also been reduced in favour of everyday usability and appearance. For example, long bracelets which formerly enabled pilots to be able to wear watches over the jacket, are now largely dispensed with. Even extremely large housings, which simplified the use and readability, are hardly used anymore.

Characteristic features of pilots watches

In principle, aviator watches have a rather unadorned, robust appearance and are designed to be particularly impact-resistant. The satin-finished surface and the matte black dials, which were once supposed to prevent reflections, are still a feature of many models today. In addition, the particularly large and handy crown, which was easy to raise and wind even with gloves, is typical of most aviator watches. The iconic zero index as a triangle can be found in many pilots watches. The good readability even in the dark was guaranteed by a high-contrast dial, hands, numerals and the zero index with luminous material. Also, the logo is often kept discreet to facilitate readability. The metal rivets, formerly used to attach leather bracelets and provide optimal support, are also used today as an accessory on aviation watches such as the IWC Pilots Chronograph 3740. Also in terms of functionality, today’s everyday watches are in no way inferior to their predecessors: Pilot’s watches are equipped with tachymeters and other useful tools and can still withstand the most adverse conditions.

Famous aviation watches

Breitling Navitimer

Immediately after its appearance on the market in 1952, the Breitling Navitimer was regarded as the aviation watch par excellence. The international pilot organization AOPA even recommended the tool watch as the official pilots watch. Its most striking feature is above all its distinctive slide rule bezel, with which, for example, climb- and descent rates, fuel consumption or average speeds can be calculated. For some years now, the famous Breitling B01 manufacture calibre has also been installed in the Navitimer, so that the aviator watch classic also meets the most modern standards.

Breitling Navtimer 01 AB012012.BB02.447A with slide rule bezel and brown leather strap

Rolex GMT-Master II

In the early 1950s, Rolex built the GMT-Master on behalf of the airline PanAm, with which two time zones can be displayed simultaneously. In addition to the reversible hour bezel, it has a hand indicating the second time zone – ideal for frequent travellers and jet-setters. Originally designed for use in the cockpit, the watch quickly gained a large fanbase through its functionality and distinctive look. Today it is a very popular luxury watch. Especially the GMT-Master II with its ceramic bezel, introduced in 2007, it is considered an extremely high-quality development of its predecessor.

Rolex GMT-Master II 126710BLRO with blue-red bezel and jubilee bracelet

IWC Big Pilots

IWC has been offering a full line of iconic aviator watches since 1936 when it launched its first special pilot watch. The quality brand is famous for the Pilot’s watch line. One of the icons here is the Big Pilots, which, among other things, with its very large housing and the large winding crown, is extremely close to the historic pilot’s watch.

Breitling Chronomat

One of the bestsellers of the luxury watch brand Breitling is definitely the Chronomat. As early as 1941, it was released on the market and was named after its prominent tool, the slide rule bezel. So the name is synonymous of “chronograph” and “mathematics” together and has been maintained to this day as the iconic pilot’s watch. Today, the Chronomat is available with a wide range of dial and bracelet variants and different materials, which makes it extremely popular amongst many watch fans.

Breitling Chronomat 44 GMT AB042011.BB56.375A stainless steel pilot's watch with black dial

Omega Speedmaster

As the first watch on the moon, the Omega Speedmaster wrote undeniable flight history. Officially designated by NASA for space travel in 1965, the so-called “Speedy” gained a large reputation, which continues to this day. On the outside, it has always remained faithful to its original. Since the first launch in 1957 only little was changed. Noteworthy features of the watch are the manual wind movement as in the universe of weightlessness an automatic movement would have proved ineffective. Just as impressive, is the Hesalite glass, which unlike sapphire crystal, could withstand the conditions of outer space.

Omega Speedmaster Day-Date 3220.50.00 stainless steel watch lying on black notebooks