Because there are no clear, agreed-upon features that define a ‘pilot watch’, each brand has their own vision and approach in what a pilot watch looks like. This makes for substantial creative freedom, which shows up in the different design elements that make each watch unique. That said, there are certain key elements that are common across the board, given that this watch has a specific function: it was born out of a necessity for a watch that tells time at a glance and is easily operable with pilot gloves on. Therefore, a tell-tale sign of a pilot watch is most notably the case size, usually bigger (back in the early 20th century, usually the case sizes were around 55 mm) supporting sharp legibility. Secondly and just as important, the crown is also bigger in size (usually diamond or onion-shaped) for easy grip with gloves on. Additionally, it is very typical to see big Arabic numerals and an “Orientation Triangle” at 12 o’clock position – these all help in making the dial easy to read.
History of Pilot Watches
Now that you know what to look for in a pilot watch, let’s dive into some interesting historical background to better understand the evolution of the design and functionality. Interestingly enough, the first ever wrist watch was made for a pilot, before which pilots would use special straps to secure the pocket watch to their wrists while flying. Sounds like a hole in the market? Alberto Santos-Dumont thought so too, when he commissioned his friend to create some contraption that can be used while flying. The friend? None other than Louis Cartier. The Cartier Santos watch was born in 1904, the first ever men’s wrist watch, which also happened to be a pilot watch. Over the years, different brands implemented additional innovations to make the watch more functional for pilots, the most crucial of which was the addition of an iron cage around the movement to provide protection against the magnetic fields. More complex innovations by Breitling’s were focusing on even more technical functions such as the ability to calculate fuel consumption, speed, distance, flight time, etc.
Later on, and especially during World War II, as aviation improved more and more brands started focusing on making pilot watches.
Pilot Watch Characteristics:
So you decided to buy a pilot watch (because let’s face it, they are a pretty cool addition to any watch collection) but you want to make sure you know what you are supposed to look for to identify a pilot watch when you see one. The iron cage around the movement for magnetic field protection is certainly great (and sounds useful?) but it doesn’t sound like a stick-out design element that is easy to spot. Don’t fret, because we come prepared with a list of features you can look for that most pilot watches have in common:
- Large and Legible Dial: Pilots have enough things to pay attention to when flying, so they need to be able to quickly and easily tell the time in bad weather conditions, during night, etc. So look for large dials, usually with dark colors and contrasting numbers.
- Orientation Triangle at 12 o’clock.
- Large Arabic numerals.
- Luminosity: luminosity is a must to enhance readability during night flights.
- Oversized crown: big crowns had a necessary function as the watch had to be operable without the pilot taking his gloves off. Nowadays, it remains a classic feature as a nod to the historic origins.
- Extra bezel markings: The markings assisted pilots in making different calculations, like fuel consumption, distance, etc.
- Dual time or GMT Function: for the ability to tell the time in different time zones by a single glance at the dial.
Milestone Pilot Watches:
- 1904 – Cartier Santos: the first ever wristwatch
- 1909 – Zenith: Louis Bleriot, the first person to fly across the English Channel, wore a Zenith pocket watch wrapped around his wrist.
- 1927 – Longines Lindbergh Hour Angle Watch. Charles A. Lindbergh was the first person in the world to cross the North Atlantic Ocean by aircraft. The watch had a rotating inner dial that could be set to keep accurate time while flying over the ocean. This was the beginning of a rotating bezel we see today in so many watches.
- 1952 – Breitling Navitimer. The US Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) asked Willy Breitling to create a new chronograph for its members. He designed a wrist-worn mini computer to help pilots to perform calculations, such as speed, distance traveled, fuel consumption, etc.
- 1969 – Omega Speedmaster. While it was originally designed as a racer watch in the ‘50s, the adoption of this watch by pilots makes sense due to its larger size and excellent legibility, which is obviously needed at high speeds. Perhaps the most iconic and well known of all, the Speedmaster or “Moon Watch” was the NASA-approved watch for astronauts. During the Apollo 11 mission, Buzz Aldrin wore his Omega Speedmaster while walking on the surface of the moon.
Pilot Watch Buyer's Guide
Most Common Reasons to Buy a Pilot Watch
Looking at all this with two feet on the ground (cause most of us are not pilots, you know? Get it?), it’s a safe assumption we’re not expecting to hop on a plane any time soon to kick off an expedition where we’ll need to rely on our analog tools to determine the time and altitude. Valid, but hear me out. There is a good reason pilot watches remain one of the most popular and sought after watches. Simply put, they make you look cool, but casual, but mostly just really, really cool. Like you know what you are doing, you know? Dependable, a guy with a plan.
Not for the faint of heart, these watches make a statement:
- Characteristic, rugged design. Pilot watches have oversized features (big dial, big crown), so wearing one is definitely a statement piece.
- Casual and masculine design. Your inner adventurer and explorer is mirrored in your watch. It is a good reminder of an era when people who wore pilot watches were brave enough to pioneer air travel!
- This watch is not just a beautiful timepiece. If you like the additional features and complex operations you can use your watch for, pilot watches are definitely for you. It is a true testament to outstanding craftsmanship that improved the whole industry over the years.
Take a look at our customized pilot watch categories sorted by price, each watch thoughtfully selected keeping in mind superior quality and lasting design.