The return of the pilot watch

Pilot watches are taking off, with heritage relaunches, aviation collaborations and new specialist marques delighting both modern aviators and high-flyers alike. Nick Foulkes reports

Bell & Ross BR 03 Rafale, £4,200
Bell & Ross BR 03 Rafale, £4,200

Every year, watchmaker IWC Schaffhausen revisits and updates one of its core collections, often treating it as if it were a new product. 2016 is its year of the Pilot (£4,650), and CEO Georges Kern is in an upbeat mood: “Along with the Portofino this has been the most successful launch, or relaunch I should say, in the past 14 years.”

IWC’s first pilot watch appeared in 1936, ticking all the design boxes that have since come to define the genre: sturdy large-diameter case; simple black dial; and large, white, luminous numerals and hands. At that time, the aviation timepiece was a piece of bulky cockpit instrumentation that had attached itself to the wrist; today, it is on the way to becoming a bona fide market sector, like the diving watch, with an increasing number of marques offering their take on it.

From left: Longines stainless-steel Lindbergh Hour Angle watch, £3,110. Bell & Ross ceramic BR 03-94 Black Matte, £4200. IWC stainless-steel Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Spitfire, £4,650
From left: Longines stainless-steel Lindbergh Hour Angle watch, £3,110. Bell & Ross ceramic BR 03-94 Black Matte, £4200. IWC stainless-steel Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Spitfire, £4,650 | Image: Photopress

One factor contributing to the take-off (excuse the pun) of the pilot watch in recent years is the increasing popularity of heritage-inspired timepieces. As long-established brands study their archives for suitable candidates for revival, many are finding that at one time or another they have developed special pilot watches. For example, Longines makes a watch (£3,110) inspired by the famous “hour angle” watches originally developed with aviator Charles Lindbergh, who made the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight in 1927. According to horological historian Dominique Fléchon, these watches assisted navigation by giving “the hour angle between the Greenwich meridian and the sun, taking into account the equation of time”.   

Zenith has focused on its link with an even earlier airman: Louis Blériot. “The pilot style is a good way to remind people that we were the companion of pioneers like Blériot,” explains CEO Aldo Magada. The Zenith pilot was introduced in 2012 as a limited edition of 250 pieces with an almost unwearably large 57.5mm diameter; it was to have been launched at the Basel fair that year, but word had spread and it sold out before the fair started.

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Since then, Magada has focused the line on more accessible diameters of 45mm and 48mm, with the result that pilot watches account for 15 per cent of Zenith’s production – and the bronze pilot (£5,200) launched last year is currently the bestselling of all Zenith’s watches. “We are short of them, and when I was in Singapore recently, retailers were complaining that they could not get enough, which is nice to hear in the current economic climate.”

In recent times, Breitling has been the default aviation watch. Its relaunch during the 1980s with the Chronomat – a watch intended for Italy’s Frecce Tricolore aerobatics team, which became a 1980s and 1990s totem – saw it dominate the sector. Its marketing is relentlessly focused; if you are reading this and have not seen plane-mad John Travolta advertising Breitling, then congratulations on having just come out of a coma. And its aviation chronograph, the Navitimer, has enjoyed the longest run of uninterrupted production (64 years) of any chronograph, and boasts the signature refinement of the circular slide rule that enables the practised user to calculate rate of ascent, descent and fuel burn and convert statute into nautical miles.  

Breitling titanium Exospace B55, £6,540
Breitling titanium Exospace B55, £6,540

Breitling also continues to develop watches for the modern aviator. Its famous Emergency watch (£12,040) is in its second generation, while its Aerospace model has been superseded by the Exospace B55 connected watch (£6,540), devised especially for pilots with such features as a countdown function and the “chrono flight” system, which records flight times, block times (measured from the aircraft’s first movement until it comes to a standstill after landing) and airport codes, and downloads the data to a smartphone.

But now Breitling has been joined by more recently established specialist brands focusing on aviation-related timepieces, and which work with various air forces and military squadrons, most notably the French-headquartered Bell & Ross and the British-based Bremont.

Front and back of the Richard Mille titanium/aluminium and ceramic RM 50-02 ACJ, £883,000
Front and back of the Richard Mille titanium/aluminium and ceramic RM 50-02 ACJ, £883,000 | Image: www.richardmille.com/Youenn B

For a relative newcomer Bremont impresses: they managed to convince Boeing to work with them (Bremont Boeing 100, £5,495). “We were slightly flabbergasted when they first approached us,” says co-founder Giles English. “Part of their senior management saw what we were doing and said, ‘Look I know you’re working with a lot of military squadrons – would you like to do something quite strategic with us?’ We didn’t want to just do a branding thing with them.” Bremont now benefits from access to Boeing’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield. “We’re working quite closely on new material developments and manufacturing processes,” says English. “And that, along with working with Martin-Baker [manufacturer of ejector seats], has been not only a very good entry into aviation, but very good support on an R&D level as well.”

While I have yet to hear of another watchmaker that has linked itself to a specific brand of ejector seat, Bremont is far from being alone in working with a leading aviation company. Indeed, there are signs that a watch-plane tie-in is becoming as important as horological-automotive co-branding started to become 20 years ago. Last year Bell & Ross announced that it was joining with Dassault to create a watch to celebrate the Rafale, a French military jet. “At that time, the Rafale was coming in for a lot of criticism because it was never exported. Nevertheless, we liked the plane and admired its design and decided to make the tribute to the Rafale,” says Bell & Ross’s Carlos Rosillo. Not only was the watch (£4,200) popular with collectors, it was positively talismanic for the Rafale.

Breitling titanium Emergency II, £12,040. Zenith bronze Heritage Pilot Type 20 Extra Special 45mm, £5,200. Rolex steel Air-King, £4,150
Breitling titanium Emergency II, £12,040. Zenith bronze Heritage Pilot Type 20 Extra Special 45mm, £5,200. Rolex steel Air-King, £4,150 | Image: © Rolex

“When the watch arrived at the 2015 Basel fair, it was just the moment that they received confirmation of the first exports of the Rafale, after which they had success in other countries, and now it’s one of France’s proudest exports. And we were very happy because when we invited people in Le Bourget to show the Rafale watch alongside the plane, the Dassault family paid a tribute to what we achieved, and said that we were like a talisman for them.”

It was not, however, the first time the Dassault family had worked with Bell & Ross. In 2013 they had collaborated on a watch to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Dassault Falcon – the highly successful business jet that was derived from the firm’s expertise in military aviation and still very much in demand today. Indeed, as much as military or commercial aircraft, the private jet is capturing the attention of watchmakers. For instance, until recently Alpina was working with Cessna and PrivatAir, and when you bought one of Alpina’s Startimer pilot watches, it came bundled with its very own Cessna – the slight disappointment is that it is a scale model. (The brand is shortly to announce a partnership with Air France.)

Patek Philippe white gold Calatrava Pilot Travel Time, £31,320
Patek Philippe white gold Calatrava Pilot Travel Time, £31,320 | Image: www.patek.com

And at the rarefied end of the market, this year Richard Mille announced a partnership with Airbus, putting out a watch (£883,000) that Mille describes as both “incredibly complex” and yet “a lifestyle watch”. Catchily named the RM 50-02 ACJ (Airbus Corporate Jets), the white ceramic bezel has been shaped to resemble the profile of an Airbus side window; the titanium aluminium alloy used for the case is the same as that used in the turbine blades and the famous Mille Spline screws have been replaced by a set of trademarked Torq-Set screws used by Airbus; the crown carries the Airbus logo; and some of the visible parts in the movement have been treated with an aeronautical anti-corrosion coating that imparts a yellowish tint, which, along with green and yellow counters, gives the overall feel of a cockpit instrument panel.

Instrumentation was also strong inspiration for another of this year’s most talked about relaunches: the aptly named Rolex Air‑King (£4,150). In common with many brands, Rolex was on the wrist of pioneer aviators and record breakers between the world wars, when aviation first captured the public imagination. And although the new 40mm Air-King eschews any 1930s period detailing, it is given a distinct character thanks to a black dial that has a combination of large numerals at three, six and nine o’clock, the other positions around the dial occupied by a prominent minute scale; so designed, says the brand, “for navigational time readings”. It must not be forgotten that Rolex also created one of the most famous pilot watches ever, a watch that has integrated itself so perfectly into the horological landscape that it has ceased being considered a pilot watch: the GMT Master, initially created to enable Pan Am pilots to keep track of the time in two places simultaneously.  

Bremont titanium Boeing 100 Limited Edition, £5,495
Bremont titanium Boeing 100 Limited Edition, £5,495 | Image: Watch Anish

Of all specialist functions, from countdown timing to circular slide rules, it is the ability to move between time zones that is perhaps of most use to modern pilot watch wearers, the majority of whom, after all, are not pilots. Certainly that was what Thierry Stern of Patek Philippe was thinking when in 2015 he launched the Calatrava Pilot Travel Time Ref 5524 (£31,320), or simply the Patek Pilot as it has become known colloquially.

There is a historical precedent in the Patek Philippe Museum, where two watches from 1936 demonstrating the sort of dimensions that make a Panerai seem undersized, are on show. “A lot of clients who went to the museum and saw those watches said, ‘Wow, that’s so cool you should redo something like that.’ So, after maybe 1,000 people had told me that, I started to think, well, maybe we should do something with the same spirit but smaller,” Stern told me at the time of the Patek Pilot’s launch. “And more in line with how people travel today. So I realised the watch with a travel time system on it.” To link the wearer and plane, Stern also redesigned the clasp of the watchstrap to recall a parachute buckle.

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The only the thing that bothers him about the watch is the name. “Really, it should not be considered as the pilot’s watch, but the co-pilot’s watch, or the watch of the passenger sitting in the back.” Given that pilot watch wearers far outnumber pilot licence holders, it may be more accurate, but I suspect the pilot watch would be less popular today if either of these names were adopted.

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