What is an Aviator Watch?

Whether it’s Swiss, Japanese or an American aviator watch (or pilot watch), there’s just something about the timeless feel of an aviator watch. But what exactly is an aviator watch? How is it different from other timepieces? Let’s take a look at what makes this iconic watch type such a favorite.

Aviator Watch, A Style Decades in the Making

A quick aside to overall aviation fashion, aviator glasses have enjoyed a nice run since the 1950s with Elvis Presley, and in the 70s with Freddie Mercury. In the 80s, we got a Tom Cruise aviation overload with the movie Top Gun. From bomber jackets to shirts with shoulder epaulets, the ready-for-action look can be irresistible. And nothing captures the essence of aviation like watches.

Pilot Watch History in a Flash

We trace the pilot’s watch to Paris at the start of the 20th century when French watchmaker Louis Cartier came across Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian-born aviation enthusiast. Alberto complained that his pocket watch was too clumsy for flights. Louis, in turn, added a strap to one of his Cartier watches and history was made. Today, the square case of the Cartier Santos makes it one of the most recognizable watches in the world.

During World War 2 the German military worked with watchmakers such as A. Lange & Söhne to churn out watches for its bomber crews. Using Swiss movement, the B-Uhr was big with a 58mm case, augmented by a double-rivet leather strap. It’s eye-catching with a stark black dial and Arabic numerals that are crossed by sharp sword hands.

Elements of an Aviator Watch

1: Bezel from Pre-Computer Days

Sure, today you’d cancel your flight, delete the app and report an airline to authorities if you heard the pilots were guiding the plane with their watches. Today’s passenger airlines are guided by supercomputers (or at least we hope they are!). But there was a time, and not in ancient history, when man relied on mechanical means to safely pilot planes.

In place of computers, pilots of old had the bezels on their watches. And bezel markings can do amazing things if you know how to use them. Some bezels have tachometer scales to gauge flight speed. Some bezels have slide rules to measure fuel consumption. If you don’t have a bezel that can handle basic mathematical calculations, you probably don’t have an aviation watch in the truest sense.

There are some great aviation watches that put their big bezels out there, namely the Hamilton Khaki Aviation and it’s Pilot Pioneer with a rotating interior bezel in a design that pays homage to the timepieces of the Royal Air Force. With a dramatically scalloped bezel, the Junghans Meister Pilot Chronoscope demands attention and is probably the brashest watch in the room.

Hamilton Khaki Aviation

But other pilot watches do their bezels with a lot more subtlety. The Oris Big Crown Pointer Date has a coined-edge bezel that oozes classic charm, while the IWC Big Pilots Top Gun keeps things cool with a black ceramic bezel.

2: GMT Functions

Not all, but many pilot watches, especially in the modern era, have time-zone functions. Many of us have flown through different time zones and understand the importance of a pilot’s ability to track multiple locations. So a fine aviation watch is apt to have a GMT hand that makes a rotation every 24 hours in contrast to the hand that rotates every twelve hours.

The Rolex GMT Master II, of course, has an esteemed spot in the history of aviation timepieces. But do you go with Pepsi or Batman? The blue and red bezel that echoes the logo for Pepsi has been a collector’s favorite for years. But it got some competition at Baselworld in 2019 when Rolex rolled out a black and blue Rolex GMT with a Batman-style bezel.

Rolex GMT Master II

3: Easy to Read

If there’s anyone you want to have the correct calculations, it’s the pilot of your airplane. Aviation watches were designed to withstand the rigors of air battles when split-second decisions are literally a matter of life and death. So when you look down at the pilot’s watch you are going to see the readings.

While not carved in stone, aviator watches will often feature full-number markers that are easy to get with a glance. Hands are often equally large as there should be no guessing as to what they’re pointing at. With cases that often come in at the mid-40mm range, there’s also a lot of real estate on that face to display info in as clear a manner as possible.

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