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Vintage Pilot Watches

Laurie Kahle
From the Print Edition:
The Brains Behind Homeland, May/June 2012

The story goes that in 1904 the Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont complained to his friend Louis Cartier about the inconvenience of using a pocket watch while flying. Cartier responded with the first aviator model. Dubbed Santos, its placement on the wrist also represented another first in men’s watches.

Born out of practicality, the watches of this genre evolved as functioning flight instruments. In 1942, Breitling introduced the Chronomat, the first wristwatch with a circular slide rule. Other such techy pilot features have included tachymeters for calculating speed, chronographs, antimagnetic and shockproof features, large, grooved crowns for easy manipulation and black dials with white luminous markings for heightened legibility. Since modern cockpits now supply all the necessary instrumentation, the trend in today’s pilot watches is to evoke the romantic spirit of early-to-mid-twentieth-century aviation with vintage and military touches.

IWC, which introduced its Mark 11 pilot’s watch in 1948, has dramatically expanded its pilot’s range this year with six models.

Two of them—the Big Pilot’s Watch Top Gun Miramar and the Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Top Gun Miramar ($12,700)—are named for the elite U.S. Navy flight school immortalized in the Tom Cruise film. The separation of the minutes and seconds on the outer chapter ring with hours displayed on a smaller central ring in red is a nod to the navigation-deck watches of the 1930s and ’40s, while the date display resembles an altimeter. The gray ceramic cases, anthracite dials and green textile straps lend a modern military flavor to the designs.

Bell & Ross’s Vintage WW2 Bomber Régulateur ( $6,600) also separates the hours and minutes displays. The regulator movement highlights minutes with a central hand, hours on a counter at 6 o’clock, and an independent seconds hand at 12 o’clock. Distinguished by a matte steel bidirectional notched bezel, this 49-millimeter piece already exhibits the patina of a well-worn leather bomber jacket.

Zenith also taps its aviation heritage with three new pilot’s models, including the 57.5-millimeter titanium Pilot Montre d’Aeronef Type 20 ($10,500), the first incarnation of which was a popular cockpit clock in the 1930s and ’40s. As with Alpina’s appealing new Heritage Pilot, Zenith’s gargantuan retro piece is powered by a pocket watch movement—the brand’s 5011 caliber, which, in 1967, was named the most accurate chronometer ever tested by the Neuchâtel Observatory. Alberto Santos-Dumont would surely be amused.

Visit iwc.com, bellross.com and zenith-watches.com.

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