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Time Under Pressure

Great wristwatches are often rooted in a practical application. Cigar Aficionado takes a look at some robust examples designated for wear above and below sea level.
Elizabeth Doerr
From the Print Edition:
Daniel Craig, November/December 2008

In the 1986 blockbuster Top Gun, Lt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell wears a watch manufactured by one of the most famous pilot's brands in modern history. The film came out before big product placement contracts were in vogue, so chances are the prop people chose the Breitling Chronomat for Tom Cruise to wear because of what it represents to a real pilot.

Breitling has long striven to make its timepieces serve the exacting needs of pilots and aviation enthusiasts, beginning in 1942 when it added the slide rule to the rotating ring underneath the crystal of many of its models to help pilots calculate their navigational course, flight time and even fuel consumption.

Today, the watchmaker continues this tradition of making precise timepieces for pilots in practically all of its modern offerings, and a recent reissue pays tribute to an era of one of the brand's most historical models. The new Chrono-Matic 49 has watch aficionados flashing back to 1969, when Breitling introduced its first automatic chronograph movement. The new 49 mm Chrono-Matic was inspired by the generous case of the original model and features unmistakable elements from the 1960s and '70s accented by taut, angular lines.

As Breitling so aptly illustrates, timepieces are often used as professional instruments, and not just in the air. Many companies offer robust watches not only for the extreme conditions that pilots face, but also for the underwater challenges that confront divers. Timepieces for both pilots and divers need to be extremely legible, hence the use of luminous substances on the hands and markers of both watch types. Robustness is a given; these sportily styled timepieces are housed in substantial cases that are both water- and pressure-resistant and usually crafted in stainless steel or titanium. A number of traditional watchmakers such as Breitling, IWC, Tutima and Sinn add functions to pilot's watches such as chronographs and slide rule rings that used to be necessary for navigation. Established makers of diver's watches such as Doxa, Anonimo and Rolex add rotating diver's bezels and sometimes even helium valves as special elements divers might need. A rotating bezel helps the diver keep track of how much time has been spent underwater. It goes without saying that water resistance is crucial in a good diver's watch.

Some companies make both pilot's and diver's watches. Omega, for instance, has attained fame with both its Speedmaster and Seamaster lines.

Pilot's watches find their origins in rather mundane reasoning: the need for reliable timepieces to aid in navigating planes. There wasn't time to take a pocket watch out every time a calculation needed to be adjusted, so pocket watches were initially strapped to the upper thigh to allow the pilot to look down. This naturally evolved into a timepiece that was strapped around the arm, over the jacket.

Pilot's watches have always shared certain characteristics, beginning with great legibility achieved by a very large dial with a black background featuring large, white, very often luminous numerals, markers and hands, making it easy to glean the time with just a glance.

These timepieces often also contain a stopwatch function called a chronograph. While pocket watches had just one button for start, stop and reset, the wristwatch soon progressed to two buttons: the top one for start and stop, and the bottom one for reset. This also proved somewhat laborious, especially when quick reflexes and calculations were necessary, so watchmakers invented the flyback function, which allows successive times to be taken without having to first reset the chronograph. The development of the split-seconds chronograph, permitting comparative timing, further eased piloting calculations.

One of the classic makes for pilots is IWC, a brand that achieved fame during the Second World War when it was named one of five companies authorized by the German air force to assemble its large aviation watches.

Today, the Schaffhausen-based brand crafts classic pilot's watches in contemporary variations. A split-seconds chronograph—one of the complications this company is especially well known for—was introduced last year into its Top Gun edition, a line that didn't get its name because it was worn by Tom Cruise, but because it is dedicated to the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School that both the movie and the elite troops are named for. This year, IWC presents a regular chronograph version that is black, masculine and built for extreme service thanks to a 44 mm ceramic and titanium case—two unbeatable materials in terms of robustness that the watchmaker introduced to horology as far back as the early 1980s. IWC often adds a soft iron core to its timepieces to maximize protection of the movement against magnetic fields, a specialty that has characterized its pilot's watches since 1948 when the Mark 11 served the Royal Air Force.


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