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.
In the late 1930s, German and Swiss companies began making watches specifically for the needs of battle-tested pilots. In Germany, this planning mainly took place in the legendary watchmaking city Glashütte. The prerequisites for the Reich air force watch were precisely outlined in the ministry of defense's strict spec booklet, including the accuracy of its rate. What emerged was the first serial Tutima pilot's watch. Between 1941 and 1945, about 30,000 were manufactured, most of which were used as the official watch of the Luftwaffe's pilots.
Modern-day Tutima continues its aviation tradition, even aiding in resuscitating this extremely legible style of timepiece. In 1985, the German army contracted Tutima to create a new mechanical military watch at a time when this anachronistic style of watch had been decidedly replaced by quartz precision.
The resulting Military Chronograph 798 has since been part of the standard equipment of a Bundeswehr pilot, as well as the only official air force chronograph for NATO. Spurred on by the renaissance of mechanical watches at the beginning of the 1990s, Tutima decided to make a replica of the brand's original pilot's watch from 1941, something few had ever thought of doing. This timepiece, simply called Flieger in the United States, has spawned an entire family of pilot's watches, the latest of which is the revamped Grand Classic, housed in a contemporary 43 mm stainless steel case.
In 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic, in 33 hours and 30 minutes. This American hero spent his life promoting aviation, and one of the by-products of his passion was the Hour Angle Watch he designed as a navigational aid for pilots. Longines later manufactured the watch based on Lindbergh's specifications. The original Hour Angle Watch was designed to be used in conjunction with a sextant, a nautical almanac and a radio set for receiving the time signal. Together, these objects made it possible for a pilot to quickly determine the Greenwich hour angle—in other words, longitude. On the wrists of other famous aviation pioneers such as Amelia Earhart, who set her own records for transatlantic flight in 1932, the Hour Angle Watch became a pilot's staple during the early days of air travel.
This classic wristwatch has undergone a number of changes in the last 70 years or so, with 2006 marking the return of its original size. The requisite diameter for the watch to be of use in early 1930s cockpits—47.5 mm—is a definitive maxi size for the modern era. Worn over the sleeve, the timepiece had to be large and legible so that it could be used during flight. Its newest version—now automatic, of course—is crafted in stainless steel and features a rotating bezel that is used to synchronize the second hand with the reference points for the radio time signal.
In its early days, Bell & Ross might have seemed like the alter ego of Germany's Sinn, a brand whose word-of-mouth reputation clapped like thunder among the world's pilots by the end of the 1980s. Sinn's wristwatches and board and instrument clocks were used primarily by professionals such as pilots, divers, military organizations and astronauts.
Bell & Ross, a French-based maker of Swiss timepieces, collaborated with pilot Helmut Sinn and his experienced team of watchmakers when Bell & Ross was starting out. The collaboration dissolved after a few years when it became clear that Carlos Rosillo and Bruno Belamich (from whose last names the brand name derives) were looking for a different identity. But not before Bell & Ross had attained an audience; Rosillo sees his clientele as "a customer that also has a sense of design, but who appreciates readability and simplicity, or just plain functional products." One of Bell & Ross's early watches, for example, was a Sinn that German astronaut Reinhard Furrer wore in 1985 during the Spacelab mission; Model 142 was the first automatic chronograph in space. On the 20th anniversary of this event, Sinn paid tribute to the D1 Mission of 2005 by issuing a special series of the model crafted in titanium and limited to 500 pieces. Connoisseurs can still purchase a stainless steel version.
Currently, Bell & Ross is making a huge splash with its Instrument line, a modern timepiece for pilots and fans of aviation alike. The BR 01 Instrument, representing the company's well-conceived idea to turn a plane's cockpit into a wristwatch, can be used as watch, pendant or dashboard clock, its transformation completed in seconds using the four screws located in each of the case's corners—an attachment system identical to the clamping system used for instrument panel gauges in airplane cockpits.
Sinn, under new ownership since 1994, has also continued to build upon its excellent reputation for serious watches, while direct sales have maintained low prices for Sinn's models, which retain a price-performance ratio of almost mythical proportions.
Fortis also specializes in both space and pilot's watches. The Fortis Spacematic could be found on the wrists of seven different American astronauts in 1962. Thirty years later, the Official Cosmonauts Chronograph became standard equipment for Russian space activity with the EUROMIR I mission in 1994. Today, Fortis participates in the Global Transmission Service experiment run on the International Space Station. The GTS is slated to be used for global synchronization of radio-controlled watches and clocks on earth, even taking the planet's different time zones into consideration.
Undoubtedly, the most famous watch worn in space belonged to Neil Armstrong, best remembered for uttering the legendary words "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" on July 20, 1969, when he became the first human ever to set foot on the moon. Armstrong had taken an Omega Speedmaster Professional with him on the mission, though he left it in the capsule during his moon walk. (The honor of being the first person to wear a watch on the moon fell to mission mate Buzz Aldrin, who was also wearing a Speedmaster.)
The celebrated Speedmaster has been worn during numerous space missions, including playing a major role in rescuing astronauts from the unlucky Apollo 13 mission as illustrated by the Tom Hanks movie of the same name. Having deactivated the power systems, which rendered the computerized timing devices inoperative, Commander Jim Lovell set a course correction for home by using his Speedmaster Professional for both the timing and interval thrust for engine burns as the crew rounded the moon. To this day, the Speedmaster remains a backbone of Omega's collection.
Watches can travel just as far in the other direction too. Seafaring timepieces began life with the Longitude Act of July 8, 1714. Proud of its country's maritime might, the British Parliament sought a better way of measuring longitude, which would ultimately improve navigation. Precision was a must, and large rewards were promised to anyone who "shall discover a more certain and practical method of ascertaining the longitude." John Harrison presented his H4 marine chronometer in 1759, winning the competition. The reward for the successful invention, collected six years later, was a true king's ransom: 20,000 pounds sterling, which would be valued at several million dollars today.
In the nineteenth century, Ulysse Nardin manufactured some of the most precise marine chronometers of his day. As classic marine chronometers were replaced by less sensitive, electronically driven devices in the quartz age of the late twentieth century, the modern company named for its founder has come to specialize in precision marine-styled wrist chronometers. Ulysse Nardin's Maxi Marine Chronometer, aside from being exceptionally accurate, is water-resistant to 20 atmospheres (equal to 200 meters or 660 feet of water pressure).
Naturally, water-resistant timepieces have also been used for military purposes. Guido Panerai & Figlio, established in 1860 in Florence, became an official supplier to the Italian navy in the 1890s, providing it with such progressive instruments as compasses, depth measuring devices and torpedo fuses. In 1938, the company, now called Officine Panerai, manufactured its first timekeeper—a diver's watch for the navy called the Radiomir. Throughout the decades, the company's highly specialized product palette made the name Panerai synonymous with measuring maritime space and time. Today's collection mainly comprises variations on the Radiomir and the similar-looking Luminor models housed in various case materials and outfitted with different complications.
In 1990, Panerai was purchased by luxury watch group Richemont and its production was moved to Switzerland, leaving a number of experienced craftsmen behind in Tuscany. They rallied around Federico Massacesi, who had gained years of luxury experience with Salvatore Ferragamo, and Anonimo—Italian for "anonymous"—was born.
Anonimo entered into a collaboration with C.N.S. (Cooperativa Nazionale Sommozzatori), a respected industrial deep-sea diving outfit, whose divers now wear Anonimo's watches during their many underwater projects. In exchange, these aquatic technicians provide Anonimo with expert advice that allows the watchmaker to create products tailored toward professional divers.
The alliance led to the creation of the Professionale, a model whose case was inspired by some of C.N.S.'s diving equipment. An advanced water-resistant crown-locking system alleviates torsion on the crown's gaskets, also known as O-rings. The bezel and case back are attached to a locking system that prevents accidental opening underwater—or anywhere else. The Professionale also features an automatic helium valve for use in depths to 120 atmospheres, or 1,200 meters. When professionals work in great depths of water, very fine molecules of gas mixtures from artificial atmospheres, including high amounts of helium, enter the watch under pressure. These do not affect operation, but they cannot escape, and during decompression these expanding gases could cause the watch to burst. The valve allows them to escape safely.
The world's first water-resistant watch was developed by Rolex in 1926, when company founder Hans Wilsdorf patented a watch with a case as watertight as the industry had seen to that point: the fittingly named Oyster. The following year he engaged the testimonial support of Mercedes Gleitze, the first British woman to swim across the English Channel. On October 7, 1927, Gleitze swam from France to England in 15 hours and 15 minutes. Two weeks later, in an attempt to dispel doubts of her feat raised when another female swimmer's Channel crossing four days after hers was exposed as a hoax, Gleitze decided to repeat her Channel journey in what became known as the Vindication Swim. Wearing a Rolex Oyster in a ribbon around her neck, she swam more than 10 hours in sub-60 degree waters before falling seven miles short.
Rolex products haven't changed much since then—why change a winning game? These iconic timepieces are now outfitted with 120-notch unidirectionally rotating bezels to measure elapsed time, and they are equipped with a ratchet to ensure that they don't accidentally move.
Few people outside of diving circles or fans of the Clive Cussler novels spotlighting the adventures of hero Dirk Pitt, a National Underwater and Marine Agency agent, have probably ever heard of Doxa. Cussler, the real-life founder and chairman of NUMA, became enamored of the first commercial diver's watch, manufactured in 1967, while working in a dive accessory store. After penning his first Pitt novel, he received one as a going-away present. His hero has worn an "orange face Doxa dive watch" in these novels ever since.
In 1964, intending to create an instrument for professional divers, Doxa had set up a research team of several professional divers that included Claude Wesly, the first man to swim the Mediterranean and a collaborator of famed underwater scientist Jacques Cousteau. The resulting timepiece, the Doxa SUB, introduced two revolutionary features, one of which was a unidirectionally rotating bezel showcasing an official U.S. Navy no-decompression limit table engraved on the bezel to assist divers in keeping track of time and water depth. The other feature, breaking with all designing norms of the day, was a progressive bright orange dial allowing for extreme legibility under dark diving conditions—which set off a trend. The modern Doxa collection comprises a great number of variations on this theme, currently well illustrated by the SUB 5000T Professional model, which is water-resistant to 1,500 meters, or nearly 5,000 feet.
Blancpain also has a history in diver's watches, exemplified by a line called Fifty Fathoms. The brand evolved after two French naval officers, Robert Maloubier and Claude Riffaud, were charged in 1952 with creating a military diving unit by the French Ministry of Defense. Since the military had no watch that could stand up to the extreme conditions of underwater missions, the two Frenchmen gave Blancpain a precise list of details that such a watch should include. The brand's watchmakers and engineers then developed a mechanical watch that remained water-resistant to 50 fathoms (91.45 meters). A few years later, the robust watch accompanied ocean researcher Cousteau and director Louis Malle as they filmed the award-winning 1956 movie The Silent World.
In 2007, the Swiss manufacturer decided to relaunch the collection to include an automatic model, a chronograph with flyback function and an extremely water-resistant tourbillon (down to 300 meters).
Cousteau is an important name in the history of underwater research, and Kobold Watch Co. has tapped into a new generation of this family's immense know-how to produce its latest, the large Soarway Diver. The watch was designed with Philippe Cousteau, grandson of Jacques and a deep-sea diver and conservationist in his own right. The biggest timepiece in the Kobold collection, the Soarway Diver's large dial harks back to the minimalist design style of professional diver's watches from the 1960s. Waterproof to 500 meters (1,640 feet), the watch is outfitted with multiple shock-resistance systems and a soft-iron core to minimize the effects of magnetic interference on the watch's automatic movement.
Jaeger-LeCoultre is another watchmaker resurrecting '60s-era timepieces. The company manufactured only 1,714 of its classic diver's watch, Memovox Polaris, between 1965 and 1970. Celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, the brand now releases editions that faithfully reproduce the 1965 and 1968 models respectively, featuring their essential three-crown configuration. One crown controls the hand-setting and manual winding (at 4 o'clock), one winds and adjusts the alarm (at 2 o'clock) and one sets and adjusts the rotating ring found under the crystal with its triangular reference marker (at 3 o'clock). While the original Memovox Polaris had a three-part case, including two inner cases—one in bronze to enhance the alarm's resonance and one drilled with 16 holes to prevent the sound from muffling into a wetsuit—the tribute models use an inner, sealed case back that retains its role as a resonance chamber, and a gong positioned differently within the movement.
Sailing has also inspired some quality watches, starting in 1960 with Corum's classic Admiral's Cup. The new Admiral's Cup Tides 48 is the successor model to the line's tide watch, which first debuted in 1992. The three individual mechanisms that make up the tide movement were developed in cooperation with the Geneva Observatory and the French navy's hydrographic and oceanographic service in Brest, where a difference in water level of more than eight meters between ebb and tide can be observed—and where a tide watch is particularly practical. In 2002, it was unimaginable that a team from a landlocked country could ever hope to take sailing's most important trophy, the America's Cup. However, team Alinghi, sailing under the Swiss flag, won the legendary competition on March 2, 2003, against all odds, then repeated the feat in 2007. One of the team's main sponsors, Audemars Piguet, created a line of Royal Oak watches in honor of the partnership.
Not to be outdone, Girard-Perregaux, which sponsored the BMW Oracle team, the main challenger for the 2007 America's Cup, was busy creating its own commemorative watches for the event. Banking on the tie that watchmaking has with seafaring, and possibly underscoring the fact that Girard-Perregaux owns the right to use John Harrison's name, the brand crafted special editions in its ww.tc, Laureato and Sea Hawk lines. This year, the watchmaker released the Sea Hawk Pro 1000, which can survive in 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) of water thanks in part to its helium decompression valve.
Meanwhile, a relative newcomer, Reactor, has been making a name for itself with well-conceived quartz-controlled timepieces specifically made for rugged sports. The Gamma model was tested by being attached to a shipwreck submerged 300 feet off the southeast coast of Florida. The Gamma remains visible for 24 hours in the dark, even under water, thanks to a new process Reactor uses to apply a luminous substance to dial elements. The Gamma will remain attached to the shipwreck for three years, with Mike Barnette, diver and cofounder of the Association of Underwater Explorers, checking on it once a year. The Gamma is outfitted with a 10-year power cell and is depth-tested to 300 meters (990 feet).
Reactor is also designing a professional line of diver's timepieces with former world-record-holding free diver Francisco "Pipin" Ferreras. Award-winning filmmaker James Cameron has purchased the rights to Ferreras's life story, and will direct and produce The Dive, set to star Salma Hayek. Free diving is an extreme sport in which participants use a weighted sled to descend hundreds of feet after taking only a single breath of air, racing back to the surface attached to an inflated lift bag. Ferreras set his record with a 587-foot plunge.
Extreme sports and situations are often the subjects of both movies and watches, so it should come as no surprise that Tom Cruise was rumored at one point to be considering starring in a Top Gun II film. However, he would certainly have had a harder time choosing a rugged watch this time around. After all, the sky is not the limit today.
Elizabeth Doerr is a freelance watch writer based in Germany.