There’s a an air of exclusivity, sophistication and adventure that goes with wearing a pilot’s watch. It conjures up images of unexplored destinations and sunsets viewed from tiny airplane windows. But what if we told you pilot’s watches came about because of practicality?
Back in the day, when pocket watches were the default method of telling the time while on the move, in certain circumstances they could be awkward to use. That’s what Brazilian pilot, inventor and aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont found while flying: during his aeronautical studies, he struggled to capture flight performance times conveniently using a pocket watch.
Integrating convenient, precise timekeeping with aviation was something that occupied the mind of Santos-Dumont even while, in 1904, he was winning the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize of 100 000 francs for successfully flying a round trip from the Parc Saint Cloud to the Eiffel Tower in Paris and back in under half an hour. The feat took him more than two years of preparation, and two expertly designed airships, to accomplish the mammoth task.
During a victory celebration in Paris Santos-Dumont, shared his frustrations about the pocket watch with close friend Louis Cartier. Santos-Dumont asked Cartier to design an alternative that allowed him to keep both his hands on the airship controls.
Cartier obliged and created a watch with a leather strap and a buckle. Although Cartier’s watch is not the world’s first wristwatch, it is regarded as being among the first pilot’s watches. Three decades later, a Swiss watchmaker would enter the world of aviation and horology with a special-purpose watch.
The first Special pilot’s watch left the factory of luxury Swiss watch manufacturer International Watch Company, also known as IWC, in 1936.
In the 80 years that followed, IWC has created a number of significant pilot’s watches, including:
▴ The IWC Special Pilot’s Watch
The first pilot’s watch produced by IWC was a technically advanced, special-purpose watch that offered maximum reliability. This watch was fitted with shatterproof glass, high-contrast hands and hour markers, and a rotating bezel with an index that could record short periods of time.
▴ The 52-calibre T. S. C. Big Pilot’s Watch
This is the largest watch ever produced by IWC. It measures 55 millimetres in diameter as per military specifications. The watch, inspired by aviation instrumentation, was produced in 1940 and became the model for all classic pilot’s watches.
▴ The Pilot’s Watch Mark 11
Produced from 1948 onwards, the Mark 11 is the best known of pilot’s watches from IWC. The watch was originally built for the Royal Air Force and has been in constant use for more than 30 years.
The 1994 Pilot’s Watch Mark XII succeeded the iconic Mark 11.
▴ The Pilot’s Watch UTC
At the time the Pilot’s Watch UTC was offered everything a pilot could need. From its Universal Time co-ordination, optional 24-hour display to its time zone corrector, the UTC offered functionality and reliability. This pilot’s watch was available only in a limited edition of 500 watches.
Today the Schaffhausen-based manufacturer still produces luxury special-purpose watches. The ultra-modern yet classic Pilot’s Watches give a nod to aviation history with names such as Spitfire and Top Gun.
Find out more about IWC’s pilot’s watches, here.
Images credit: IWC