The birth of aviator watches can be ultimately traced back to a conversation between Louis Cartier and his Brazilian friend, Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1906. According to legend, Santos-Dumont was looking to expand his career in aviation, and he explained to Cartier the difficulty he experienced checking his pocket watch mid-flight.
Cartier’s reaction to his friend’s complaints was decisive. Within a short time, he introduced the Santos, a watch with an easy-to-read dial and numerical markings. Thus, Santos-Dumont became the first pilot to replace his pocket watch with a timepiece he could strap around his wrist, something which up until then had only been seen on women.
As Cartier’s designs grew more technical, the widespread popularity of the Santos timepieces began to cause a change in the public’s perception of men’s wristwatches. Then, following the outbreak of the First World War, the requirements of the aviation industry became far more mechanical. Consequently, the demand for the chronograph and other aviation models increased enormously.
At the time, however, access to the Santos was limited. Most pilots still wore repurposed field watches, which although basic in design and functionality, still met the two main requirements of a pilot’s watch: accuracy and readability in low-light conditions. But gradually, air forces around the world began to develop timepieces that addressed aviation-specific functions.
The Flieger style watch was developed by the German Luftwaffe in the 1930s. The early Type-A had simple numerals and a delta index at 12 o’clock. The Type-B came with over-sized hours on the inner dial and large minutes in the outer dial. Type-B measured a huge 55mm and was issued to pilots who relied on precision timing for highly accurate navigation and target acquisition.
The Jet Age
With the invention of Frank Whittle’s jet engine, pilots soon found themselves flying across multiple time zones. To standardise global operations, air forces and domestic airlines began organising flights based on Greenwich Mean Time or Zulu time, as GMT is known among real aviators and pilots.
In order to meet this new challenge, Rolex created the GMT Master II featuring two separate hour hands, one synchronised to a 12-hour watch face on the dial while the other corresponded with a bezel of 24-hours. The Rolex enabled pilots to track flight times with the Zulu bezel but still use local timezones when not in the air.
Then came the space race. Astronauts became celebrities and watch manufacturers were quick to promote the watches NASA chose for their space missions. The most famous wristwatch that ever left the Earth is probably the Omega Speedmaster Professional, which Ed White wore during the first spacewalk.
The Digital Age
Digital aviation watches vary from minimal, quick-to-read displays to feature-heavy timepieces with a load of complications. Most will come with multiple time zones, solar quartz movements, 1/100s chronographs and sometimes even a circular slide rule, known as a ‘whiz wheel.’
The whiz wheel is used by pilots to perform all kinds of time/fuel/distance/unit conversions and calculations, and it can be an extremely useful feature if you know what you are doing.
Metal case designs, link bracelets and optional leather bands make aviator watches suitable for business and casual occasions, while the rugged designs mean they are able to withstand robust outdoor activities too.
How to Wear Your Aviator Watch
As we mentioned above, most aviation watches integrate themselves well into both business and casual occasions. But sometimes, the watches, just like the pilots who inspired them, can be a tad ostentatious, or even downright inappropriate for the more formal setting. So having enough confidence to deliberately bend, or possibly break, the rules will probably help a lot if you want to wear your aviator to a black-tie event.
Whether you’re attracted to the simple utility, the cutting-edge features or the history behind your pilot’s timepiece, you can be sure there is an aviation watch to suit everyone’s style, including yours.