The year is 1906. Alberto Santos-Dumont, one of the first men to fly in a fixed-wing aircraft, was having a drink with his friend and watchmaker, Louis Cartier. He told Cartier about his need for a watch that could be read easily while in flight—his pocket watch just wasn’t working. From there, the aptly named Cartier Santos was born and so was the pilot watch.
The functionality of the pilot watch began to evolve during the outbreak of the First World War. Then, in 1927, Charles Lindbergh’s famous trans-Atlantic flight helped to solidify the pilot watch as a key tool for navigation. The Second World War spurred further advancements. There was a need for a watch that could be read at a glance during day and night missions, and the pilot watch helped to fill that void. Although military use undeniably fueled the advancement of the pilot watch, it was the post-war aviation boom that resulted in the development of the pilot watch as we know it today.
There are a few easily-identifiable characteristics that make a pilot watch unique from other sports watches. They often have hefty and highly legible dials with prominent, high-contrast hands for optimum visibility in tough elements. To endure frequent changes in pressure, many pilot watches have an anti-magnetic seal or Faraday cage along with crystal technology. Most models also contain dual time or GMT functions to track local time, destination time, and UTC.
Even with modern-day developments in aviation technology, many professional and recreational pilots like to keep a watch close by during their flights, if for no other reason than historical significance. Because of this, pilot watches have become one of the most iconic models for both the aviation community and watch buffs alike.
Here are seven great examples currently up for grabs through the online watch marketplace Crown & Caliber:
The Bremont MBII pushes the bounds of engineering and embodies the brand’s slogan, “Tested Beyond Endurance.” The series is the product of the brand’s collaboration with Martin-Baker, a manufacture of ejection seats for jets—the watches were designed and tested to withstand the MB ejection seat test program.
The Breitling Avenger series provides the ultimate sturdiness and shock resistance. With its massive build, this watch is designed to withstand the elements.
The Bell & Ross Green Ceramic Military Type BR03-92-CK is a solid pilot watch with an aesthetic and attitude all its own. The durability of the ceramic makes it an ideal watch for everyday use or adventure.
The Classic Pilot Chrono embodies IWC’s watchmaking philosophy: refinement over novelty. This watch is a perfect balance of function and history, resulting in a superb pilot watch.
The Unitime family of watches has been a staple of the Breitling line for years. However, the Transocean Unitime Pilot Limited Edition takes world travel to the next level with unprecedented ease in shifting time zones with the turn of the crown.
The Bell & Ross Heritage WW1-92-S watches take on an early aviator style that mimics the look of the first airplane dashboards. The dial design is made for optimal legibility no matter what the conditions.
The IWC Big Pilot Perpetual Calendar is a commanding beast of a watch with an impressive complication to boot. It fully embraces the aesthetic of both the IWC brand and the ultimate modern pilot watch.