It's 1903, just a few miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, USA and the Wright brothers have just completed the first manned flight by a heavier than air plane. A monumental achievement in history and a landmark to stand alongside any other before and since. No sooner had Orville Wright landed that first powered flight than the question turned to an equally important matter. Which watch would a budding aviator wear? (I like to think that anyway!)
Thankfully the answer came within the year when aviator Santos Dumont requested a wristwatch from his friend Louis Cartier that he could wear on his manned flights. The eventual design was a squared-faced watch with exposed screws on the bezel which was later officially launched and named the Cartier Santos in 1911. The Cartier Santos served the purposes of calculating fuel consumption, air speed, lift capacity, navigation and finally, as well as basic timekeeping. And so the symbiotic relationship between timepieces and aviation was born.
Two world wars played a hugely important part in the evolution of aviation timepieces when, quite literally, lives depended on the accuracy of timekeeping whilst flying. During this time the definitive style of flight watches was established too thanks to the innovate approach of watchmakers such as IWC, Zenith, Laco and Breguet, followed by the legends created by Breitling, Rolex and Omega to name just a few. To the extent that the hallmarks of those initial design cues can still be seen in today's pilot watches.
Oversized cases, incredibly legible indices and clear design and functionality became the definitive style for a whole new genre of watches. Today those design features can be found in abundance in most modern iterations of the pilot watch. My own collection boasts some wonderful examples, from this stunning Breitling Chronomat with its sumptuous 44mm blue face, to one of the all time classic IWC pieces in the shape of this magnificent pilot chronograph. A watch I have worn on a few occasions now and one I can testify to being almost like brand new.
Even today brands such as Zenith are re-issuing classic pilot watches such as this Zenith Pilot Type 20 Chronograph with its vintage style cues, oversized 45mm case and beautiful retro oiled unbuckle strap. And demand for these retro inspired pieces shows no signs of abating, which means prices for original vintage pilot watches are as strong as they ever were.
There is, quite literally nothing to compare with a pilot watch when it comes to appreciating the relationship between time and travel. There is something wondrously adventurous about these watches and the design history they carry so easily. And as far as watches of prominence go, very few get close to the wrist presence of a genuine pilot watch. So whilst our thanks must always go to the Wright brothers for their gigantic step forward in manned flight, we must not forget that it also ushered in an era of watch making that is still with us today.