The aviator watch, a history of pioneers
The aviator watches - or airplane pilot watches - have a history of their own, closely associated with the birth of aviation in the very early 20th century. Thus, as early as 1904, an aviation pioneer, Alberto Santos-Dumont, asked Maison Cartier to make sure he could tell the time in flight. Wish granted, the first designed to be worn on the wrist was born. It is not, however, strictly speaking, a pilot's watch since it does not include any complications other than hours, minutes and seconds. This will not prevent the Cartier Santos from becoming iconic.
It is actually the chronograph type instruments that will make aviation watches what they are today. Watchmakers equipped the dashboards more than the aviators' watches, like manufactures such as LeCoultre, which would equip tens of thousands of aircraft in the French, British and American fleets during the First World War. During the conflict, only Prussian pilots wore wristwatches.
But among watchmakers, the desire for innovation and the spirit of the aviation pioneers was there. Zenith, which had already equipped Louis Blériot during his 1909 crossing of the English Channel with a watch known for its legibility and precision, creates a historic timepiece. The Zenith Pilot Type 20 met all the requirements of aviators in the early 1930s, including resistance to aircraft vibrations, temperature variations and magnetic fields, while remaining reliable, robust and readable.
At the same time, in 1931 to be precise, Longines filed the Angle Hour patent, with its rotating bezel. A watch designed at the request of another legendary aviator, Charles A. Lindbergh.
The first objective: to meet the needs of aviators
The history of watchmaking is intimately linked to that of aviation, both civil and military. When in 1935, the Swiss manufacturer IWC Schaffhausen, which is still renowned today for its pilot's watches, designed a wristwatch with a luminescent black dial, steel case and unbreakable glass, movable bezel with index, it was at the request of the Royal Air Force.
The Second World War had taught us a lot about the needs of pilots in terms of watches. The military forces of various countries drew up real specifications at the end of the conflict. This led to the birth of a truly legendary watch, the Mark XI, with its case equipped with an antimagnetic system. Enthusiasts would later find it in a "civilian version" in 1994 with the IWC Mark XII.
What is an aviator's watch? In the early 1950s, it was the French military staff that answered the question in the specifications of a call for tenders. The watch had to feature a large case - at least 38 mm in diameter - that was water-resistant and had a screw-down caseback, a black dial with perfectly legible luminescent indexes and hands, two counters at 3 and 9 o'clock for 30-minute timekeeping, a small seconds hand, and a Flyback function, or return to flight, i.e., resetting the chronograph to zero with a simple press.
The year 1954 thus saw the birth of the Type 20 watch developed by the Parisian House of Breguet and other watch manufacturers (Airin, Dodane, Auricoste...) since this name actually refers to that of the French army's tender.
Technical watches and legendary watches
Even if it also conquered the cities with its design, the aviator watch is therefore primarily a technical watch used by professionals. Over the decades, they will give birth to legendary timepieces. The brands Breguet, IWC and Omega remain masters in the field, but others will particularly stand out.
The Breitling Navitimer would thus write a page in watchmaking as early as 1952, then a decade later in its "cosmonaut" version intended for manned space flights. The Swiss watchmaker had already distinguished itself with its Chronomat, the first chronometer-chronograph watch incorporating circular air calculation rules. The Navitimer, with its 41 mm diameter case in gold or stainless steel, adds functionalities such as the perpetual calendar, the ascension speed, the conversion of miles into kilometers, the circular slide rule with bidirectional rotating bezel...
To be fair, the most iconic aviator's watch is undoubtedly the Rolex GMT-Master, launched in 1955 and followed in 1980 by the GMT-Master II. With this watch, which has the particularity (among other things) of displaying two time zones, the world's first watchmaker turned to civil aviation, in a period of development of commercial flights. Recognizable among all with its two-tone bezel in Cerachrom® (a high-tech ceramic) in its Master II version, this legendary watch is acclaimed by globetrotters the world over and is still featured in the Rolex catalog, in the equally iconic Oyster Perpetual collection.