Pilot watches make their appearance in the 1960s
Like aviators' watches, auto pilot watches are first designed to meet technical needs. They all sport a sporty and decidedly masculine look, but are mostly bulky for visibility and inevitably equipped with a chronograph function, which allows you to start, stop and reset a timekeeping. This explains the presence on this type of watches of counters, at 3 o'clock, 6 o'clock and 9 o'clock for the simplest complications.
Between exceptional mechanisms, innovative materials and unusual designs, the epic of pilot watches is relatively recent - when compared to the history of luxury watchmaking. Indeed, it began in the early 1960s, even though as early as the beginning of the 20th century a handful of visionaries, led by Alfred Dunhill, had proposed horological instruments dedicated to driving the first cars.
Unlike aviators' watches, and in particular the Type 20 demanded by the French Army Staff at the end of the Second World War, there are no specifications for pilots' watches. Everything is in fact a matter of partnership between the actors of luxury watchmaking and those of motor racing.
It was when Swiss driver Harry Zweifel sent Tissot a signed photo stating that his watch was by his side in every race that the Le Locle-based brand was inspired by motorsport to create the Tissot PR 516, a shockproof model whose openworked strap (echoing the steering wheel of the racing cars of the time) would go down in history.
The Swiss company was then closely linked to motor racing, sponsoring the Renault Alpine and later Lotus and Sauber Mercedes teams, and drivers such as Loris Kessel, Jacques Laffitte and Jacky Ickx. Tissot F1 or Tissot Martini Racing watches will be among the emblematic models traveling the circuits of the planet.
Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, the legendary
But to tell the truth, two brands will, from the outset, pull out all the stops in this segment of pilot watches, and not the least! In 1963, Rolex opened the ball with the now legendary Rolex Daytona, a chronograph - christened cosmograph in Geneva parlance - that started out as Le Mans. Born of a genuine human relationship between a record-breaking driver, Englishman Sir Malcolm Campbell, and Rolex founder (and savvy businessman) Hans Wilsdorf, the Swiss brand's adventure with motorsports came to fruition with the sponsorship of the Daytona Beach speed race.
"The name Daytona," explains the Geneva-based brand, "symbolizes the historical and privileged ties that unite Rolex with motor racing and which in 2013 experienced a spectacular development with the brand's entry into the world of Formula 1re.
Three generations of Rolex Cosmograph Daytona will follow one another, with a manual winding movement in 1963, an automatic winding movement in 1988, and then a caliber entirely developed and manufactured by Rolex from the year 2000. More recently, in 2011, the mythical watch entered yet another new phase with the introduction of ceramic, a material that is simply scratchproof.
And while the Daytona is indeed originally a professional watch, Rolex has never hesitated to take it off the racetrack, with models in which 18-karat gold replaces the stainless steel of the cases. In 1984, the reference 6269 even goes so far as to set the bezel with 44 diamonds.
TAG Heuer Monaco and other iconic pilot watches
Also in Switzerland, another prestige brand didn't let it go to waste. Launched a little later than the Rolex Daytona, in this case in 1969, the TAG Heuer Monaco would literally revolutionize luxury watchmaking with its square case - something never seen before at the time. Perfectly waterproof, the watch also became iconic thanks to its movement, the caliber 11: it was the first automatic chronograph movement with a micro-rotor and a left-hand crown.
The "Monaco" breaks with the watches of the time even in its colors, blue, white and red, attracting the attention of another star of the seventh art, Steve McQueen, who decides to wear it on the set of the film Le Mans, and consequently to make it - very - popular.
The Tag Heuer Monaco watch has also evolved, with enthusiasts particularly appreciating the 40th anniversary reissue with the caliber 11. Nevertheless, it retains its character, its rebellious style and its innovative spirit. Released in 2009, the Monaco V4 is the world's first watch with belts, a linear mass and ball movements.
Rolex Daytona, TAG Heuer Monaco... Beyond these two legendary watches, there is indeed a world of the pilot's watch, where other great watchmaking houses leave their mark. Among the iconic models (let's make an exception of the TAG Heuer Carrera), the Oris Audi Sport takes the dashboard of a German carmaker's racing car in its design and comes out every year in limited edition.
The Breitling for Bentley watches, whose knurled relief bezel is reminiscent of limousine dials, Chopard Mille Miglia and its chronometer housed in a 42.5 mm case or Audemars Piguet Maserati Millenary Tourbillon with its unusual design and 0.45 gr tourbillon for 70 pieces, are all examples of daring - and successful - cooperation between watchmaking and the automotive world.