The Pilot Watch: The Full Story
The Pilot watch, like all types of watch, started life out as tool. A tool used to aide Pilots in Battle and espionage. Now it is an exceptionally cool type of watch epitomised by the large case sizes, big crowns, minimal dials and the cool triangle at 12. Bell and Ross took a different idea of pilots watch but for me the classic Pilot watch design will always be those from IWC, Laco, Stowa and, more recently, Oris. I fell in love with the Pilot watch very early on in the history of my watch problem. This was because my dad bought his IWC Big Pilot about 10 years ago and has worn it pretty religiously ever since, so as it is one of my favourite type of watch, I obviously know a weird amount the Pilot watch and its history. I am also currently sat alone on a train from Manchester to London so you know...
In 1904 Alberto Santos-Dumont became the first man to takeoff and land an aeroplane. Yes I know the wright brothers FLEW a plane first but they had initially used a railway and a catapult. Subsequently, Alberto set out celebrating his achievement and new-found fame in Paris, (I have celebrated far less impressive achievements). Here, whilst popping a bottle of champagne surrounded by gorgeous French women, he complained to his famous friend, Louis Cartier, that it was exceptionally dangerous having to remove his pocket watch from his person whilst flying a death trap through the sky in a time when modern medicine was just emerging,…. So Louis Cartier and Edmond Jaeger set out to develop a time keeping device Albert Santon-Dumont could wear on his wrist whilst flying. Now Patek Philippe ad already made the first wrist watch for a Hungarian royal in 1868, but the idea of wearing a watch on the wrist was considered feminine. Louis Cartier's design was simply out of practicality. In fact the attitude to wearing a watch on the wrist didn't change until after the first world war when soldiers would return from the war sporting their Trench watches. These were watches given to them by the army and worn on the wrist in battle. As soldiers were considered the manliest men on the planet, perceptions about wrist watches would change. Now people like me can write about them on the internet....
The Cartier "Santos Dumont" Louis Cartier made for Alberto Santos-Dumont. Also known as the very first Pilot's watch.
In 1911 Louis began mass produce the Cartier Santos, a very similar wrist watch to that he made for Albert Santos-Dumont. The Santos name was obviously a nod to the flying legend. And thus a horological legend was born.
The modern Cartier Santos still boast many of the same design traits as the original. Bet you won't look at the cartier santos the same way again.
Pilot watches then went through many iterations made by a number of the old names.
When the Luftwaffe was conceived in the immediate run up the WWII, they commissioned 1000 specialist ‘Observer’ watches to be made. These would have super legibility, anti- magnetic properties, be a chronometer and have a large crown that could be easily utilised whilst wearing thick gloves. The first 1000 B-Uhr timepieces were made by a Swiss company called The International Watch Company who had previously been making pilot's pieces for the Allies as well. After these first 1000 IWC Big Pilot ref 431 were made, four German houses were commissioned to make a very similar watch. These were Stowa, Laco, Wempe and A.lange & Sohne. They each produced a 55mm chronometer with all the features required. Now IWC did make pilots watches for both sides but these original 1000 B-Uhr watches made for the German Luftwaffe are obscenely expensive collectors items, as you can imagine. Laco and Stowa are still making honest homages and modern adaptations of their Pilots watch, whilst IWC make the truly recognisable and iconic Pilots line of watches. Some would argue IWC has built their modern brand around the Pilot and the Portugese watch, but that’s for a different article… Finally, A Lange although still one of the top brands in the industry (and one of my favourites), do not make anything resembling a Pilots watch, which is explained in my article on the history of the A. lange & Sohne and GUB brand.
One of the original IWC B-UHR "Observer" ref 431 watches worn by the Luftwaffe. So many of the modern IWC design are present here. Pretty cool.
An IWC B-UHR ref 431 with certificate of authentication from IWC.
(The exceptional modern IWC Big Pilot)
So why are Pilot’s watches so popular today? Even though, much like the diver’s watch, they were conceived as a tool and one could argue the exceptionally large and thick case sizes (The very popular IWC Big Pilot model is 45mm and 15mm thick), onion crowns and thick industrial leather straps aren’t fashionable or practical in todays mundane life style? After all the IWC Pilot can be seen on the wrist of anyone from my dad to Bradley Cooper, to Lewis Hamilton and a plethora of other celebrities since IWC re-launched their pilot model in 2002.
Manchester City Boss Pep Guardiola sporting his IWC Pilot.
Bradley Cooper is often seen wearing his IWC Pilot on and off the screen
One explanation can simply be that they look very sodding cool. The design is very minimal, industrial and rugged. It's large size, super legible dial and pins in the strap produces a very masculine, no-bullshit design. Secondly, as John Mayer said in his Hodinkee's Talking Watches interview, it's size and legibility enables it to be used as a bed side clock when laid on its side. This is sort of a joke and not a joke. He isn't wrong is he? Also, as a style of watch in general, they are pretty tough and hard wearing. For example, all the IWC, Bell & Ross, Laco and Stowa have heavily brushed steel finishes making them much less susceptible to scratches. Finally, though, I think it is so popular for a similar reason I expressed in my article about vintage sports watches. Although I am referring to the modern models and not the original vintage Pilot's pieces, the design and idea of the modern Pilot watch is very much archetypical of the original. Meaning, they possess the traits that enabled them to once accompany and support the bravest and manliest men in recent history. As a result, deep down, I think a lot of men buy and wear a Pilot's watch in a similar way they might wear a leather jacket: because it makes them look and feel like someone leading a more bad-ass and heroic life than them selves.
To sum up I just think they are cool because John Mayer does.......
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