The first aviation watches worn by pilots were simple. All they had to do is tell time, to be accurate and to be readable under low-light conditions. Their black dials and white numerals satisfied this last requirement. Later on, air forces began producing watches with specific functions like the ‘Flieger style’, a pilot’s watch developed for the Luftwaffe in 1930. What was the difference? The Flieger-style watches type A still had the simple numerals but there was a delta index added at 12 o’clock. The type B had 2 dials. The minutes were presented in the outer dial while the hours are presented in the inner dial. Also the size of the case mattered. The type B has an enormous 55mm case so everything was readable. 3 Of the 5 original watch manufacturers still produce ‘Fliegers’ today: Laco, Stowa and IWC.
Aviation has always been an important inspiration for the watch industry. So it’s no surprise the first aviation wristwatch – the Cartier Santos – was made for pilot Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1904. Alberto was born in Brazil and was a close friend of jeweler Louis Cartier. Santos complained about the use of a pocket watch at the controls of his aircraft – so, in 1904, Cartier produced a wristwatch especially for him. He wore his timepiece every time he flew. Mister Santos was like a celebrity throughout Europe, and so his watch became famous too. And 7 years later Louis Cartier launched this famous watch in public sale as ‘The Santos’.
Throughout the years the aviation watch evolved. The designs, dials, functions, colors and straps changed during the years. Every watch brand has put its own stamp on the term ‘Aviation Watch’. The most commonly used function on an aviation watch is probably the GMT-function. Then we think about Rolex who founded its GMT-Master. Zenith has also strong roots in this particular field. If we look at their ‘Pilot Type 20’, the crown stands out as first. The big onion crown was to accommodate the pilot’s gloved hand. But these are just 2 of the many watch brands who dedicated some of their models to the world of aviation.