Pilot watches are all the rage right now, even for people who aren’t professional pilots. The best pilot watches have a certain look to them — often vintage, other times stealth — that is universally liked.
The first pilot’s watches were introduced nearly 100 years ago in the early 1930s as military needs sparked invention. Later, aviation exploration drove watch brands to push the limits on what could be accomplished when it came to form and function, and aviation-inspired watches became a genre in their own right.
Today, the best pilot watches are antimagnetic, shock resistant, highly legible and incredibly precise. Many are also certified chronometers attesting to their abilities to function under many different conditions. An important highlight of the watches shown here: They are all powered by mechanical movements and so are considered highly sustainable, since, when taken care of, a mechanical watch can last lifetimes.
Bell & Ross BR 03-94 Patrouille de France
Long known as a pilot’s watch brand, Bell & Ross was selected by the French Air and Space Force as the official watchmaking partner of the French Acrobatic Patrol, Patrouille de France. To celebrate its relationship with the famed aerobatic aviation team, Bell & Ross worked with the pilots to create a limited edition (500 pieces) BR03-94 Patrouille De France watch. Highly functional and extremely legible, the 42mm watch is powered by an automatic mechanical movement and offers hours, minutes, small seconds and date, along with chronograph functions and tachymeter scale. The case is crafted in stealth matte black ceramic, and the blue dial boasts the Patrouille de France logo. Super-LumiNova hour and minute hands help with reading in the dark.
IWC Schaffhausen Royal Maces Edition
One of the first brands to create an anti-magnetic pilot’s watch in the early 1930s, IWC has been inextricably tied to the world of aviation ever since. Its most recent unveiling is a series of three new Pilot’s Watch Chronographs in black ceramic. They are inspired by the brand’s military program, where it creates watches for select US Navy squadrons. Each watch features the particular squadron’s (Royal Maces, Tophatters or Blue Angels®) colorful patch at 6 o’clock on the dial. Powered by IWC’s in-house caliber 69380 with column-wheel chronograph movement, this Royal Maces Edition features a 44.5mm black ceramic case and proprietary Ceratanium crown and pushers. It boasts a soft-iron inner case for antimagnetic purposes.
Tutima M2 Commando Chronograph
German brand Tutima practically grew up in the aviation industry. It has been building pilot watches since the 1930s, and is all about legibility, precision and aesthetics. Its newest M2 Commando Chronograph continues the legacy of robust military timepieces, as the brand has been supplying watches to German army pilots for decades. The M2 Commando Chronograph is powered by the Caliber Tutima 521 movement (based on an ETA Valjoux 7750). In addition to hours, minutes and seconds, it showcases the minutes and seconds of the chronograph with a large center sweep hand with two arrows. The hours track the time on its subdial counter at 6 o’clock — making for one of the cleanest-looking, easy-to-read chronographs on the market. Crafted in titanium with a gradient green dial, the watch is finished with a titanium bracelet.
Breitling Super Chronomat Four-Year Calendar
The Breitling Super Chronomat Four-Year Calendar watch is a prime example of a highly functional aviation-inspired timepiece. The 44mm watch is loaded with functions that run the gamut from hours, minutes and seconds to chronograph for timing events; tachymeter for checking speed or distance; and a semi-perpetual calendar that only needs adjustment once every four years on the leap year. It offers day, date, month and moonphases. The striking blue dial matches the stainless steel bezel with blue ceramic inset, and Super-LumiNova hands and markers make night reading easy. The COSC-certified chronometer is powered by the brand’s in-house-made self-winding mechanical B01 movement.
$17,250 in two-tone steel and 18-karat red gold, breitling.com
Breguet Type XXI 3815
Interestingly enough, Breguet isn’t typically a brand most people associate with pilot watches, but Breguet has a rich history in the aviation world, as Louis Charles Breguet, great-great-grandson of founder Abraham-Louis Breguet, designed aircraft in France and began creating timepieces for the American Air Force. The brand celebrates those roots with its Type XX watch line that it regularly enhances and evolves. The newest rendition: Type XXI 3815 chronograph. Created in a limited edition of just 250 pieces, these watches boast luminous hands and numerals that light up in color (one model with green numerals and the other with orange numerals). The 42mm titanium watches feature a fluted case side for easy gripping, a screw-down crown, and a chronograph for timing events. It also offers two counters and a 24-hour indication. Powered by a mechanical self-winding movement, the watch is equipped with a flyback function that allows for better chronograph timing.
Rolex Oyster Perpetual Sky-Dweller
With a unique look and operational system, the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Sky-Dweller is one of the most sought-after aviation watches on the market. The highly distinctive watch features a second time zone (a highly useful feature for those flying across date lines) displayed on an off-center disk on the dial with a fixed inverted red triangle above the disk to point to the reference home or local time. The functions are set using the unique and proprietary rotating Ring Command bezel. It also offers an annual calendar thanks to a red tip at the end of the hour marker that coordinates with the month of the year. The date is displayed at 3 o’clock on the dial. The perpetual self-winding movement is a certified Superlative Chronometer.
$14,800 in Rolex’s proprietary Oystersteel and 18-karat white gold, rolex.com
[See also: The Most Expensive Watches Ever Sold at Auction]
This article appears in the 29 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Winter 2021/22