Pilots watches were among the earliest wristwatches in existence. In the days before radar, aviators needed top-notch watches to time distances and, as you can imagine, dragging a pocket watch out of their waistcoats just didn’t cut it. Some pilot’s watches had slide rules to help calculate fuel consumption and air speed, and many had chronographs for short distance timing. Now the aviator’s watch serves a more aesthetic than functional purpose, even though today’s models are technically superior to their vintage predecessors. The following five aviator-style watches are true to the genre, with big cases, large crowns (useful when gripped while wearing flight gloves), and big hands and numerals coated in plenty of Super-LumiNova. Equipped with modern movements and case materials, they are vintage in style only. And any one of them would get the job done if you still feel like navigating the old fashioned way.
IWC Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Spitfire
This sporty perpetual calendar is color coordinated to the Spitfire warplane’s cockpit, although the large (46.2 mm) bronze case will develop a patina over time, so it will change color slightly, giving it a vintage vibe. A soft-iron inner case makes it resistant to magnetic fields—a growing problem in our digital age. An in-house movement, the automatic caliber 52615 comes with a perpetual calendar, moon phase and a rare four-digit year display. Twin mainspring barrels boost the power reserve to 7 days. The watch retails for $28,200.
Zenith Pilot Type 20 Extra Special Silver
This is Zenith’s first sterling silver watch ($8,300, limited to 250)—a material that is rarely seen in watchmaking. Most makers prefer steel, titanium or gold, which are harder and do not develop the kind of patina that silver does. But here that kind of patina provides an extra element of an aged look to its already vintage aesthetic, especially in conjunction with the riveted brushed silver dial, resembling the body of an aircraft. Like previous Zenith pilot’s watches, the case is large (45 mm), and not only are the hands coated with Super-LumiNova, but the Arabic numerals are composed entirely of the luminous material. It contains the Zenith Elite caliber 679, with 50 hours of power reserve.
Breitling Navitimer Airlines Special Editions
Breitling riffs on its flagship Navitimer model to create a special Airlines Edition capsule collection celebrating the golden era of air travel. Three Navitimer chronographs are named for Pan Am, Swissair and TWA, airlines ($9,160 with bracelet and $8,275 with strap), credited with introducing passenger jet air travel to the masses in the 1960s. At the time, Breitling was a supplier to several aircraft manufacturers. The three special editions are powered by the Breitling manufacture caliber 1, and bear the model’s signature circular slide rule. Cases and bracelets are stainless steel and water resistant to 30 meters.
Blancpain Air Command
Blancpain captures the charm of its classic mid-century instrument watches in the new Air Command ($19,800, limited to 500), based on a pilot’s edition originally sold to American military pilots in the late 1950s through the distributor Allen V. Tornek. The total production of Air Command chronographs was very limited, and highly sought-after by collectors. In keeping with original, it is a flyback chronograph, but with a modern movement, the high-frequency caliber F388B with a 36,000, vph rate, which is highly accurate and records 1/10th of a second intervals.
Patek Philippe Alarm Travel Time Ref. 5520P
What looks like a typical pilot’s watch with a dual time zone ($226,810) actually has an extremely rare, unique complication: an alarm function driven by a hammer and gong. In other mechanical alarm functions, the alarm is driven by what’s known as a cricket-sounding mechanism triggered by a cam. This one is driven by gong and hammer regulated by a governor, which is exactly how a minute repeater functions, except that the gongs ring as a continuous melody for 30 seconds. The alarm, which is linked to local time, can be triggered in 15-minute increments, and functions on a 24-hour rather than a 12-hour scale.