3 Vintage-Inspired Pilot’s Watches For The Serious (And Less Serious) Aviator From Patek Philippe, Zenith, And Breitling
Pilot’s watches rank among the most successful of all watch genres.
They owe their strong popularity to an unmistakable design with an instrument-like look resulting from over 100 years of history as a technical aid in the cockpit. Harking back to the pioneering days of aviation, these watches were indispensable navigational instruments assisting the first human beings daring to conquer the air.
Pilot’s watches still exude this spirit of adventure and audacity today, even if watchmakers have spent decades’ worth of time and money improving technology. But it is also a category in which authentic design remains prevalent, much to the pleasure of vintage-watch lovers.
Although modern instruments and GPS have taken over navigational tasks nowadays, modern pilot’s watches remain convincing thanks to their high functionality, which includes perfect legibility, robust cases, and user friendliness. And to be honest, we do not necessarily need to sit in the cockpit with a top-notch aviation timepiece; first class will do perfectly.
Patek Philippe Reference 5524R Calatrava Travel Time: ultimate pilot elegance
Drawing on 180 years of history in 2019, Patek Philippe enjoys an unparalleled reputation for the finest and most complicated watchmaking, excelling in almost all horological fields.
It may be less well known, though, that the prestigious Swiss manufacture made pilot’s watches in the 1930s. While it is not clear if these were intended for use by professionals, they sure could have been with their pilot-style dials framed by the legendary Calatrava case with its flat, polished bezel and prolonged lugs ensuring a comfortable fit on the wrist.
The line this timepiece belongs to is named for the Calatrava cross, which first served as a brand symbol for Patek Philippe before becoming the name of a watch family that could probably fill an entire book – particularly considering the centennial anniversary of the Bauhaus school that influenced its design like so many other industrial products during the trailblazing decade today referred to as the Roaring Twenties.
But let’s stay in the here and now – or rather look back just three years to 2015 when Patek Philippe debuted the Calatrava Travel Time, a watch that came as a real surprise despite this history. Although introduced in precious white gold – typical for this Swiss house, but quite atypical for the genre –the watch featured some characteristic aviator elements of the 1930s and 1940s we have not seen on a Patek Philippe for decades. And we would not have expected, either.
When you look at the watch in retrospect, it really has an allure typical of the currently fashionable tool watches, even though it measures only 42 mm in diameter.
Aficionados were surprised by the dial featuring notably broad cathedral-style hands and bold, luminous Arabic numerals applied to the matte, navy-blue background, all components finished in best Patek Philippe fashion to the highest standards.
The two pushers at 8 and 10 o’clock indicate at first glance that there is something more to the watch than just its beautiful bold design: a second time zone display including day/night indication in both locations. As befits a timepiece inspired by the early days of wristwatches, it features a prominent date hand at 6 o’clock.
The luminous hand for the local time can be repositioned forward or backward in hourly increments by pressing the buttons located on the left side of the case. The bottom pusher brings the time forward; the top pusher does the opposite.
All of the displays are very intuitive. While the luminous hands indicate local time, home time is shown by the skeletonized hand. There is also a day/night indicator for both times zones, positioned at 3 and 9 o’clock respectively.
At Baselworld 2018, Patek Philippe came up with a beautiful new version that is as elegant as you would expect it to be. Launching in a pink gold version, this Calatrava Travel Time is paired with a brown, sunburst-finished dial and the same large Arabic numerals and cathedral-style hands as its predecessor, only that they are white and set in pink gold.
The intriguing combination of the warm hues is a stunning example of how color can change the allure of a timepiece.
For female admirers of the genre, the brand also introduced this timepiece in a ladies’ version for the first time. The models are like two peas in a pod, only that the ladies’ Calatrava Travel Time comfortably snuggles the female wrist with a diameter of 37.5 mm.
For more information, please visit www.patek.com.
Quick Facts Patek Philippe Ref. 5524R Calatrava Travel Time
Case: 42 x 10.78 mm, pink gold
Movement: automatic Caliber 324 S C FUS, 45-hour power reserve, Patek Philippe Seal
Functions: hours, minutes, seconds; date, second time zone, day/night indication in both time zones
Price: starting from $47,630
Zenith Pilot Type 20 Chronograph Extra Special: a blast from the past
While Patek Philippe is not known for manufacturing pilot’s watches, Zenith certainly is.
The Le Locle-based manufactory started its production of this genre in the early 1900s, equipping French aviator Louis Blériot with one of its first pieces for his flight across the English Channel in 1909.
The new Pilot Type 20 Chronograph Extra Special seems to be inspired exactly from this era when aviation was still in its infancy. The beautiful vintage-style dial displays a clear and easy-to-read bicompax layout with a 30-minute chronograph register at 3 o’clock and running seconds at 9 o’clock.
As is crucial for the genre, the broad cathedral-style hands and the bold Arabic numerals are luminous, clearly standing out from the background. Matching the warm bronze tone of the case, the hands are gold plated.
The case, fully 45 mm in diameter and water resistant to 100 meters, sports further classic pilot’s watch characteristics with large, welded lugs and a wide oignon screw-down crown.
Ticking inside it the solid titanium case back engraved with a Zenith flying instrument logo is a true legend: El Primero Caliber 4069, stemming from a legendary line of high-frequency movements.
The column-wheel chronograph movement beats at a frequency of 36,000 vph (5 Hz), allowing for tenth-of-a-second chronograph measurement.
The very cool vintage pilot’s look is further augmented by an oiled nubuck leather strap.
For more information, please visit www.zenith-watches.com.
Quick Facts Zenith Pilot Type 20 Chronograph Extra Special
Case: 45 x 14.25 mm, bronze with titanium case back
Movement: automatic Caliber El Primero 4069 with 36,600 frequency/5Hz, power reserve of 50 hours
Functions: hours, minutes, seconds; chronograph
Price: starting from $7,100
Breitling Navitimer 8 Chronograph 43: soaring to new heights
Here we go with another maker of pilot’s watches par excellence: Breitling. The brand’s heritage in aviation timepieces is so rich that it has constantly served as a source for new collections in the Navitimer, Montbrillant, and Chronomat lines.
In 2018, under the reign of new CEO Georges Kern, formerly in charge of IWC, the company launched the new Breitling Navitimer 8 collection encompassing an automatic model with date, two chronographs, a day/date, and a “Unitime” world time watch.
The collection is named after Breitling’s Huit Aviation department, which was established in 1938 to produce eight-day cockpit instruments including chronometers and chronographs. The most obvious reference to these is a notched bezel with 60 graduations, bold typography, and the railroad minute track from early Reference 768 Breitling pilot’s watches.
Alongside the Breitling Navitimer 8 B01 flagship model powered by the brand’s in-house chronograph movement with integrated chronograph architecture, column wheel, vertical clutch and a 70-hour power reserve, my favorite is the Breitling Navitimer 8 collection powered by Breitling Caliber 13 (stemming from the evergreen Caliber Valjoux 7750), which is more accessible in price than the version outfitted with manufacture caliber.
Although it is a textbook pilot’s chronograph with its bi-directionally rotating coin-edged bezel and mushroom chronograph pushers, it has a decidedly elegant aura thanks to the dynamic finishes and finely executed dial with tricompax layout and faceted, legible hands. There are two different variants: one with a black dial and one with a blue. The black-dial version lifts off in a DLC-treated case making it an all-black beauty – and my personal favorite.
For more information, please go to www.breitling.com.
Quick Facts Breitling Navitimer 8 Chronograph 43
Case: 43 x 14.17 mm, DLC-coated stainless steel
Movement: automatic Caliber Breitling 13 (Valjoux 7750 base), power reserve of 48 hours, official C.O.S.C. chronometer certificate
Functions: hours, minutes, seconds; date, day, chronograph