Aces High: A Pilot’s Watch Redux

February 23rd, 2011

By Christopher Scapelliti

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The pilot’s watch has proved to be one of the most enduring styles of timepiece. Our roundup of four modern pilot’s watches in Guitar Aficionado’s March/April 2011 issue demonstrates its durability and, in particular, its malleability as a basis for watch design.

The pilot’s watch has become such a fashion piece that we often forget its origins as a tool for aviators. The basic design elements of the modern pilot’s watch were established by the German military in the lead-up to World War II. Aviation had come to play a significant role in combat, and pilots needed watches that not only provided a high level of accuracy but also could be synchronized to the second. Moreover, the watches needed to be antimagnetic in order to remain unaffected by exposure to strong magnetic fields in aircraft.

Given the rigors of flying, the pilot’s watch had to be easy to read, synchronize, and adjust. To those ends, the classic pilot’s watch comprised a large case measuring 55mm in diameter, an oversized crown that could be adjusted without difficulty when wearing gloves, easy-to-read Arabic numerals, and a long strap that could be worn over the sleeve of the pilot’s thick leather jacket. At the 12 o’clock position, a triangle with a dot to either side instantly allowed the pilot to determine proper orientation for the watch. Importantly, the watches had a hacking feature: pulling out the crown stopped the balance and allowed the second hand to be adjusted precisely. In addition, each watch was regulated as a navigation chronometer.

Dubbed the “Beobachtungs-uhr”—essentially “Observation Watch”—the pilot’s watch was an essential tool for German flyers, but the appeal of B-uhr watches remains timeless. Today, most watch makers offer at least one pilot’s watch, with styles ranging from classic reproductions of WWII-era models to modern reconceptualizings.

A number of German watchmakers continue to create homages to the original B-uhr, though usually with smaller cases that are suitable for daily use. Archimede has a range of classic-looking pilot’s watches, including a historic line whose dial has no brand name or date, and whose blued hands recall the original pilot’s watch designs. One of our favorites is the Pilot XLH (425 Euros), which has a handwound movement, stainless 45mm case, sapphire crystal, blue hands with white luminous, and a leather strap with steel rivets.

Stowa, one of the original B-uhr makers, offers its Flieger line, which includes a remake of the Baumuster B, one of the rarest pilot watches. Offered in a 40mm case size, the modern Baumuster (640 to 760 Euros) is available with a range of strap styles.

Wempe, another of the first B-uhr brands, offers five pilot’s watches that recall the classics. Featuring a dark dial, neutral fonts, and a triangular 12 o’clock reference marker, the new Zeitmeiser Glashütte models are instantly recognizable as aviator watches. The Automatic XL ($2,450) is one of the most elegant designs in the line, featuring an automatic movement with hacking, chronometer, stainless 45mm case, and sapphire crystal.