Pilot Watches Through History Straddle Fashion and Function - Wall Street Journal (blog)

The price tag of the latest audacious aviator watch — the Tourbillon RM 039 Aviation E6-B Flyback, made of almost 1,000 parts and an engineering marvel, going for $1.1 million — ensures it is more fashion piece than necessary tool for fliers. But even from the earliest days of powered flight, pilot watches have straddled the line between necessity and accessory.

Cartier’s Santos wristwatch, first produced for aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1904, was a commercial hit when it went on sale in 1911, the French jeweler says.

After Charles Lindbergh made his historic flight from New York to Paris in 1927 wearing a Longines watch, the consummate aviator worked with the Swiss watchmaker to develop a helpful pilot watch. But his celebrity made the timepiece something special for landlubbers.

“The actual demand for navigation watches was relatively low in the mid-1930s, but their appeal as artifacts of the air age made them irresistible to some wealthy individuals who could afford them,” according to a Smithsonian Institution history of time and navigation.

During World War II, bombers flew unprecedented distances, requiring complex navigation. The war was “the golden era for pilot watches,” says watch collector and critic Max Riddick. The resilient timepieces boasted few fancy features but easily readable faces.

Breitling of Switzerland, founded in 1884 in the stopwatch business, in the 1930s started making onboard chronographs for airplanes. In 1936 it began supplying its Chronomat model to the Royal Air Force.

The company boasts that its Navitimer, launched in 1952 for airline pilots and barely altered, is “the world’s oldest mechanical chronograph still in production.”

You can read more of the Journal’s front-page A-heds here.

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