When Should You Wear an Aviation Watch?

by James Ward on August 13, 2021

The world of watchmaking is full of different characters and we’re not just talking about the people wearing the watches. With a number of different watch genres available, plus different sizes, colours and more, there’s a model out there for every wrist. But while the dive watch has become the go-to for many people – no doubt thanks to being worn by a famous secret agent – we’re going to shine a light on one of the more underrated categories in the watchmaking canon: the aviation watch. Here’s why you should think about adding one to your collection.



You want a watch that’s legible

As a rule, aviation watches are typically known for their readable dials and larger case sizes. But let’s start by explaining what an aviation watch actually is. With the dawn of aviation in the 20th century, there came a need for timekeeping within the cockpit. Pilots needed a way to calculate their speed and distance, along with the amount of fuel they had left during their flight. At the time, they were reliant on their pocket watches to help them with this, which, while being inconvenient, had some rather obvious safety concerns too. Fumbling around in your pocket whilst flying a primitive airborne machine requiring the use of both hands only added to the already considerable threat to the pilot’s life. Something had to change.

Alberto Santos-Dumont, the famous Brazilian aviation pioneer, complained about this none-too-small issue to his friend. However, when your friend is none other than jeweller Louis Cartier, this remark changed the watchmaking landscape forever. In 1904, Cartier returned to Santos-Dumont with a watch specifically designed to be worn on the wrist during flight. Sensing he was onto something good with its design, this watch was released to the public seven years later as the ‘Santos’. The world’s first aviation watch and sports watch, it featured a square steel case, with large Roman numerals inside its concentric dial design. Although the stereotypical image of an aviation watch has changed in the time since the Santos’s release, it set out the stall for all that followed.

There was an utmost need for legibility in the design of any aviation watch, as early aviators needed to be able to refer to their watch with a brief glance. The Santos fulfilled this aim by imposing enlarged, blackened numerals against a lightened backdrop. This contrast sits at the very heart of aviation watch design. Countless aviation watches have followed in the slipstream of the Santos, with many inverting what it did by placing light coloured hands and indexes against a blackened backdrop. Although a different visual approach, the final result was the same; aviation watches are legible tools designed for practical use.  

 


You want a watch that’s connected to history

Since the dawn of flight, aviation and watchmaking have gone together like a sheepskin pilot’s helmet and flying goggles. That long-standing relationship has resulted in watches whose legacy is cemented in watchmaking history; it’s similarly well documented Louis Bleriot wore a Zenith when completing the first flight of the English Channel (if you have a Santos in your collection, we’re also looking at you). Yet away from these direct connections to history, the definitive aviation watch stylings we recognise today were born out of necessity during wartime.

With First World War pilots taking part in aerial night-time operations for the first time, they needed a means of referring to their watch in the dark. Pilot’s watches around this time saw the first inclusion of lume on their hands to assist with readability in low-light conditions. Likewise, the historic case for larger case and crown sizes were because they needed to be worn over a pilot’s jacket, and operatable whilst wearing pilot’s gloves.

Nowadays, we wear pilot’s watches because we like their aesthetic. However, the reasons these functions were initially implemented were because they offered solutions in life-or-death scenarios a world away from the desks and sofas that most aviation watches encounter today. That bright lume we take for granted comes in handy when checking the time after waking up in the middle of the night, but when you recognise its initial purpose played its part in determining the course of the First World War a century ago, that level of road-testing underlines the credentials of aviation watch design.

 


You want a watch with history inside it

With the close ties between aviation and watchmaking, it’s no surprise that they reflect one another at times. Aviation’s rich and varied history provides a wealth of inspiration, with cockpit dials and altimeters offering easy ammunition for watch dials and more. But things can go further – aviation history can infuse itself into watchmaking’s present. It’s not often you can own a watch that allows you to engage with WW2 history first-hand. But then the TRI-05 303 Squadron P8331 Limited Edition isn’t just another watch.

Incorporating metal recovered from Spitfire P8331 RF-M ‘Sumatra’ of 303 Squadron into its backplate, the TRI-05 tells the story of how P8331 and its pilot, Acting Wing Commander Piotr Laguna, were lost to German anti-aircraft fire over France in 1941. Appropriately considering its subject matter, the TRI-05 owes a great deal to watches past, its dial reminiscent of the 6b/159 aviation watches worn by pilots during the Second World War. The disc of metal from P8331 also dictated the rest of the watch, with references to 303 Squadron’s Kościuszko crest and the Polish Air Force’s red and white checkerboard prominent. Watches like the TRI-05 are special to those close to the story it tells – and where else will you be able to find something that allows to wear a piece of WW2 history on your wrist? – but even to those unfamiliar with the subject, its boldly vintage aesthetic ensures it can be enjoyed by anyone.

Yet for something so indebted to the past, the TRI-05’s very existence has also allowed it to add a new chapter to the story it tells. Proceeds from each watch are helping TRIBUS partners Laguna’s Spitfire Legacy to fund the restoration of P8331 back to airworthy status – making it one of a very rare number of warbirds still capable of taking to the skies. By investing in this 303-piece limited edition, you’re not just buying a watch; you’re emotionally investing in the story and its next steps. The opportunity to own a piece of Spitfire is already a rarity, but knowing that your watch is helping to educate future generations about the Poles whose bravery turned the tide of the Battle of Britain is rarer still. 

 

You want a watch that unlocks the world 

Until now, when discussing pilot’s watches we’ve been referring to the traditional aviation designs worn by your stereotypical Biggles-style pilot. Yet another style of watch would soon become worn by pilots – and these ones would swap single-seater aircraft with machine guns for much larger aircraft with far more useful extravagances (an on-board bar). The rise of commercial airliners during the 1950s led to what was known as the Golden Age of flight, with new far-flung destinations now within reach thanks to the emergence of the jumbo jet. Traversing multiple timezones in a single journey posed its own challenges for pilots; they needed to know what the time was in both their origin and destination simultaneously. The solution to this problem was the GMT watch.

Pan Am Airlines, one of the household names during this jet-setting boom, approached Rolex with the challenge of creating a watch that could track multiple timezones at once. The result was the Rolex GMT Master, the world’s first GMT watch. A fourth GMT hand, running at half the speed of the hour and minute hands, was read against a 24-hour bezel. An ingenious solution to the definition of a first-world problem, the resulting watch allowed pilots to track multiple timezones at a second’s glance.

If aviation watches used during the First and Second World Wars were designed with legibility in mind, then the GMT watch was an entirely more glamorous prospect. During those halcyon days, the pilot was the rock star of an era before rock stars had even arrived on the scene. Jetting off to exotic locations every other day, experiencing new cultures and leading a lifestyle that most back home could only dream of – remember, this is when air hostesses wore uniforms designed by Chanel and Christian Dior! – the pilot was a semi-mythical figure. This of course meant a suitably classy watch was needed for on their wrist, and the GMT Master more than stepped up, introducing the iconic blue and red ‘Pepsi’ bezel synonymous with GMT watches today.

For any traveller or businessperson, the GMT watch is an invaluable tool when travelling abroad. Of course, some smug individuals will point your phone has the same functionality, but that’s not the point we wear watches. Your phone will never be as impressive as a well-engineered Swiss-made watch (it’ll last a lot longer than your smartphone’s battery, too). In our TRIBUS range of chronometers, models like the TRI-03 Power Reserve GMT COSC and TRI-04 Power Reserve GMT Sport COSC show an alternate way dual-time functionality can appear on a watch – its GMT functionality present in a subdial at 6 o’clock. Meanwhile, the TRI-02 GMT 3 Timezone COSC can track three timezones at once thanks to its combination of a GMT hand and an adjustable 24-hour bezel (in contrast to the GMT Master, the TRI-02’s bezel is internal and controlled by a secondary crown on its case).

Now, to work out which GMT model represents you best…

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