Once things had started to settle post war, the 1950’s saw the next – and pretty much final – significant stage in the development of the pilot’s watch.
It was the 1950’s when civil aviation became a reality for more people than you might imagine – in 1954 for example, 32 million people took commercial flights…
As flying moved from an activity solely for the military and the occasional pioneer to one for the masses, so did the design of the pilot’s watch. The purely functional, military derived designs remained of course, and are still with us today, but the 1950’s also saw the birth of pilot’s watches more attractive to civilians.
Two of the most iconic of these designs changed the horological world forever and are both still with us today – the Rolex GMT Master and the Breitling Navitimer.
The GMT Master story began around 1952 when the American airline Pan Am approached Rolex, asking them to make a watch that could be used to tell the time in two time zones simultaneously. Quite ingeniously, Rolex developed the GMT Master with its fourth hand which could be read against a rotating 24 hour bezel.
The first GMT Master (ref 6542) was actually a 6202 Turn-O-Graph with a rotating bezel and modified movement. It was initially released in 1954 with a bakelite bezel – bakelite was all the rage in the 1950’s – but this proved to be brittle and to crack easily so was replaced in 1956 with the aluminium that was to remain a feature of the watch until 2007. Unsurprisingly, an original bakelite 6542 is a rare and valuable thing, especially if it happens to have an undamaged bezel insert, making it something of a Unicorn.
In 1959 the 6542 was replaced with the much revered 1675 – an incredibly popular watch that remained in production until it was replaced by the 16750 in 1980.
The next big development of the GMT Master came in 1983 with the introduction of the 16760 GMT Master II. Known as the ‘Sofia Loren’ (or less kindly, the ‘Fat Lady’), the new 3085 movement could tell the time in three time zones simultaneously but wouldn’t fit inside the case of the 16750. Rolex used the case of the 1665 Sea Dweller for the Sofia, giving it it’s famous curvy shape.
Apart from the addition of a sapphire crystal and the slimming down of the case when the 3185 movement was launched on the 16710 in 1989, that was about it for practical development of the GMT Master.
Where Rolex’ GMT Master added one practical feature to the pilot’s watch and then focused mainly on visual appeal for a wider audience, with their Navitimer, Breitling took a different approach.
In 1952 America’s Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) approached watchmaker Willy Breitling and asked him to develop a new chronograph. Rather than taking the simple route favoured by Rolex, the Navitimer (NAVIgation TIMER) that Breitling invented was really more of a pilot’s tool. The Navitimer allowed numerous in flight calculations, including average speed, distance travelled, fuel consumption, rate of climb or descent, and conversion of miles to kilometers or nautical miles.
Of course, a watch with all of this functionality and its beaded, rotating multi-function bezel looked significantly different from anything that had gone before. This set the Breitling apart from its competitors, creating what was to become a loyal and dedicated fan base and leading to massive success for the brand.
The Navitimer was released to the members of the AOPA in 1954 and then launched to the world around 1956 and Breitling have never looked back.
Of course pretty much all of the early manufacturers still make pilot’s watches and there have been several newcomers to the market too, of which Bremont are one of the most popular. These English watchmakers have a very loyal customer base both in the civilian and military sectors and have worked hard to increase the durability of their watches by “Testing Beyond Endurance. Their work with renowned ejector seat manufacturer Martin Baker has given them an unassailable position as a watch supplier to various modern air forces – Nowhere is this better represented than with the Bremont MB1, a watch only issued to pilots who have ejected from a jet using a Martin Baker ejector seat.
This brings us to the statement made at the beginning of this short series which was that the “Pilot’s watch seems to differ in one very significant way from that of the Dive Watch”.
While the dive watch has been continually and significantly developed from its birth in 1926 almost to the present day, most of the development of the pilot’s watch happened in a rush. As we have seen, the main characteristics of the watch were pretty much done and dusted by the Second World War. Rolex added a second time zone in 1954 (and a third in 1983), and Breitling made huge steps in 1956, but that was about it.
I hope you’ve enjoyed our short series of pieces on the pilot’s watch – next up, the Yacht Timer.