Pilot’s Watches Part One – 1906 to 1912

In this next instalment of our watch types series we encounter the Pilot’s watch – an extremely important branch of the Sports Watch family with its own loyal fanbase and following.

Interestingly, the history of the Pilot’s watch seems to differ in one very significant way from that of the Dive Watch – but more of that later.

Often credited with being the world’s first wristwatch (which unfortunately it wasn’t), the Cartier Santos was undoubtedly, irrefutably, the world’s first Pilot’s watch.

In 1906, esteemed pilot , gentleman roister-doisterer and good friend of Louis Cartier, Alberto Santos-Dumont “took off under his own power and achieved flight” in his wheeled aircraft “14 Bis”, thus winning the esteemed Deutsch-Archdeacon prize.

A contemporary news article said:

M. Santos Dumont after several preliminary trial in Paris on November 12th, when his flying machine had flown 75, 128, and 142 yards, decided to return to his starting point by going against the wind. For thirty yards the motor ran along the ground, then suddenly it rose to a height of about five yards, and appearing like a great white bird, it soared half-way down the course. M. Santos Dumont, startled by some spectators in his way, twisted his rudder quickly, and the machine came heavily to the ground, damaging one of its wings. The experiment, however was a triumph for actual flight was achieved; and it seems as though it were only a matter of time for the conquest of the air to be accomplished. The 235 yards were traversed in twenty-one seconds.”


Now there’s significant dispute among aeronautical historians about whether it was Santos-Dumont or the Wright Brothers who first achieved true flight – but this article is about watches and not aeroplanes so we’ll leave that to them.  What we do know however is that later that day while celebrating with his friend Louis Cartier at Maxim’s (of course), Santos-Dumont mentioned the difficulty of reading his pocket watch as he flew the ‘plane.

Shortly afterwards, Louis Cartier created the Santos-Dumont wristwatch for his friend Alberto who was so delighted with the invention and with his gift that it immediately became an essential and permanent part of his flying equipment.  Often reported in the press, Alberto’s Santos-Dumont watch was “affixed by a comfortable leather strap and secured with a small buckle” – The first Pilot’s watch was born.


The achievements of these pioneers started a flurry of activity and the art of flying developed incredibly quickly.  While in 1906, Santos-Dumont’s 235 yards was incredible, by 1909 The Daily Mail had issued a challenge with an accompanying prize of £1,000 to anyone who could successfully fly across the English Channel.

This was considered impossible by most – in fact French newspaper Le Matin openly disparaged the idea saying that it was “Déraisonnable”.

On July 25th 1909 the first person to achieve the feat, crossing 31 miles of open water from Calais to Dover was another famous Louis – M. Louis Blériot.  The flight took around 40 minutes and secured the now famous pilot’s place in history forever.

While watchmakers such as Omega and Longines were making pilot-type wristwatches by then, Louis Blériot had an existing relationship with the already long established Zenith company and it was their watch that accompanied him on the day.


By then the gentleman pilot’s requirements had been established and Blériot’s Zenith had all the features that he needed.  It had a black dial with brightly luminescent Arabic numerals and large hands and the case was chrome plated against the elements – the hairspring was anti-magnetic to aid accurate navigation. A feature that was to become vital to pilots watches for decades was the large onion-shaped crown that was needed for adjustment while wearing flying gloves.

Louis Blériot was a proper watch endorsee, paving the way for the George Clooneys and Roger Federers of today – he made the following public statement in 1912:

“I am very satisfied with the Zenith watch, which I usually use, and I cannot recommend it too highly to people who are looking for precision”


The features of Blériot’s Zenith were carried over to the Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 instruments that Zenith started producing for French aircraft panels in 1939, and later inspired the enormous limited edition Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 wristwatch over 70 years later in 2012.

Not really expected to be worn and more of a collectors curio, The Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 needed a 57.5 mm case to house the calibre 5011K movement which is itself 50mm in diameter – one of the most accurate production movements ever put in a wrist watch.

Fortunately the case was made of titanium, reducing the weight significantly and actually making it possible, if not sensible, to wear.

It was a genuine numbered edition, limited to 250 pieces – good luck finding one now.


Part Two of Pilot’s Watches will be along shortly, covering the developments during The Great War, 1914-1918.

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