Pilot Watches

For many pilots, the wrist watch was one of their first real on board “computers.” These watches had specific features that gave pilots ultimate visibility and helped them navigate the skies. Below, we take a look at the history of the pilot’s watch and how this style came to be.


In the early 20th century, pilots faced an issue with watch technology. At the time, many men still wore a pocket watch and the wristwatch wasn’t the staple it is now. In the late 19th and early 20th century, people were strapping their pocket watches to their wrists utilizing special straps.

However, in 1904, Louis Cartier, on the request of his friend Alberto Santos-Dumont - a Brazilian aviator, designed and created the Cartier Santos. As a pilot, Santos-Dumont needed a reliable way to keep time without removing his hands from the controls. The result was a small gold watch with a square face and exposed screws. Though pilot’s watches have seen quite an evolution over the years, many people regard the Santos as not only the first pilot’s watch but also the first wrist watch.

Throughout the years the pilot’s watch saw innovations to make an aviator’s job even easier. Brands like Breitling added elements such as circular slide-rule and chronograph to meet the demands of ever-changing flight complexities. Other brands like IWC, Bell & Ross, and Longines focused their efforts on pilot’s watches, particularly war years.

characteristics and features

There are a few specific characteristics that make a watch a dress watch.

  1. Large and Legible Dial A Pilot needs to be able to quickly and easily tell time in both good and bad weather and for day or night flights. So, many pilots watches have large, dark dials with contrasting numbers or indices.
  2. Luminosity Pilot’s watches offer luminosity to enhance readability for night flight
  3. Oversized Winding Crown Historically pilots wore gloves during flight and therefore needed a large crown they could easily manipulate without removing those gloves.
  4. Extra Bezel Markings Some pilots watches have more markings on the bezel, like a small flight computer, that can assist with calculations like fuel burn and wind correction angles.
  5. Dual Time or GMT Functions Some pilots watches also have a dual time or GMT complication to track multiple time zones or coordinated universal time (UTC
characteristics and  features