There are so many options to choose from when it comes to pilot watches and every producer claims an aviation heritage and the better pilot watch. We dissect the truth behind their claims.What is the best Pilot Watch? This is a dumb question to ask because it’s really not about which one is best; almost no pilot watch serves a realistic functional purpose in today’s era except some of the digital ones with integrated features like a mission timer such as the Omega Speedmaster X-33. Today, most pilot watches are really an homage to tradition and the question isn’t “best” rather it should be “favorite”. This post will focus on 4 companies that claim to pay homage to aviation — the watches they produce, their heritage, their marketing efforts and what they mean. These four companies are Omega, Breitling, IWC, and Bremont. There are quite a few others that deserve to be in this analysis as well (such as Bell & Ross and Citizen) but I want to focus on these few polarizing examples.
Pilot watches are increasingly popular; they have never been out of style and companies continue to enter the pilot watch world with a claim to aviation heritage or superior technology. For the most part, pilot watches have the same utility as a dive watch — they tell the time and they are a popular genre/look for watches. Beyond that, the claim to best is in the eyes of the beholder. Yet each of the major companies searches for legitimacy by producing a watch for the Blue Angels (which Citizen does, Breitling has also done this as well). IWC enters the mix by producing a Navy Fighter Weapons School Watch (aka Top Gun). Confused yet? To increase the mayhem over who is THE watch of pilots, Bremont offers a “squadron program” that is for military aviation units to customize a watch to their airframe or unit (in all fairness, Breitling, Omega and others have historically offered this too). Add in Breitling’s flight demonstration team and none of us have any idea who is actually THE watch of aviation.
1. OMEGA: The Space Watch. The Moon Watch. We all know Omega’s Speedmaster as the watch that walked on the moon. One small step for man was one giant step for Omega. However, Omega only ended up on the moon because they were a popular watch among pilots in WWI and WWII. When the astronauts needed a watch, Omega was a natural company to turn to. Omega’s roots in aviation go back to WWI when their pocket watches were used by many pilots. Omega’s legacy in aviation has been overshadowed by their accomplishment being the first and only watch on the moon, but their ties to aviation run deep. While not a mechanical watch, my personal favorite is the Omega Speedmaster X-33 which is technically a space watch. It’s lightweight (titanium), has exact timekeeping as a quartz watch, and has a lot of features pilot would care about including a mission timer, an illumination button that pauses the time for exact recording, and a bi-directional rotating bezel. Take a look on the wrists of airline pilots when you fly – I promise you will see if from time to time. Another great pilot watch is the classic “Moon Watch”, which has high readability, a luminescent dial, and all chronometer features typically associated with a pilot watch. The moon watch doesn’t normally get “pilot watch love” but it is a classic in the world of aviation history.
2. BREMONT: As far as quality, their watches are excellent and owners love their watches. The company was founded in 2002 in England and has little name recognition, but the models are quite an homage to aviation, including the P-51 which has actual metal from a P-51 Mustang integrated into the case. What Bremont lacks in timeline heritage they make up for with integrating actual aviation heritage. Bremont focuses (almost) entirely on aviation watches, including a Boeing Line and a U-2 line, named after the iconic spy plane. They integrate some really cool features such as propellor-shaped components in the exposition back, or pieces that represent other aviation pieces and parts. They tend to pay particular attention to their cases, with fine details such as hobnail edges on many models.
3. International Watch Company: IWC is an iconic brand within aviation, but it’s actually one that only watch aficionados tend to follow. Your average pilot-on-the-street will likely not have heard of IWC. They trace their aviation roots back to WWII where they made watches prominently for pilots throughout the war. Since then (on-and-off), they have sported a successful pilot line of watches, including their Big Pilot (48mm) and my personal favorite, the 43mm Model 377701. The IWC watches exude the image most of us have in mind when we envision “classic pilot watch” — big dial, big hands, big numbers. Among serious watch collectors, IWC easily takes the cake as an aviation classic over rivals such as Breitling. IWC will tell you they are the watch for pilots. It is the aviation watch of “those who know”.
4. Breitling: Perhaps the most well-known pilot watch on the market, Breitling claims the title “instruments for professionals” making a dive watch that can supposedly go to 5,000 feet underwater (well in excess of the Rolex Submariner’s 1000 feet). But their primary instruments are focused on the aviation professional (or at least the dreamer). Breitling’s most iconic watch is the Navitimer series, which mostly feature 3 chrono dials on the face, and a slide rule (aka whiz wheel) on the bezel. They also have a digital aviation watch (the Aerospace) that has similar functionality to the Omega Speedmaster X-33. On the marketing side, Breitling takes the cake for aviation. They even have their own precision flight team. Generally speaking, when you ask a pilot about getting a pilot watch, Breitling is the first one they mention. As discussed above, this isn’t due to lack of options, rather it is due to the image that Breitling has been able to cure over time. Breitling traces aviation roots back to the early 1900’s, including being an early supplier for the Royal Air Force in 1936 (see this website for a good round-up of Breitling’s history).
That rounds out my analysis of these 4 aviation watch producers. If you are interested in checking out some other companies, look into Bell & Ross, Citizen’s aviation line, Rolex’s GMT series, and Luminox.