It is almost certain that you have seen a Pilot's watch in your life before. These large, clean and clear timepieces are popular for their straightforward design and a high degree of legibility.
One of the most appealing things about Pilot's watches is that they are clearly built for purpose. They are a quintessential tool watch, designed around the principle that form should follow function. Diver's watches also follow these principles. Aesthetic embellishments are rare in this field of ultra-serious tool timepieces, and when they are made they must be made sympathetically so they do not compromise the device's function.
Technically speaking, the world's very first "official" wristwatch was a Pilot's watch, although it didn't look much like the ones we know today. It was designed in 1904 by Louis Cartier for his friend (and pilot) Alberto Santos-Dumont. Santos-Dumont had complained about how difficult it was to operate a pocket watch (a useful aviation tool) while his hands were occupied by the controls of the plane.
Cartier set out to create a hands-free timekeeping method for his friend. Two years after having made his request, Alberto Santos-Dumont took to the skies in Europe for the very first time on November 12, 1906. On his wrist for his historic flight was the timepiece made for him by Cartier, and thus the legend of the Pilot's watch took flight. The model would eventually be made available to the public in 1911.
Another important figure in the development of the Pilot's watch is Louis Charles Joseph Blériot. In 1909 Blériot completed the first flight across the English Channel, accompanied by a Zenith wristwatch. Following his successful crossing, the Frenchman declared his satisfaction with the watch and its precision. His ringing endorsement greatly enhanced Zenith's reputation as a manufacturer of superlative navigation instruments.
Interestingly, Zenith to this day holds the unique distinction of being the only brand in the world that is legally allowed to print the word "Pilot" on the dial, thanks to it owning the trademark for it as it applies to watches. Unsurprisingly, the brand is not shy about this fact, and exercises its exclusive right to use the word liberally.
Just a few years later, commercial air travel emerged. Although it would take a long time to be accepted as commonplace, man's sudden mastery of the skies created the perfect psychological landscape amongst potential purchasers.
The demands of war also helped transform the Pilot's watch into the functional item we recognize today. During the two world wars, the design of Pilot's watches was heavily refined. For instance, designers aimed to further simplify the watch's visage so it could be read at a glance - split-second decisions were the difference between life and death.
Perhaps one of the most significant wristwatches designed during this period is the IWC Special Pilot’s Watch, released in 1936. This watch would pave the way for the 1940 debut of the IWC Big Pilot's watch, which is still a mainstay in the brand's collection today. This flying watch was a massive 55mm wide, making it not only the biggest IWC watches ever made, but also one of the biggest ever wristwatches. It was supplied to the German Airforce (the Luftwaffe) and has gone on to be regarded as something of an archetype.
Following the war, optimism was high. Commercial air travel took off and brands started to capitalize on this. Many watch brands we now associate with aviation joined the fray at this time, such as Breitling with its iconic Navitimer in 1952. The Navitimer is now one of the most collectible and recognizable watches in the industry, famous for its instantly noticeable slide-rule that encircles the dial.
Rivaling the Navitimer in the collectibility stakes is the Rolex GMT Master II. While the GMT Master II wasn't released until 1982, its forerunner (the GMT Master) debuted just three years after Breitling's poster boy in 1955. The GMT Master watch was designed to serve the needs of Pan-American Airways pilots, who traveled long haul flights and frequently crossed time zones multiple times in one day. Its simple read-out, a high degree of functionality, and superb build quality have ensured it remains an industry classic until this day.
Nowadays, some of the most legible, faithfully-designed, and collectible Pilot's watches are made by brands such as IWC, Zenith, Bell & Ross, Breitling, Rolex, and Laco. You can find many of these watches on Jomashop.com.