The dream of flying goes hand-in-hand with horological breakthroughs. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, engineers, inventors and soon-to-be aviators were searching for ways to defy gravity, while simultaneously looking for cutting edge time-keeping instruments to accompany their flights. Let's take a look at some of the most iconic moments and legendary figures that changed the course of history in aviation and horology.
Based in Paris in 1904, Alberto Santos-Dumont was a brazilian aviator known for pioneering experimental flight developments, including hot air balloons, early dirigibles, and other airplane precursors. One day, he mentions to one of his colleagues that his pocket watch was an inconvenient timekeeping device during flight time. The person Santos-Dumont expressed his frustration to was none other than the famous Parisian watchmaker, Louis-François Cartier.
Louis Cartier listened carefully to his friend’s requirements, and designed, developed, and gifted Santos-Dumont with the newly created timepiece: the first timekeeping instrument designed for a pilot’s wrist.
At the time, however, wristwatches were viewed as a feminine and not particularly in style. Santos-Dumont, an elegant and charismatic man known throughout Europe for his inventions, proudly wore the watch everyday, and turned wristwatches into a new symbol of masculinity. It is famously known that a picture of Alberto in a newspaper asked “What is that strapped to his wrist?” The answer was a watch. Today, the Cartier Santos-Dumont watch is recognized as being the first male wristwatch in the world.
A few years later, in 1909, the Frenchman Louis Blériot became the first person to fly across the English-chanel. On his wrist was a Zenith watch that contained attributes specifically designed for a pilot.
Unlike Santos-Dumont’s Cartier watch, in which the design was not fully optimized for a pilot, this Zenith watch was designed specifically for Blériot’s channel crossing. In fact, it contained
characteristics that were later adopted by other pilot watches including highly visible luminescent hands, large roman numerals, an oversized crown, and a large
dial. It has been known that Blériot appreciated the watch so much that he once wrote to Zenith ( and said, “I am extremely satisfied with the Zenith watch, which I use regularly.”
As a result of Santos-Dumont and Louis Blériot’s flying achievements, precision in aviation became a necessity.
Interwar and Post-War Periods
Over the course of WWI and WWII, the involvement and development of other watch companies in aviation pushed the standards to higher levels. Led by highly-skilled watch manufacturers including Longines, Breitling and
IWC, the watch industry developed new flight capabilities: larger cases (up to 55mm), higher legibility, and the slide rule, became the new norm amongst pilot watches.
As avionic technology and flying time increased, the watch industry had to develop new complications to enable timekeeping across time zones. The Rolex GMT models in the 1950s, which allowed pilots to know the time across multiple time-zones, exemplifies how pilot watches needed to quickly adapt to the increased flying challenges.
During the space race spanning from the 50s to 70s, Omega won a bid with NASA to develop a watch suited for space. Omega crafted the famous Speedmaster in 1957, which was initially made for racing, but was robust enough to be worn into space. This watch was eventually worn during Apollo 11, the first mission to land a man on the moon, breaking new heights of pilot's watch engineering.
The story of aviation breakthroughs is highly intertwined with horological progress. Today, pilot watches are amongst the most sought after and desirable watches amongst collectors. While their attributes may be obsolete in the twenty-first century, the history of pilot watches remains as exciting and intriguing as ever before. From Santos-Dumont’s Cartier to Louis Blériot’s Zenith, passing by the Rolex GMT or Omega’s Speedmaster, pilot watches have reinvented themselves time and time again, pushing new boundaries to enable the future of aviation.
At Aeromat, we seek to recreate the evolution of the pilot watch through our different collections. Our goal is to provide a window into each innovation and design of the pilot watch since the 1920s.
Our first iteration has been the Vol de Nuit Collection which inspires itself from the first high legibility dials produced using highly contrasted colors and roman numerals.