Once upon a time, tool watches relied on a specific design language for practical purposes. Take the pilot watch for example—their large legible numerals (for easy reading), oversized crowns (for handling with gloves), and extra long straps (to wear over thick leather jackets) were all explicitly chosen to serve the airmen that wore them. Today, many watchmakers still rely on vintage pilot watch design codes not because they offer real-life functionality but because they are great looking timepieces. Here are three vintage-style pilot watches made for a contemporary audience.
Patek Philippe Calatrava Pilot Travel Time
Patek Philippe debuted the Calatrava Pilot Travel Time ref. 5524 back in 2015 and its release was divisive, to say the least. The pushback was not because the watch did not look good (it does) but more so because the watch looked so un-Patek like. Brand baggage aside, what we have here is a classic vintage-style pilot’s watch reinterpreted in very Patek way with an 18k white gold 42 mm case, a sapphire caseback for a view of the automatic Caliber 324, and the brand’s signature “Travel Time” display for dual time zones. Since 2015, Patek also added a rose gold version of the Calatrava Pilot Travel Time with the same proportions, along with a ladies’ model with a 37.5 mm rose gold case.
Zenith Pilot Type 20 Extra Special Bronze
Zenith’s history with making pilot watches dates back to 1909 when Louis Blériot wore a Zenith watch on his wrist when he became the first to fly across the English Channel. Naturally, for their contemporary aviator watches, Zenith draws plenty of design cues from that “Special” vintage model, as well as the Type 20 Montre D’Aéronef dashboard instruments the watchmaker made for the French in 1939. Case in point is this Zenith Pilot Type 20 Extra Special (also released in 2015) with a 45 mm case in bronze, oversized onion winding crown, large white luminous Arabic numerals, and broad cathedral hands. Bronze has been the darling metal in retro-styled watches in recent years, particularly cherished for the way it oxidizes to develop its own unique patina.
IWC Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar “Spitfire”
IWC was all about their aviator watch heritage (that started in 1936 when the brand made their first “Special Pilot’s Watch”) and bronze at this year’s edition of SIHH. A particular standout model was the IWC Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar “Spitfire,” which pairs the refined perpetual calendar complication with the robust Big Pilot silhouette. Inside the 46.2 mm bronze case sits a handsome green dial punctuated with displays for the date, day, month, year, and northern and southern hemisphere moon phases. The luminescent center hands sweep around the face of the watch to point to the B-Uhr WWII style Arabic numerals and outer minute track, while the sapphire caseback offers a view of the automatic movement inside.