The Pilot Watch: From A Friendly Request To A Soaring Success

Aug 26, 2019
The Pilot Watch: From A Friendly Request To A Soaring Success

Today, time is conveniently available at the hint of a wrist. In the olden days, however, it made itself available only through the smiling face of the trustee pocket watch tucked away in coat pockets and lapels.


In 1901, a fateful forming of a friendship occurred which would change history. That year, a once “Coffee King of Brazil”, later aeronautical inventor and pilot, and the son of a French jewellery designer formed an alliance. As a result, the face of horology was changed in a most exquisite and extraordinary way.


This is how it all began.

The Pilot Watch is Born

Alberto Santos-Dumont, Pilot, Plane, Tower, Hhistory, Inventor, Innovator
Photo of Alberto Santos-Dumont from Fai

In the early 20th century, Alberto Santos-Dumont, Brazilian inventor, and aviation pioneer approached his friend Louis Cartier with a special request. Pilots faced somewhat of a challenge with watch technology. Some made do with affixing their pocket watches to their wrist. However, it often proved a cumbersome battle.


As a pilot, Alberto needed to keep his hands on the controls when flying. He could not risk unbecoming nose dives and tailspins as he felt about in his waistcoat to locate his pocket watch. Of course, this was centuries before the release of Top Gun, so conservative flying was still the preferred method.


And so, in 1904, the Santos-Dumont, the first pilot wristwatch and considered the first purpose-designed watch, was born. Its inspiration came from a pocket watch that Cartier had produced. This watch featured a large and distinct dial design. It thus set the Art Deco style of the 20s and 30s in motion.

The Early Flights of the Pilot Watch

front view of Vintage Cartier Santos-Dumont watch
Pilot Watch, Vintage, Blue, Leather, Santos-Dumont

For almost seven years, Alberto Dumont had the privilege of being something of a trendsetter. This was because he was the only gentleman adorned with time on his wrist.


This trailblazer unwittingly made headlines in fashion as well. In 1906, he was filmed in flight (flying 220 metres in 21.5 seconds) wearing his Santos-Dumont. As a result, he set the pace for the acceptance of the wristwatch among men in the early 20th century.


The aforementioned events paved the way for the wristwatch of today. It also awarded Cartier the title “first wristwatch”, even though Patek Phillipe had previously invented models for women.


The Santos-Dumont became officially available to the public in 1911. It came in platinum and gold models that featured the first deployant (folding) buckle in a brown or black leather strap. This was the only folding buckle in the market at that time.


Cartier continued to manufacture the Santos through the first half of the 20th century and WWII. However, the military began to require round watches. As a consequence, Cartier’s trademark square design gave in to a decline in popularity.


side view of Vintage Cartier Santos Silver watch

The Santos-Dumont lost traction. But born out of necessity to abide by a friend’s request, it never lost its foothold. In 1978, with a redesign, it relaunched under the name Santos De Cartier (Cartier Santos). Upon relaunching, it capitalised on the “luxury sports” watch sector. This was denoted by high-end models manufactured in stainless steel.


The initial design of a small square-face and exposed screws evolved into the legendary steel-and-gold Cartier Santos models. One feature was the addition of a steel-and-gold integrated bracelet. This was a notable step away from the brown/black pigskin leather strap. Thus, these models went on to inspire many later incarnations.


Other luminary collections followed in the decades to come. As such, most people regard Cartier Santos as the ultimate timepiece accessory. It would grace the wrists of the elite as a status symbol of success.

Characteristics of a Pilot Watch

front view of Cartier Santos-Dumont Pilot watch

Pilot watches were later embellished as fashion statements of casual chic. But in their earlier days, pilot watches were designed — as their name indicates — for pilots. Their original intent was to help pilots navigate their flights with added ease.


Other brands like Breitling, B-Uhr, IWC, Bell & Ross, and Longines followed the footsteps of the Santos-Dumont. They, therefore, ventured into the pilot watch business with their own modifications.


Among these modifications were chronograph models with a rotating bezel. Also included was a circular slide rule for pilot-needed calculations. Examples were metric to standard conversion, fuel consumption, and airspeed/distance.


Unknown to many, the slide rule did not just serve as a historical marker in the evolution of the pilot watch. In fact, many pilots still learn to use the device in flight schools today.


As the world’s first purpose-designed wristwatch, the Santos-Dumont adopted some cornerstone principles. These covered clarity, simplicity, and practicality to define the outstanding characteristics of a pilot watch.

Large and Easy to Read Dial

This ensured that pilots would be able to tell time quickly and easily during the day and night and in both clear and bad weather. Contrasting indices were also employed to enable a better reading of time.


Pilot watches featured luminosity to enhance readability during night flights.

Large Winding Crown

These helped pilots manipulate the crown without having to remove their gloves.

Large Case

A large case ensured that the watch could be worn over clothing such as a pilot’s jacket.

Dual Time

Dual time functions ensured that pilots could track multiple time zones as they flew across different countries.

Top 5 Pilot Watches of 2018/2019

The Santos-Dumont has since become a role model (pun intended) for many watch companies that pay homage to the pilot watch with their own collections that draw from the Santos’ character and style to shape their own bold trends in the art of modern watchmaking.

IWC Big Pilot’s Heritage Watch 48

front view of IWC Big Pilot’s Heritage Watch 48 watch

The IWC Big Pilot’s Heritage Watch 48 will get hearts racing. Bold and distinct features complemented with a 192-hour power reserve, allowing accurate time tracking for eight days before it automatically stops. Added protection against magnetic fields reinforces time accuracy with a respectful nod to aviation.

Breitling Chronospace Evo Night Mission

side view of Breitling Chronospace Evo Night Mission Pilot watch
Photo from Breitling

This functional, durable and versatile timepiece spans 43mm and is complete with SuperQuartz movement. A fast-action timezone change also ensures you always have the correct time on hand as you jet-set about the world, sporting an attractive addition to your watch collection for years to come.

Omega Speedmaster Skywalker X-33

front view of Omega Speedmaster Skywalker X-33 watch

The Star Wars reference is definitely a cool factor of this Omega watch. However, it goes beyond quirky titles to enshrine a timepiece of elegance that packs a punch with razor technology.


A collaboration between the Omega brand and the Solar Impulse Project, the Speedmaster Skywalker is a thoughtfully synchronised marvel of high-end gadgetry and handsome appearance. Features include iPad application, skeletonised hands, and lightweight design.

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Air-King

front view of Rolex Oyster Perpetual Air-King watch

The Rolex brand has always been synonymous with classic chic and modern luxury and the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Air-King does not deviate. It extends the aeronautical heritage of the original Oyster with laudable and extraordinary re-works such as a black dial and silver hands with touches of emerald green. The Rolex Oyster perpetuates an outstanding character of classic elements that shine alongside cutting-edge technology.

Hamilton Khaki Aviation X-Wind Auto Chrono

front view of Hamilton Khaki Aviation X-Wind Auto Chrono watch

This unmistakably functional and versatile watch is an improved iteration of Hamilton’s bespoke style of elite elegance. Marrying the latest horological technology with pristine aesthetics, the X-Wind will leave you breathless. Stainless steel metal awards this fascinating timepiece water resistance of up to 330’ while a sapphire crystal face resists damage as you flaunt it in a life of adventure and style.


If you enjoyed this article about the history and the continuing popularity of the pilot watch, be sure to check out our list of the most celebrated Rado watches for men.

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