Since 1904 and the creation of the Cartier Santos for pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont, the pilot’s watch has remained an extremely pleasant midpoint between the elegance of a dress watch and the heft of a dive watch. Pilot’s watches also offer more call for complication than a field watch. Therefore, I would like to present five watches which, in my estimation, offer exceptional quality at every price range on the market. These are watches from reputable and reliable brands with movements which should be serviceable and reliable for years to come; lest we forget that they are, at core, tools.
Smiths Military PRS-29A
“…issued to the British Army and Royal Air Force as a multi-purpose military piece.”
The first watch which I would like to discuss is one which has only recently come to my attention, yet originates from a brand which I am rather familiar with. The Smiths PRS-29A is a creation of Eddie Platts, an expert in the world of small-scale microbrands and known for producing very high-quality watches at fair prices. This is achieved through very selective ordering hours, after which his website is closed until all orders have been shipped. Whilst this does not allow the free-access afforded the customers of mainstream brands, it does mean that you get an exclusive product of almost unparalleled value. I should also note that whilst Mr Platts clearly states no affiliation with the original Smiths brand, he is based in Sheffield as was the original company.
“…pure military charm…”
The inspiration for this watch is the Smiths military watch issued to the British Armed Forces between 1967 and 1970. A 35mm watch, the original was issued to the British Army and Royal Air Force as a multi-purpose military piece. The new watch continues this spirit in design and improves upon it where specifications are concerned. The case of the new version has only been enlarged by one millimetre, thus pleasing vintage enthusiasts, whilst the thickness is a modest 11.1mm. Unlike the original, its spring bars are removable and the case is drilled for ease of strap changing. In the pursuit of strength, the spring bars are shoulderless, thus reducing the threat of snapping. Adding to the package and avoiding snags, the crown is flat as was the case with the original, but now offers a 100m water resistance. The finishing of the case is at once robust in brushed steel, yet pleasing due to the quality of execution.
Looking at the front of the watch, one is greeted by a subtle upgrade of an internally anti-reflective box-domed sapphire crystal which guarantees far greater durability than the original acrylic. Despite this adjustment, the appearance is very close to the original watch with two dial variants available. The first is a cream, non-luminescent dial with beautiful thermally-blued spade hands — a rarity at this price. The other dial is perhaps the more purposeful and a near facsimile of the original watch. Its pure military charm is given by a black base with white numerals and a thorough coating of SuperLuminova C3.
“…gives a 250-gauss anti-magnetic rating.”
Looking into the watch, all becomes more interesting as the dial is soft-iron which, in conjunction with a shield within the caseback, gives a 250-gauss anti-magnetic rating. The movement chosen is the dependable ETA 2801-2: essentially and ETA 2824-2 minus the automatic winding. It offers a 4Hz beat rate, hacking and 17 jewels in an easily serviced Swiss package. Priced at £405, it is very difficult to think of a better pilot’s watch under £500.
For more, take a look at Timefactors’ website.
Hanhart Pioneer One
“…instrumental in the design of the now-legendary Breguet Type XX.”
The market for sub-£1,000 pilot’s watches is a heavily contested one. Where vintage-style fliegers are concerned, we have Stowa and Laco. Sinn also offers some pilot’s watches around this price; however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to order them without a very significant wait. This leaves us with Hanhart, a fascinating brand which originated in the Black Forest. The origins of their watches come from 1930s pilot’s chronographs, but the movements and designs of their watches were instrumental in the design of the now-legendary Breguet Type XX.
Today, however, Hanhart’s three-hand models offer something simpler and more affordable which bridges the gap between modern standards and vintage appeal. Therefore, I would like to present the Pioneer One: model with a 42mm by 12mm case and a rotating bezel. The case is treated with real care to replicate the sharp lugs of its forebears whilst giving modern finishing. Protruding from the side of the case is a very large but delightfully finished crown. Whilst not threaded, it guarantees a 100m water resistance and is signed.
“…extremely legible and very handsome.”
Sitting between the case and the dial is a bidirectional rotating bezel; an addition of quality not often seen at this price. The style of the bezel is, once more, taken from the ‘30s and features a fluted surface instead of more conventional markings. A single red marker can be used for timing periods with an understated appearance befitting the overall design. The dial, presented under an internally anti-reflective coated sapphire crystal, is available in black and white in addition to anthracite or dark blue. To offset these colours, Hanhart has added more red elements to the anthracite and white dials and increased contrast with black hands. Naturally, all dial options feature a healthy coating of SuperLuminova.
A standout feature is the hand design which allows each pencil hand to reach its respective marker perfectly. The dial itself is also stepped to lower the hour ring beneath the centre and edge of the dial so as to gently separate each function. The result is extremely legible and very handsome.
Mechanically, the watch uses the tried and tested Sellita SW200 with a 38-hour power reserve, 26 jewels and automatic winding. Sharing much of its design with the ETA 2824, it will prove a reliable and affordably serviced companion for years to come. Therefore, this watch offers a very balanced appeal. On the one hand, it will appeal to those who want something understated and of the utmost quality. On the other, it presents a reliable and potentially extremely practical tool: rather a lot for a price of £890.
For more, take a look at Hanhart’s website.
Formex Pilot Automatic Chronograph
The following watch is a chronograph from an up and coming brand with an innovative case design. I have known Formex for a couple of years and I never cease to be impressed not only by the standards to which they work, but also their relentless search for new technologies. This has clearly been seen in their “Essence” line which is proving to be a very popular choice. The same principles are also evident in their more technical watches including today’s pick: the Pilot.
“…conforms to the wrist and absorbs the shocks and vibrations…”
Formex produce both three-hand and chronograph variants of the Pilot, but today I intend to focus on the automatic chronograph form. When handling this watch, the first noticeable attribute is the very curious stainless steel and grade 2 titanium case. Measuring 46.5mm in diameter by 15.5mm in thickness, one might imagine that it would be uncomfortable — not so.
Using the square case to fit a spring in each corner, the inner case which is constructed from titanium is able to float within the outer case. The benefit is that it conforms to the wrist and absorbs the shocks and vibrations to which an aviator’s watch is subjected. However, do not let this make you think that the case is utilitarian. In truth, it is beautifully finished with very tight tolerances and brushed and polished finishes; these can be enhanced with black PVD treatments for some or all of the watch’s surfaces.
“…comprehensive functionality of this glowing display.”
The dials of these watches are available with sunburst or matte surfaces in black, blue and silver, or in carbon fibre. If you choose the latter, you are given a different tachymetre and a double tipped second hand to allow secondary timings to be made whilst the chronograph is running. This would also enhance the accuracy of the chronograph under g-force. Aside from a chronograph, these watches feature the day and the date to add to the comprehensive functionality of this glowing display.
“…one of the earliest movements to be designed with a computer.”
Where the movement is concerned, we are provided with the Valjoux 7750: a movement long used by the likes of IWC and Omega which was one of the earliest movements to be designed with a computer. The result is a 4Hz chronograph with automatic winding and a 42-hour power reserve which can be viewed through the sapphire caseback: a feature which does not impede a 100m water resistance.
This is clearly not a watch for everyone; yet for those who enjoy something different and impeccably engineered, it may be a very interesting choice for a starting price of £1,200. Certainly, this is the watch from this list which will accompany you though the most testing of circumstances.
For more, take a look at Formex’s website.
Oris Big Crown ProPilot Worldtimer
“…built for a long-haul commercial pilot.”
The next watch in this video takes a jump in price by comparison to those before it. However, I regard it as worthy of this price due to the complications housed within it and the convenience which they provide. If the Formex is built for a fighter pilot, the Oris Big Crown ProPilot Worldtimer is built for a long-haul commercial pilot.
“…remains very comfortable through the use of curved lugs.”
Where dimensions are concerned, the ProPilot is no small watch with a 44.7mm diameter and a 13.1mm thickness. In spite of the large size, it remains very comfortable through the use of curved lugs. The size is also defensible not only due to the tradition of large pilot’s watches, but also because of the legibility of the dial. The case is brushed stainless steel with aeronautical forms echoed in the turbine-like bezel. Also offered is a 100m water resistance courtesy of a screw-down crown: a feature which adds clear versatility. However, it would be a mistake to compare this watch too closely with the almost-unavoidable Tudor Black Bay GMT. This is because the Oris offers a more technical feel on the wrist and greater legibility thus appealing to the pilot rather than the passenger.
“…an intuitive alternative to other systems…”
Before discussing the dial, I feel that the modified ETA 2836-2 inside this watch should addressed. As it shares much of its architecture with the movement in the Hanhart, I will not dwell on the specifications. However, it now has 30 jewels as a consequence of using a module to offer a second time-zone with day/night indication on the dial, as well as small seconds and an independent hour hand. The latter is most interesting as, by turning the bezel, one is able to jump the hour hand back and forth according to longitudinal travel. This offers an intuitive alternative to other systems on the market. It also means that the movement will remain affordable to service whilst offering complications seen on far less accessible watches.
The ProPilot is available with two different dial options. The more professional of the two is matte black with yellow accents, whilst the more delicate presents a sunburst grey base. Whilst the former is more legible, I feel that the spirit of the watch is in line with the more playful variant. The complications are very clearly shown on the dial with modern restraint and are separated from the central minutes and hours — the key focus of the dial. In either case, this is a watch which is still produced by an independent Swiss brand and which offers an understated modern charm and very significant functionality for a starting price of £2,650.
For more, take a look at Oris’ website.
IWC Pilot’s Watch Automatic Top Gun
When one thinks about a pilot’s watch, the first brand to spring to mind is IWC. From their long tenure as the supplier of Mark XI watches to the Royal Air Force to their creation of the first ceramic pilot’s watch in 1994, they have shaped this genre. Despite this, in recent years, rising prices and relatively uninteresting movements have blunted their appeal for me and made recommending them a tall order. This year, however, they have offered a brand-new collection which promises (and delivers) great things.
“…ideal for a cockpit environment in which bumps and scratches would be common.”
The piece which I would like to discuss moves squarely into the realms of luxury with a price of £5,250 and specifications to match; it’s the Pilot’s Watch Automatic Top Gun. True to IWC’s history, it is offered in a 41mm wide ceramic case which gives a black, matted finish which will not fade or scratch over time. This makes the watch ideal for a cockpit environment in which bumps and scratches would be common. The screw-down crown of the watch is not ceramic, but titanium due to the risk of fracturing such a part and match the caseback.
“…undoubtedly the most legible.”
Where the case links to IWC’s innovation in the ‘90s, the dial is pure flieger. The hands are matte black above the similarly finished dial. Of all the watches in this article, it is undoubtedly the most legible. Creating brilliant contrast, the Arabic numerals are bold and rounded in brilliant white text to match the Superluminova. The only touch of colour is seen in the red ‘Top Gun’ logo, a welcome addition. Even the date is black and its window is stepped for visual effect. What stands out throughout the dial details is the sheer care taken to make ever part look perfect: exactly what justifies the price. This ranges from the quality of the printing to the minutely squared ends of the hands.
“…exceptionally well decorated…”
Technically, the watch uses an in-house calibre 32110: a very distant relative of an ETA 2892. Don’t let this put you off as, in this exceptionally well decorated form, it is virtually entirely new. It is adjusted to 5 positions, gives a 72-hour power reserve, has 21 jewels and uses silicon components. Naturally, it features hacking and hand-winding and will give years of accuracy. To add to this, it is protected from magnetism by a soft-iron shield whilst a domed anti-reflective sapphire crystal tops off the package.
As a complete package, this is a surprisingly simple watch. However, this should not distract one from the superlative quality of what is offered here. What IWC have created is very close to all the watch you would ever need.
For more, take a look at IWC’s website.
Perhaps the world of pilot’s watches is unique in that, whilst all of the aforementioned watches fall into the same category, they each do so with very different approaches. Putting detailing and mechanical complexity aside, whether you choose the Smiths, the IWC or any of the other watches here, you will be able to enjoy something refreshing and of brilliant value.