It’s easy to forget that heavier than air flight has only been possible for just over a century — not that much less than the advent of the motorised car — and that technology has improved a vast amount since. In the early years of aviation, pilots did not have the convenience of modern navigational technology, and so relied on charts, mathematics and mechanical instruments.
IWC’s first pilots’ watch, the mark IX, was developed in 1936 in order to give pilots a more immediate reference than the pocket watches they were carrying at the time. Its focus was legibility, and the large luminescent markers applied to a black dial made it practical and usable, even in low light conditions, setting the bar for future pilots’ watch designs. The addition of a rotating bezel with a luminous triangle gave pilots a usable reference to track time at a glance.
The Second World War launched the pilots’ watch to the next level, and the vast amount needed by the German Luftwaffe required five brands to make the one common design. The watch was modelled around a pocket watch movement and as such was a whopping 55mm, the largest watch IWC have ever made. It had a central seconds hand and came in two styles that mimicked cockpit dials: one with the hours printed around the dial, and the other with the minutes printed around the dial and the hours printed on a smaller circle within.
These watches were designed to be simple, reliable, anti-magnetic, easy to read and tough, and had features like oversized crowns for use while wearing pilots’ gloves. The design evolved subtly into the IWC Mark XI, a smaller but similar watch with a much-copied stub-ended minute hand. The addition of a chronograph complication was included in the 1988 Pilots’ Chronograph, and then the Mark XI was surpassed by the Mark XII in 1994. This steadily evolved into the Mark XVI and Mark XVII, elegant pieces that embody everything that made the original Mark IV special.
IWC recognised that there were people who liked the style of the pilots’ watch but found it to be too plain, so the Spitfire range was created. The basic design remained the same, but the introduction of applied numerals, and layered and turned silver dials gave the watches more eye-catching appeal and made them a dressier alternative to the black dialed Mark XVI.
As a nod to the original, IWC launched the Pilot 1936 Handwound, a re-edition of the Mark IX. The closest IWC have come to a re-issue of the Second World War pilots’ watch is the Big Pilot, a seven day power-reserve 46.2mm watch — not quite the full 55mm, but big enough to make a statement on the wrist.
With so much history surrounding the pilots’ watch it’s easy to see why IWC continues its tradition, but it’s also good that this tradition has evolved to provide a more modern and exciting range within the Spitfire models. For anyone looking for an out-and-out classic, an IWC pilots’ watch is hard to beat.
- IWC was one of five companies to manufacture pilot’s watches for the German armed forces during World War Two.
- The case of the Top Gun Double Chronograph pilot’s watch is made from a single piece of zirconium oxide and is almost as hard as diamond.
- The original pilot’s watches were as large as 55mm and were made using pocket watch movements.
[Note: This is an updated post of a Guest Article published earlier on our website by Gary Robery from Watchfinder.co.uk]