Some of us love diver’s watches, some skeletonised dress watches. But no matter what you do — driving a truck or stuck behind a desk — maybe nothing is more tempting in watches than the world of aviation, whether it be invoking the adventurous spirit of WWII dogfights, or the memories of Top Gun. You might actually fly a twin-prop Cessna and rely on the infallibility of a top-tier pilot’s watch to back you up in an emergency. Here is a top 5 of the best, from high-tech weapons-grade ceramic to aged black steel with rose gold accents. Chocks away as we look at a few of the best pilot watches of 2020 over $10K, and yes, you will notice that we have expanded the category to include all sky-dwellers that turn left when they enter the plane.
IWC Top Gun ‘SFTI’ Edition
Big, bold, tough and black. Story done. Sorry, if you don’t know your pilot’s watches from divers, this might be your first impression, but look closely and the tool expertise of IWC quickly becomes apparent, from pure functionality to the sharp pop of red detail. A silky smooth case of ceramic and IWC’s own Ceratanium — yes, it does what it says on the tin, mixing Ceramic with the ’tanium in titanium, equating to strong, exceptional lightness. Big it is: a brash 45mm that feels more like 43, and legibility with a capital L. IWC does tactical horology like few others, showing in the details.
The case is ergonomic for the size, fitting most pilot’s wrists, bar the thinnest of thin, with shapely lugs blending cohesive design with comfort. From pushers and large crown to the buckle on the IWC fabric strap, all hardware has the inherent toughness of Ceratanium, while red rings make the weapons-like pushers pop. Further flashes of red are Top Gun series clues, like the fresh seconds hand at 6, and fighter jet counterweight to the chronograph seconds. The dial is nothing but pure studied flight instrument, with rounded Arabic numerals, pure white print, Super-LumiNova and those razor-edged swords making you feel like you’re both wearing and actually able to use this as an indispensable back-up tool in the cockpit. Price $14,200 AUD.
Breitling AVI Ref. 765 1953 Re-Edition in rose gold
Georges Kern has taken Breitling on a new journey, culminating in a streamlined portfolio smattered with re-sharpened vintage references, perfect for our increasing appetite for nostalgia. For me, the AVI ref.765 is the culmination of what seems to be a newfound purity within the range and, even with my own love for pure functionality, I am drawn to the glimmer of gold. I find few other pilot’s watches more tempting than the rose gold version, with the idiosyncratic appearance only adding to the charm of vintage flight instrument chic. Sitting on a hand-stitched dark brown leather strap, it is only slightly larger than its workmanlike original, at 41mm, with a perfectly matched high dome sapphire crystal.
What seals the deal for me is the warmth of the rose gold with the silky cream colour and vintage thickness of applied Super-LumiNova for the Arabic numerals, matched by delicate syringe hands and needle seconds. The registers are printed with a pared-back purity, countered by the 15-minute counter at 3 o’clock with its five chubby lume rectangles for increased visibility. The rose gold and cream creates an illusory chocolate tint to the matte black dial surface, and does make it difficult for me to concentrate on the functionality, which is here in spades. Thankfully, Breitling has foregone a high-tech automatic, instead we have the hand-wound in-house B09 caliber. Ticking at 4Hz and offering some 70 hours of power reserve, this version uses a column wheel, displaying running seconds, a 15-minute counter (three o’clock) and a 12-hour counter at six. What more can you want: spirit, functionality and the perfect feel of winding a hand-wound calibre. Price CHF 21,000
Rolex Sky-Dweller on Oysterflex
If your pilot’s watch frame of reference is a monochromatic German tool watch, this might come as either a shock – or a blessing. The Rolex Sky-Dweller will never be a discreet timepiece or a tool watch; it owns its own rarefied air as the most complicated wristwatch in the Big Crown’s catalogue, and it is expressly for the wrist of business-class travellers and beyond. A pilot’s watch? Yes, though the image here is one of a private jet, not a single propeller Cub. Hell, the pilot is probably the owner of said jet. Even with our sub-40mm focus today, 42mm is not large when you consider the inherent ergonomics of any Rolex case from 37 to 42mm, and why not enjoy some of the world’s most perfect bevels and dial details on a slightly larger canvas. The Sky-Dweller is the last reference to make you enjoy the soft embrace of the Oysterflex, and we covered this latest release in our story here. Price $40,000 USD in yellow gold.
Zenith Pilot Type 20 Blueprint
Inspired by the blueprints of the early aircraft, specifically the Type XI aircraft flown by Louis Blériot across the English Channel, the Zenith Pilot Type 20 Blueprint is a fresh and visually interesting take on a tried-and-true design. Featuring the classic 45mm brushed steel case, oversized onion crown (handy while wearing gloves, if you’re a pilot or just in the middle of winter) and dark blue leather strap, but the real excitement begins when you look at the dial. Simply expressed, yet alluding to the complexity of architectural schematics, the blue dial features a criss-crossing of white lines that make up the hour markers and minute track, and much more. To create a real sense of depth, however, the lines are printed on the dial, as well as the underside of the crystal, casting thin but precise shadows. If you’re in the design business, this will have a particularly attractive appeal. Price: $12,200 AUD.
IWC Big Pilot 46mm
I love big crowns, and yes this is one of the largest, classiest and most joyful to use. A classic half-onion shaped crown which is maybe the most recognisable feature of the Big Pilot. At a whopping 46mm, this is meant to evoke the spirit of fighter pilots, not slip under the cuff of a slim-fit shirt. Think frazzled loose cuff denim with a leather jacket. The shape is a delicate balance of functional purity with a brushed main body, but the detail-obsessive IWC manifests itself in a sharp bezel that brings a welcome element of shine, matching that polished crown of crowns. The dial? Yes, there is no denying this is a flight instrument, a useful 7 days of power reserve being marked by a recessed register at 3, and a delicate pop of red to remind you to wind up your flight tool.
The rest reads like an ABC of pure form, black framed dagger hands with generous lume, in a shape recognisable from vintage flight instruments, with their timeless legibility. The large printed indices and friendly typeface of the textured dial are all proportioned to a tee, with the triangle/dots at 12, and a discreet rhomboid date window at 6. Simplicity, balance, legibility, and my only criticism? The well-known reliability of the 52110 calibre that sits within a soft-iron antimagnetic inner case is as accurate as it is tough, but I wish they came out with a manual version, if only for the pleasure of winding that onion-shaped piece of aviation art. Price $19,950 AUD.