Born for the Skies: IWC Pilot’s Watches 

Felix Scholz takes a look into the magnificent history of the IWC’s Pilot’s Watches.

Few watches can claim as pure a sense of purpose as IWC's Pilot's Watches. The iconic design, built for purpose and legibility, is instantly recognisable. The first of IWC's Pilot's watches dates back to 1936, with the reference 436 Mark IX. This watch featured bold, stylised Arabic numerals and even a rotating bezel with a luminous marker for measuring elapsed time. And while the spartan dial design of this original bears the hallmarks that we have come to associate with IWC's Pilot's Watches, the defining example of the genre is the reference 431.

IWC produced 1000 examples of reference 431 in 1940, a military navigator's watch known as 'B-Uhr'. Today the watch has a different name. The Big Pilot. This massive 55mm watch, with its sword-shaped hands, inset Arabic numerals and clear minute track with that triangle at 12 and an oversize, onion-shaped crown for easy use while wearing flight gloves. This formula was followed on the legendary Mark XI, clocking in at a more wearable size than the reference 431. The 36mm Mark XI was initially commissioned by the Royal Air Force and met their exacting standards thanks in no small part to the mighty Calibre 89, designed by Albert Pellaton and protected by a screw-down caseback. So popular was the design that its use filtered out to other Air Forces, including the Australian RAAF, the New Zealand NZAF and the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm.

Reborn on the wrist

It would be some decades until we saw new iterations of the Pilot's Watch, but the design was back with a vengeance in the 1990s when the brand was riding high the wave of the mechanical watch renaissance. In 1994 the Mark XI was succeeded by the Mark XII, which saw the addition of straight hands, an automatic movement and a sapphire crystal, amongst other improvements.

IWC's time-only Pilot's Watches have evolved since then — we're now up to Mark XVIII — but the IWC Pilot's Watch Automatic 36 still carries much of the spirit of those original aviation watches. The smaller case size is in line with the vintage aesthetic, and while it's been dressed up a little on the brown alligator strap, put it on a grey NATO (which would perfectly match the anthracite dial), and you've got a perfectly on-point modern Pilot.

Contributor

Felix Scholz

Published

May 2021

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