IWC engraved back featuring a portrait of Saint-Exupéry

IWC engraved back featuring a portrait of Saint-Exupéry

Pilot's Watches Target Macho Market

New York Times, December 8, 2006

NEW YORK — In "Vol de Nuit" ("Night Flight"), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's lyrical 1931 novella about a doomed airmail flight over the stormy skies of Argentina, the protagonist is struck by a melancholy thought: "He had no right to admire fantasy or verve; it was his job to admire punctuality."

On the 75th anniversary of Night Flight's publication, 62 years after the author and aviation pioneer disappeared during a reconnaissance mission over occupied France, the Swiss watch brand IWC Schaffhausen has resurrected his spirit to promote a limited series of pilot's watches whose success rides on precisely the opposite sentiment: Everyone has a right to admire fantasy and verve; punctuality is incidental.

With its chocolate-brown matte dial, engraved back featuring a portrait of Saint-Exupéry and soft iron inner case for protection against magnetic fields, the IWC limited edition — comprising a total of 1,931 pieces, including one in platinum, auctioned for charity at Christie's New York in October — is among the most sophisticated examples of the new breed of pilot's watch.

The category now offers styles, from vintage throwbacks to models touting military-endorsed functionality, to satisfy almost any personality.

"It was a niche 5 or 10 years ago and now it's definitely a trend," said Keith Strandberg, international editor for Europa Star, a trade journal for the watch industry. "Companies that have a history with pilot's timepieces are marketing them now more than ever."

Longines designed a watch for Charles Lindbergh in 1927 after his trans-Atlantic solo flight; and the astronaut Neil Armstrong gave the Omega Speedmaster the ultimate endorsement when he wore it on his historic moonwalk in 1969: But Cartier takes credit for being first into the field, unlikely as that might seem for a brand famous for its dress-watch pedigree. Louis Cartier produced a wristwatch for a Brazilian aviator, Alberto Santos-Dumont, in 1904 to meet his need for a time- telling instrument that he could use when both hands were occupied. Today, the Santos is a brand icon, but it is not considered a true pilot's watch because it lacks features typically seen on aviator models — like a large black dial, rotating bezel, chronograph functionality, antireflective coating on the crystal, and luminescent hands and numerals for readability. It also lacks a certain ruggedness.

Traditionally sold on calf leather straps that were wrapped around thighs or bulky gloves, pilot's watches are nothing if not manly. Several contemporary models draw on military associations to make the point crystal-clear.

Tutima, a watch manufacturer with roots in the German watchmaking region of Saxony, supplied military chronographs to the German government during World War II and developed a NATO-approved chronograph in 1985.

The French brand Bell & Ross retaliates this month with a round- faced watch bearing the official logo of the Force Aéronavale, the French Navy's aviation division. The watch is being issued in two limited series of 150 pieces, and 50 of each have been reserved by Aéronavale members, the company's founder, Carlos Rosillo, said. Stylistically, the model is a departure from the brand's well-received Instrument BR-01 watch, introduced in 2005 and distinguished by a chunky, square case that looks to have been yanked straight out of the cockpit.

Besides boasting stylishly large components — size being the overarching trend in watch aesthetics today — pilot's watches are popular because "what's good for pilots is good for civilians," said Jean-Paul Girardin, vice president of Breitling, the brand, beside IWC, most closely connected to aviation.

"If the watch is made for an aviation environment, which is top and unforgiving, then it has certain attributes they desire," said Lieutenant Commander Ted Steelman, the lead pilot for the Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy's elite flight team. "When I'm in a cockpit, I don't care if it cost $10 or $10,000, I want to know that my watch is going to be accurate within one second."