Along with divers and chronographs, pilot’s watches are some of the most popular tool watches available. There are several reasons for their immense popularity. For one, their design is on point: Pilot’s watches are famous for their excellent legibility. They have straightforward designs without loads of bells or whistles. They are also traditionally a bit larger, which gives them a nice presence on the wrist. That said, they are rarely excessively bold, but rather exude a serious, functional look.
Another reason why pilot’s watches are so beloved is a widespread fascination with aviation. Countless people dream of being a pilot as a child, but it’s actually quite a select few who ever end up sitting in the cockpit of an airplane. That’s why so many of us resort to donning a fine pilot’s watch in our roles as “desk pilots.”
Without further ado, here are our top-10 pilot’s watches:
1 and 2: IWC Schaffhausen Pilot and Big Pilot
IWC pilot’s watches are absolute classics in this category. Their streamlined, instrument-inspired designs are reminiscent of the IWC timepieces utilized by both the German and British Air Forces in the 1940s and ’50s. Some of the main features include broad sword hands, a clear minute track complete with Arabic numerals, and a pilot’s triangle at 12 o’clock.
The IWC Big Pilot’s Watch is particularly impressive. Measuring in at 46.2 mm and boasting an oversized onion crown, it is anything but subtle. If you think the model is a bit too much for you, you can also opt for the Big Pilot’s Watch 43, which, as its name suggests, measures a slightly smaller 43 mm across. Other alternatives from this collection are timepieces in the Mark and Spitfire series. These pilot’s watches share similar aesthetics with the Big Pilot, but are sized between 36 and 43 mm.
You have a lot of choice when it comes to IWC pilot’s watches. In terms of case materials, you can opt for stainless steel, gold, bronze, or ceramic. In addition to traditional three-hand timepieces, the collection is also home to chronographs and watches with world time displays, perpetual calendars, and tourbillons.
3. Breitling Navitimer – The Watch With a Slide Rule
Breitling and the aviation industry have shared close ties for decades. The luxury watch manufacturer from Grenchen, Switzerland, even boasted its own aerobatic team for many years. As a result, the selection of Breitling pilot’s watches is wide-reaching. However, models in the Navitimer series hold a special place in the Breitling portfolio.
The Navitimer was first introduced in 1952, and marketed as the favorite watch of pilots. Whether that’s truly the case remains to be seen, but the watch can indeed be spotted on the wrists of quite a few flight crews worldwide.
Unlike most other pilot’s watches, the Navitimer seems a bit busy at first glance. This is partly because the watch is a chronograph, and partly due to the addition of an unusual extra: the characteristic slide rule bezel. This bezel can be used to make a whole host of different calculations, ranging from the rate of descent and fuel consumption to ground speed.
4. Rolex GMT-Master – Ideal for Globetrotters
The Rolex GMT-Master is a pilot’s watch through and through, even though it does share a lot of visual cues with the manufacturer’s famous diver, the Submariner. The Genevan luxury watch giant developed the GMT-Master in the 1950s, specifically for pilots from the American airline Pan Am. The idea was that pilots could keep an eye on the local time in both the departure and arrival locations during intercontinental flights. For this, Rolex equipped the model with a GMT function. In addition to the current local time, which is displayed via the normal hour and minute hands, the GMT-Master can show another time zone thanks to the inclusion of an additional hand and 24-hour bezel.
The GMT-Master has since become one of the most popular travel watches of all time – and for good reason. It is one of the most versatile timepieces from the brand with the crown. The renowned “Pepsi,” with its distinctive blue and red bezel, can be readily identified from afar. The brand has since introduced the red and black “Coke,” blue and black “Batman,” brown and black “Rootbeer,” and green and black “Sprite.” In 2023, a version with a gray and black bezel joined the lineup.
Read more at: Rolex vs. Breitling: The Ultimate Brand Comparison
5. Zenith Pilot Type 20 – Retro Pilot’s Watch
Swiss watch manufacturer Zenith has been crafting watches for pilots since the early 20th century. One model series that draws its inspiration from the 1920s and ’30s is the Zenith Pilot Type 20. Cases for these timepieces usually measure 45 or 48 mm across, though some special editions come in at a whopping 60 mm.
The standard models of the Zenith Pilot Type 20 have either three central hands for hours, minutes, and seconds, or two central hands accompanied by a small seconds at the 9 o’clock position. The watches are available in stainless steel or gold, depending on the respective model. This series also includes timepieces with complications, such as annual calendars and tourbillons.
6. Longines Spirit – Modern and Sporty
The Swiss watchmaker Longines has also been involved in aviation for ages. Back in the day, the manufacturer even teamed up with famed aviation engineers Philip Van Horn Weems and Charles Lindbergh. This resulted in groundbreaking watches like the Weems Second-Setting Watch and Lindbergh Hour Angle Watch, both of which are still available today.
You can find Longines’ current pilot’s watch collection under the moniker Spirit. Since its release in 2020, the line has quickly made a name for itself among enthusiasts worldwide. These models offer everything you could expect from a modern pilot’s watch: straightforward design, great legibility, and a contemporary caliber. The timepieces are available in stainless steel, titanium, or two-tone variants made of steel and gold. In terms of sizing, you can choose between 39 or 42 mm. In addition to classic three-hand options, Longines also offers the Spirit with a second time zone or chronograph function.
7. Bell & Ross BR 03 – On-Board Watch for the Wrist
Bell & Ross take the instrument look to the extreme with their BR 03 series. Featuring a large round dial paired with a square case held together by four large screws, the BR 03 looks like an on-board clock that was stripped from the cockpit and strapped to the wrist. This impression is only amplified by the generously-sized numerals at 3, 6, 9, and 12 o’clock.
The majority of the collection consists of three-hand automatic watches. However, there are also quartz-powered timepieces with both analog and digital displays, offering functions such as a chronograph, second time zone, alarm, or perpetual calendar. If you’re on the lookout for something a little different, the Bell & Ross BR 03 is certainly worth a look.
8. Laco Erbstücke – Pilot’s Watches With Patina
Based in Pforzheim, Germany, Laco, like IWC, produced watches for the German Air Force during WWII. The Laco Pilot Watch Original is almost identical to its Swiss counterpart, but is available at significantly reduced prices.
Moreover, Laco offers something its competitor does not: the Erbstücke, or heirlooms line. These are pilot’s watches in which the dial, case, and strap have all been artificially aged, giving the impression that they hail straight from the 1940s.
The Erbstücke watches are available in sizes ranging from 39 to 45 mm, and come with either automatic or hand-winding movements.
9. Sinn Pilot’s Watches – By Pilots, for Pilots
Prior to founding Sinn Spezialuhren in 1961, Helmut Sinn was a pilot and aerobatic flight instructor. It is therefore not that surprising that Sinn’s catalog contains a host of pilot’s watches.
One classic example is the Sinn 104, a simple, three-hand watch with a date and day-of-the-week display, as well as a countdown bezel. The syringe-shaped hands are another unmistakable feature.
A much more modern option is the Sinn 857 UTC. In addition to its instrument design, this watch is particularly eye-catching due to its GMT function, complete with a short central hand and 24-hour scale in the center of the dial.
10. Cartier Santos – First of Its Kind
If we’re talking about the most beautiful pilot’s watches, there is no way we couldn’t mention the mother of all pilot’s timepieces: the Cartier Santos. Louis Cartier designed this watch in 1904, for friend and aviation pioneer Alberto Santos Dumont. With it, he crafted the world’s first-ever pilot’s watch and ushered in the era of the wristwatch.
The timepiece is characterized by a square case and dial, as well as Cartier’s typical Art Deco aesthetic. From today’s perspective, the Santos has very little in common with a modern pilot’s watch. But that’s not really a problem, because the model has cemented itself a place as a dress watch with icon status. Women can likewise enjoy the classic lines in the form of the Cartier Panthère.
Want to find out more? Check out our Chrono24 Buyer’s Guide for the Cartier Santos!