Time Marches On

10 Oct 2006 by intern11
Watches designed for the armed forces had to be innovative, sturdy and precise. Many are still prized today. Sarah Maxwell examines the lure of watch brands with military connections

Some watches have connotations of luxury, others of sport, but a particular niche is that of the military watch. Luxury brands pride themselves of their history, their lineage, and when it comes to military watches, there is plenty to boast about.

Take Panerai (www.panerai.com) for instance. During the Second World War, its watches were produced specially for the Royal Italian Navy. Sturdy, precise and reliable, they were designed for function, not fashion. For most of Panerai’s history it has been this way. In fact, it is only in the last 13 years that Panerai’s watches have been available to the ordinary consumer.

Panerai is one of several watch brands to have made its name by supplying military or aviation specialists. The demanding nature of its clients’ work meant watchmakers had to push boundaries in functionality and design to withstand challenges like water depth, magnetic fields and air pressure, and the watches had to be visible in the pitch black. There is also an obvious and immediate connection to be made between the brand and the person wearing it. These are serious watches, made for serious missions. Like their owners, the watches should not crack under pressure. Today these early watches are highly sought after and have inspired whole timepiece collections, admired not just by military watch fans but also consumers.

Not only are military watches clean, simple and functional, they are also large – Panerai’s first timepiece in 1938, the Radiomir, was much larger (at 47mm) than other watches of the time since it had to fit over the diver’s suit. And in today’s watch fashion, big is definitely better. Chris Hooper, vintage and military watch collector and trader, says: “Panerai is very fashionable now. People are interested in military things in general, but there’s a certain style in having a large wristwatch – both men and women wear larger wristwatches now.”

People are also attracted to a watch with a past. Hooper says: “For me it’s partly the historical significance, tracing back the provenance of a watch. For watches that were made for the RAF (Royal Air Force) or US Air Force in the Second World War, it’s interesting to think these flew on aircraft that were going across the channel to bomb Germany and were used for navigation.”

Many of the features integral to early military watches’ functions have now become an important part of their unique look. Swiss brand IWC’s (www.iwc.ch) collection of pilots’ watches – one of the most famous of which is known as the Mark 11, first brought out in 1948 and manufactured until 1984 – has expanded and diversified over the years, but the look remains essentially the same: clean, simple and legible with a large face, luminous hands on a black background, antireflective glass and a vintage cockpit-style dial. The watches are reminiscent of an aircraft altimeter – even down to the relative size and shape of the minute markers, the font on the watch face and the red detailing.

The Mark 11 was not a showy watch – it was built to do a particular job, and that is still the principle of IWC’s pilots’ watches, says UK brand manager Simon Chambers. “IWC is a very technical company, which provides solutions to problems in mechanical watchmaking.” He believes they appeal to those who value substance more than just style. “We’re known as the engineer of fine watchmaking and those are traditionally the sort of people we appeal to – watch cognescenti, engineers and other people with a technical background who want to know how the watch works and the complications inside.”

One of IWC’s early challenges came when the RAF asked the watchmaker to help them tackle the problem of magnetism. Chambers says: “If you were a pilot relying on your watch to gauge fuel use, time and so on, if your watch became magnetised – which it invariably did in the early days of aviation because of the pilots’ proximity to all the magnets in the engine – it wouldn’t work properly and you would be in trouble.”

In 1948, IWC solved the problem by putting the movement in a soft iron inner case, which protected the watch parts from becoming magnetised by outside influences. For some time, the Mark 11 – the first to have this feature – was issued to all RAF pilots, and was widely used by civilian pilots. Along with antireflective glass, which almost looks like there is no glass on the dial at all, and a case secured against displacement by changing air pressure, the inner case is now a standard feature across all of IWC’s pilots’ watches.

For 2006, several of the pilots’ watches have been increased in case size, reflecting the thirst for larger watches. The Mark XVI – descendant of the Mark II – has gone up 1mm to 39mm (£1,900/US$3,570), while the Chrono-Automatic has risen from 39mm to 42mm (£2,400/US$4,510). These are still dwarfed by the Big Pilots watch, possibly IWC’s best-known timepiece, at 46mm (£7,350/US$13,811). But IWC has for the first time this year produced the “Midsize watch” at 34mm (£1,800/US$3,382) to suit more slender wrists, including women, who are being targeted more by mechanical watchmakers as it emerges that they too can be interested in the inner workings of a watch and in an attractive face. This means the watch has an even stronger resemblance to the original Mark 11. Says Chambers: “Remarkably, the size of (the Mid-size) watch is what we were doing originally, and that was for men, so it shows how things change.”

Fellow Swiss watch brand Breitling (www.breitling.com) also has close historical connections with military aviation – in the 1930s it was official timepiece supplier to the RAF. Its watches are popular with modern pilots, most of whom opt for those in the Professional range, which emphasise practicality and precision. The new Aerospace Avantage (from £1,580/US$2,969) is larger than its predecessors and has a lightweight titanium case, with an array of functions – including chronograph, countdown timer, second time zone and alarm – all controlled by a single crown. It is not a mechanical watch; instead it features the SuperQuartz movement, which Breitling launched in 2001 and is 10 times more precise than normal quartz watches.

In 1995, Breitling introduced the Emergency chronograph (from £2,965/US$5,571), with an in-built SOS transmitter device that can broadcast on a distress frequency. UK managing director La Rosee says it is used by pilots and yachtsmen, but if you’re leading a more sedentary existence it doesn’t mean you can’t own one of these timepieces, and many do. Adds La Rosee: “Lots of people buy them for the look and because it’s a nice feel.”

Breitling’s most classic one is the Navitimer (from £2,600/US$4,886). Launched in 1952, it is a mechanical watch and was the company’s first timepiece that allowed pilots to work out their flight plan, before the dawn of onboard instruments. This is thanks to the slide rule, which enables calculations like climbing times and fuel consumption rate. Again though, the fact that people no longer need to work out flight plans isn’t denting this watch’s popularity.

The most popular in Breitling’s collection is the Chronomat Evolution, part of the Windrider range which leans more towards style than function but is still sturdy with the characteristic hint of cockpit-instrument. La Rosee says: “It’s the best selling watch in our range – a lovely-looking piece with a nicely balanced case.”

A self-winding mechanical chronograph, the Chronomat Evolution (£2,440/US$4,585) was originally conceived in 1984 for the Frecce Tricolori team – the aerobatic team of the Italian Air Force. The case has screw-locked safety pushpieces which enable it to withstand pressure of 300 metres depth and provides shock protection.

For underwater performance, though, few brands can hold a candle to Panerai. The Florence-based company began in the early 1900s, making instruments and gauges for the Italian Navy before, at the Navy’s request, turning its hand to watches. The name of the classic Radiomir watch comes from the special, highly luminous paint – a mixture of radium bromide, zinc sulphide and mesothelium – devised by Panerai, which was used initially on its night-time sighting devices so that they could be used in pitch darkness without any need for illumination that might be noticed by the enemy. This was used to coat the hour markers and hands of the Radiomir to help military divers to remain concealed.

In the early 1950s, the Luminor model joined the Radiomir in active service, with its improved water resistance and a new formula for luminescence that was based on tritium, rather than radium. These days, diving professionals often go for the functional, sporty models in the Submersible range.

For watch connoisseurs, however, Panerai has turned a corner with the production of its newest watch, the 44mm Luminor 1950 8 Days GMT (£6,750/US$12,684; pictured, left). It is the first in a new Panerai line called Manifattura, and is the first of Panerai’s watches to contain a movement made entirely in-house, which takes it up another level in terms of manufacturing expertise and uniqueness. It becomes available on the market in November and although the case is the same as previous models, it contains improvements to the rotating bezel and to the buckle. So Panerai is continuing to push boundaries in watchmaking, for a brand-new audience.

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