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Feature: 3 Classic Military Watches For 3 Budgets

We take for granted today that the wristwatch, a milestone of such events as the first visit to the bottom of the ocean, the top of the tallest mountain, an alien world, is such a popular and endearing device—but it hasn’t always been. In fact, at one point, a wristwatch, or ‘wristlet’ as it was known, was derided as a fashion faux pas, a silly trinket no man would be seen dead wearing. Change, however, comes at the most unexpected of times.

Longines Heritage Military L2.811.4.53.0

This seemingly simple watch from Longines holds a clue as to the origins of the public’s change of heart towards the wristwatch. Its design, specifically the large Arabic numerals and cathedral hands, originated at the turn of the century in pocket watches, and would be replicated over and over again for half a century.

A pocket watch was and had been for a very long time an ornate thing, an occasion to appreciate when telling the time. It wasn’t something for everyman; a pocket watch was a sign of wealth and status, a thing of beauty and indulgence. Its size and complexity was something to behold and be in awe of, but therein lay a problem: they weren’t the most practical of devices.

Imagine the typical process of checking a pocket watch: it would be hanging by a chain connected most likely to a waistcoat buttonhole and seated inside the waistcoat pocket. It would have to be retrieved from said pocket and, if it had a hunter case, opened and read. That and the skinny Breguet-style hands and numerals, printed in fine black ink on a white, often enamel dial, were no easy read, especially in low light situations. The pocket watch was a fair-weather fancy like a droptop car or a pair of suede shoes—but the telling of the time would need to be more universal than that.

And so, the dial design you see here was devised. Thick numbers allowed not just for easy reading, but for a generous application of radium-laden luminescent paint as well. Unlike the photoluminescent paints of today, which charge with light and emit in an initially bright, slowly dimming glow of their own, the radioactive paints of the early twentieth century produced a steady, dim glow that needed a generous application to make the most of.

The ornate design of the hands is equally embedded in reasons of practicality. Think of the famous Rolex Mercedes hands, a large circle split into three to give the paint within more structural rigidity. It’s the same here, the hour hand differentiated from the minute with a rounded tip segregated to support the film of paint needed to read the time in the dead of night.

But it wasn’t fashion that dictated this variation in design, no, it was an entirely different kind of customer—the military. For none more so was timing important than the armed forces, and with the coordination of battles becoming larger and more complex, utmost punctuality was quite simply a matter of life and death. But it’s what happened next that changed the fate of the wristwatch forever.

IWC Pilot Antonie de Saint Exupery IW320104

There are two strands to the story of the military watch: use in the armed forces and use by civilians. To understand the evolution of the former, it’s to the Boer War we look first. This marked a moment in history when the impracticalities of the pocket watch were forfeited for the convenience of a wristwatch. By using a smaller pocket watch case with a dial to this new military spec, wire lugs could be soldered on and the watch worn around the wrist.

It may not have been fashionable, but it was eminently practical. For use in the field, it was an invaluable tool that allowed officers to coordinate their approach, and its popularity in battle saw its use in the trenches of World War I absolute. It was here the design became known as the ‘trench watch’, and it became a staple of military officers on both sides of no man’s land. Manoeuvres that required accurate timekeeping became possible because of them, such as the creeping artillery barrage, heavy weaponry fired a hundred yards ahead of advancing infantrymen to help clear a path forward.

But this new timekeeper was not restricted to just the ground; the legible dial seated in a big case worn on a strap found a new home in the clouds, as early pilots, military and civilian both, took to the sky in search of a fresh challenge. It was this original military design that inspired the pilots’ watch as we know it, refined and simplified through the world wars. Here’s where things get interesting: the use of military-style watches by pioneering aviators like Louis Bleriot, as he crossed the English Channel for the first time in a plane, did something unexpected: it caught the attention of the public-at-large.

And it’s easy to see why. When IWC made its first pilot’s watch, built around the military design that had become so familiar, it was big, chunky, rugged and handsome in a functional way, a far cry from the delicate wristlets that hung in jewellers windows.

So begins the second thread of the story, the adoption of the wristlet into popular culture. Previously considered a delicate piece of jewellery, these chunky, bold watches worn by military men and daredevil pilots gave the design a whole new lease of life. As the first decade of the twentieth century rolled by, the trench watch quickly gained popularity, manufacturers offering models on the high street as well as to the armed forces.

And so the tables turned, and the bulky, ornate pocket watch started to lose its foothold as wristwatches became cheaper and more popular, all because of this seemingly unassuming design. By the end of World War II, there wasn’t a manufacturer out there not making wristwatches, even the old masters, and so history was made.

Patek Philippe Calatrava Travel Time 5524G-001

As manufacturers began to focus on what was now being called the wristwatch, designs no longer needed to be based on modified pocket watches adapted to fit straps, and soon the sight of integrated lugs and smaller crowns became more commonplace.

And the use of the wristwatch continued to expand, the now-familiar military dial design finding its way into dedicated cockpit instruments as aircraft became more and more capable, a far cry from the old practice of simply fastening a pocket watch to the dash of the aircraft as was seen early in World War I.

Watchmakers also began to explore the uses and complexities of a watch’s functionality as a navigational aid. Several manufacturers, Longines and Patek Philippe included, pursued a number of concepts for navigational watches, including second setting, which used an internal dial that could be adjusted to a radio broadcast to compensate for inaccuracy in the watch’s movement. When a matter of minutes can send a pilot miles off course, second setting was a lifesaver.

Then there were the hour angle watches, which alongside a sextant and an almanac detailing the deviation between our twenty-four-hour clock and the actual position of the Earth in relation to the sun, could be used to determine the exact location on the Earth’s surface. What had started life as a simple tool to keep track of time was now a complex navigational instrument.

The next phase for the pilot’s watch was not one of complexity, but accuracy and complete functionality. The German B-Uhr design of the Second World War pared back every last unnecessary detail, big watches fitted with chronometer-grade movements that simply needed to tell the time with utmost precision. Planes flew higher and faster than ever before, carrying more and more devastating payloads, and precision could make or break the war.

Such was the importance of the precision of these watches that they were handed out to navigators as they prepared for their next sortie, having been set to German Naval Observatory time, and returned at the end for testing and adjusting. The B-Uhrs may not have been as visually arresting as their forebears, but they made up for it with devastating accuracy.

From fashion outcast to the hottest trend, delicate jewellery to front-line apparatus, the wristwatch’s journey over a half-century demonstrates one of the most dramatic changes in watchmaking history—and it’s all thanks to the simple, clear and completely functional military watch. Built as a practical tool, yet capturing the imagination of a civilian audience, it steered the direction of an entire industry as it mobilised for war, changing the outcome of wristwatches forever. We wouldn’t have them without it.

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