The first pilot watch can be dated back to 1904 and was crafted by renowned luxury French jeweler and watchmaker, Cartier. It was named the ‘Santos,’ after Alberto Santos-Dumont, a famous Brazilian aviation pioneer. Legend has it that Cartier dedicated the watch to Santos after the aviator had publicly complained that he found it difficult to read his pocket watch while flying! Beyond timekeeping, the watch could also calculate fuel consumption and air speed. The Santos was, above all else, stylish, rather than reliable or easily read.
Pilot watches took a further step forward when Frenchman Louis Bleriot crossed the English Channel (or La Manche to the French) in July, 1909. Bleriot had a Zenith on his wrist and famously (and very publicly) declared, “I am very satisfied with the Zenith watch, which I usually use, and I cannot recommend it too highly to people who are looking for precision.” With that, the pilot watch captured the public’s imagination.
World War I saw the first luminous dials on pilot watches, with Zenith, Omega, Doxa, and Electa the leading manufacturers of these watches. Charles Lindbergh wore a watch by Longines on his epic solo flight across the Atlantic in May 1927, which featured a rotating inner dial that compensated for the watch’s lack of accuracy. His famous watch also had a rotating bezel, which had been invented to help him calculate his position with decent precision.
Later innovations in pilot watches included the GMT hand, which was usually set to standard Greenwich (London) meridian time, and allowed pilots to calculate the time zones they were flying through. The Rolex GMT Master was one of the most famous pilot watches of all time, and included both a GMT hand and rotating bezel. The bezel was in red and blue, which is why it is affectionately known by watch lovers as the ‘Pepsi bezel’ or the ‘Pepsi GMT’ watch. It was also the standard issue watch for all Pan Am pilots during the heyday of the iconic commercial airline. The pilots were known to have loved the ‘Pepsi GMT’ watch that could show two time zones simultaneously.