Classic military watches of yesteryear provide endless inspiration for today’s watchmakers. We pick the best of this year’s crop of timepieces fit for the battlefield.
ZENITH PILOT CRONOMETRO
It’s hard to think that a watch that made for the Italian Air Force of the 1960s ever saw much in the way of action, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the model known as the Zenith “Cairelli” (after the Roman distributor which commissioned it from Zenith) was just about the most handsome pilot’s chronograph ever made – in its way, a much more appropriate characteristic for an Italian watch than getting stuck into combat missions. It has a timelessly elegant quality that has seen collectors lusting voraciously after the few versions kicking around the vintage market, and recently Zenith revived it in a pleasingly faithful modern edition, called the Cronometro Tipo CP-2 after the military designation engraved on the original watches.
Those originals were hand-wound, but the new version houses Zenith’s legendary automatic movement, the El Primero, a high-frequency calibre that’s one of the finest pieces of volume watchmaking you can find. Though the watch is slightly bigger than the original, I’m pleased Zenith resisted the urge to whack a date window on the dial (a weakness of nearly every modern watch brand), keeping the purity of a truly classic design intact.
To collectors they’re known as the Dirty Dozen: the hard-wearing watches commissioned by the Ministry of Defence during World War II from twelve Swiss watchmakers, to furnish the wrists of British soldiers. Alongside such famous marques as Omega, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Longines, there were some more obscure names: Grana, Timor and Vertex. The latter, a British firm based in Hatton Garden, which imported its watches from Switzerland, vanished in 1972, but its Dirty Dozen entrant has now magically reappeared.
That’s due to the considerable efforts of Don Cochrane, great-grandson of Vertex’s founder, who is reviving both the brand and its most famous creation – once again engineered in Switzerland – with a novel strategy: you can only get a watch on the invitation of Cochrane himself. With 60 initial watches going to his inner circle, from which the network of owners will then extend outwards, its effectively a private members’ club in wristwatch form. If you want to own one, time to get networking.
IWC PILOT’S WATCH MARK XVIII EDITION “TRIBUTE TO MARK XI”
It is the definitive example of the military wristwatch: the timepiece made by IWC Schaffhausen for the RAF in the years following World War II, which would remain in service for over 30 years. Known simply as the Mark 11, an MOD designation, its navigatory purposes required it to be exceedingly accurate and reliable in any conditions. Eventually dumped into army surplus stores in the 1980s, it would go on to inspire an evolving series of “Mark” pilot’s watches – we’re now up to the seventh version, Mark XVIII that inspired an entire genre in modern luxury watches.
This limited edition version of the Mark XVIII is particularly special, however, since it takes the look of the watch right back to the Mark 11 itself. It even features the anti-magnetic movement shielding that protected those original RAF watches from the effects of cockpit radar instruments, along with the original hands and creamy luminescent markings for the sense of vintage patina. It’s limited to 1,948 pieces, corresponding to the year of the Mark 11’s first appearance and, until October, it’s exclusive to Harrods.
BLANCPAIN TRIBUTE TO
FIFTY FATHOMS MIL-SPEC
What you wouldn’t have wanted to see, were you a US Navy frogman engaged in underwater derring-do in the late 1950s or ‘60s, was the little white-and-orange circle on the dial of your Blancpain watch going all-orange. This would mean water had got inside the watch; and given that a diver’s life depended on accurate timing of the period spent at depth, that wouldn’t be a good thing.
It wasn’t likely to happen often, however. The Fifty Fathoms from Blancpain was the first modern watch designed for scuba divers, and a legendarily tough piece of kit adopted by US combat divers in 1958. The water-tightness indicator was a special function of “military specification” versions – such rare models are now highly collectible, as you’d imagine. This year it’s been brought back by Blancpain for this super-deluxe and appealingly streamlined, tribute edition.
BREMONT AIRCO MACH 1
At a decade or so old, British watchmaker Bremont can’t claim any history of military watches, though flying-mad founder brothers Nick and Giles English have played their part promoting the legacies of famous World War II aircraft, and the code-breaking work of Bletchley Park, through some sumptuous limited editions over the years. As such, they’re as well placed as anyone to make a watch that has all the well-worn flavour of classic wartime pilot’s watches, and indeed the Airco takes its name from the Aircraft Manufacturing Company, the British firm that built many of the planes flown on the Western Front a century ago. With a stepped steel case made Bremont’s factory near Silverstone, this has all the hallmarks of a true military flying watch.