A leading driver of technological advancements has always been the military—particularly during wartime. This is especially true of timekeeping instruments given the need for coordination and precision during combat operations. As a result, many of the luxury watches we wear today, such as these four examples, were in fact born to serve in the military.
Beginning the in the early part of the 20th century, Panerai supplied high-precision instruments to the Royal Italian Navy. However, it wasn’t until the late 1930s that Panerai made their now-famous Radiomir watches for the Italian combat divers. Radiomir was actually the name of the radium-based luminescence used on the dials. These watches were large by any standard, sporting 47 mm cushion-shaped cases fitted with welded wire lugs to accommodate extra-long water-resistant straps. The sandwich dials included two plates, where the bottom portion house the lume and the top piece had a mix of oversized Arabic numerals and stick indices cut out so the luminescence could shine through. Big, legible, luminous, and water resistant was the core focus of early military-issued Radiomir watches—a design language that Panerai continues to use today for their modern versions.
IWC Big Pilot’s Watch
In 1936, IWC released a model they called “Special Watch for Pilots” to serve civil airmen, laying the groundwork for the company’s long history with aviation timepieces. In 1940, IWC made a mil-spec version of a “navigation” watch for the German Air Force. With a massive 55 mm case powered by a pocket watch caliber, this IWC watch certainly earned its Big Pilot’s Watch moniker. Built specifically for fighter pilots, the military-bound watch came equipped with features such as an extra long strap to fit over a flying suit, hacking seconds for precise timing, an oversized crown that could be manipulated whilst wearing gloves, and a clear and legible dial with the military triangle flanked by two dots. Tested by the German Aviation Research Institute, 1,000 pieces of the first IWC Big Pilot’s Watch were made and established the design codes for future iterations.
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
In the early 1950s, Captain Robert “Bob” Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud realized that the frogmen of their “Nageur de Combat” unit were in need of diving watches. So the two French military men designed one to meet their specific requirements and sourced Swiss watchmaking company Blancpain to manufacture it. Introduced in 1953, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms (named so because of its water resistance to fifty fathoms or 91.44 meters) had a 42 mm case fitted with a screwed-in caseback and a double O-ring gasket fortified winding crown to keep the water out. For optimal legibility underwater, the watch housed a black dial with clear and luminous markings in addition to a rotating bezel to track immersion times. Along with creating what would become a star in Blancpain’s watch lineup, the maiden Fifty Fathoms watch set the standard for what a modern dive watch should be.
Breguet Type XX
In the 1950s and 1960s, the French Army depended on a handful of watch manufactures, including Breguet, to supply them with pilot chronographs, which the government called Type 20 chronographs. The strict requirements of the Type 20 chronographs included a 38 mm case, 35-hour power reserve, exceptional dial legibility complete with lume, an accuracy rating of eight seconds per day, and a flyback chronograph complication. The flyback chronograph’s single push feature saves precious time when flying at high speeds. Today’s Breguet Type XX watches are the direct descendants of those vintage military pilot chronographs.