This year marks 150 years since IWC first set up shop. IWC was originally established by the American entrepreneurial engineer and watchmaker Florentine Ariosto Jones, and in its youth, it specialised in high-grade pocket watches for the American market. But in the inter-war years, it was bought-out by the Swiss aviation-loving Homberger family, who guided it into the production of pilot’s watches. It was here that IWC started to carve out a wide-scale reputation.
IWC was among the first companies to produce purpose-built watches for aviation specialists. In 1936, it introduced its first model, the "Special Watch For Pilots”. It had a rotating bezel, enabling events to be timed, and an abnormally large 37.5 mm case, which enabled easy legibility at a glance. This was further enhanced by large, luminous markers and hands. The watch was also fundamentally anti-magnetic, as it used a soft-iron inner case, overcoming one of the biggest hurdles presented by the cockpit. Within a few years IWC was making watches for the Luftwaffe and a few decades later it was supplying military and commercial aviation teams around the world, including the likes of the British RAF.
Few brands have since come close to IWC in terms of creating new aviation-watch technology and leading the market. Originally its timepieces were intended solely for functional use, but after WWII they hit the mainstream and could be seen on the wrists of aviation-keen movie stars and businessmen. Today, IWC has an extensive range of pilot’s watches, many of which still display the lines and features of the early models. Here are four of our favourites.
The watch that IWC built its fame on was its “B-Uhr”. During WWII, the German Luftwaffe commissioned IWC and a handful of other brands, including A. Lange & Sohne, to make its tool watches. Between the air force and the leading watchmakers, they came up with a list of universal specifications. IWC’s resulting design had a huge 55 mm anti-magnetic case. It had a big “onion-like” crown intended for easy use with thick gloves, and its dial was stripped back and legible, with highly luminous markers and a triangle with dots at 12 o’clock, which was meant to provide quick visual orientation at a glance and in low light.
This B-Uhr model was the inspiration for the Big Pilot, which was released in 2002.
The Big Pilot comes in a number of shapes and forms but it retains the look of the earlier pieces complete with the large crown and similar dial features. The Big Pilot has been one of the success stories of the 21st century and indeed nowadays it’s more likely to be seen in the boardroom than in the cockpit.
After WWII, IWC introduced its Mark series. These watches took elements of the B-Uhr pieces, specifically the dial design complete with the now-iconic triangle and two dots symbol, but overall they were simplified and smaller, which made them more practical for everyday pilots and, later on, civilians. The Mark series was reintroduced and extended in the early nineties and it has since become one of IWC’s more sought-after collections.
The UTC model came a few years later in 1998. It keeps the shape and aesthetics of the Mark series, but it adds an independent 24-hour window, which enables you to set a second independent time zone. This watch is particularly popular with frequent flyers but it’s smart enough to be worn with a suit and its vintage look gives it universal appeal.
IWC’s most popular pilot’s watch is unsurprisingly the chronograph. It’s a touch bigger than the Mark series at 43 mm and has its own individual quirks, but again it retains many of the stylistic flourishes of the original pilot’s watches.
IWC Pilot’s Chronographs have first-rate automatic movements (certain references feature in-house calibres) and their dials are well balanced and smart. They are generally considered amongst the better sports chronographs on the market. They are a sportier option than IWC’s other, world-famous Portuguese chronograph, but they share many of the same aesthetic lines.
The world-timer complication shows all 24 time zones simultaneously. This is a handy tool for frequent flyers and it also incites the charm of travel. In spite of such a large amount of information on the dial, IWC has managed to preserve the iconic look of the Pilot’s range and, more importantly, maintain its elegance. Again it’s on the large side, at 45 mm, but it’s still arguably more popular for civilians than military pilots. Its number one market is the staff and pilots in the world of commercial aviation.
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