Style / World of Watches (WOW)

The Timely Relationship Between Watch Brands and Airlines

Air travel is back, if with lot more bite, which inspired this revisit of the relationship between watch brands and airlines.

Nov 07, 2022 | By Ashok Soman and Nagmani

The relationship between timekeeping and flying is hardly straightforward, in the way that the dive watch is inextricably linked with the activity for which it is named. At the very start though, precise timing was key, if only to prove a point: establishing evidence for the first sustained powered flight. As every child learns, this was Orville Wright’s flight of just 12 seconds in 1903, which was just about 12 seconds longer than anyone else had managed; his brother Wilbur made an attempt days before that lasted just three seconds. The press was unimpressed by the duration, at first, but people eventually came around, but we relate this only to note that timing was important, even if not functionally vital. 

This being a watch magazine, many of you, dear readers, will hasten to remind us (we can imagine the gears of your minds turning) that aviation requires a fair bit of navigating and that means the longitude factor will be as important to pilots as it is sailors. It has not escaped our attention, rest assured. This is the reason we crown our selection of timepieces with the Breitling AOPA Navitimer, and a note about the slide rule that the brand introduced, which served as a sort of wrist computer for pilots. 

Rolex Advert, 1969

On that note, let us also head off the notion that the wristwatch itself was (partly) attributable to the needs of pilots. No doubt you clever folks will have immediately thought of Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont and Cartier. Well, this story takes off quite a bit later, with commercial air travel, but the romance of flying remains part of the story, even if it remains in the background. Obviously, we are looking beyond traditional pilot’s watches here. 

Images are also a problem here, with many of the watches in our selection having simple “soldier” style shots, or are courtesy of the auction house Phillips, and as such are standardised “semi-soldier” shots. Certain pieces, such as the Concorde watch do not have print-quality images at all, while Tudor has not shared images of the Air France models. Where images are small, it is because that is the best we could find. 

Speaking of background information, we reserve space here in this introduction for the Rolex GMT-Master (below), which is probably the world’s most famous symbol of the relationship between watch brands and commercial airliners. This watch debuted in 1955 as civil aviation came into its own, and soon became the official watch of Pan American World Airways (better known as Pan-Am). In 1959, the pilot of the first Pan-Am New York to Moscow wore a GMT-Master watch, which reportedly performed a vital navigation function on said flight. 

First GMT-Master, 1955

Functionality was a major factor for timepieces from early on, and in the 1950s, found its apotheosis in the Breitling for AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) watches. As Eric Wind, owner of vintage watch shop Wind Vintage and watch expert said, “The AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) and Breitling collaborated on the production of a trailblazing chronograph watch so the early Navitimers had the AOPA logo; some only had the AOPA logo, with no mention of Breitling on the dial. Breitling designed the Navitimer for use by pilots in the 1950s with a slide rule for making intricate calculations and a 24-hour dial timepiece named the Cosmonaute ended up going to space on the wrist of astronaut Scott Carpenter in 1962. There are also some Vulcain watches introduced with the TWA logo in the 1960s and 1970s.” 

Neither Breitling nor Rolex made watches co-branded with airlines in the above examples, which contrasts strongly against Vulcain, but this is besides the point, which is glamour and adventure. A life of freedom, if you will, by flying the friendly skies. It was a simpler time for air travel, clearly, and the watches that played their parts in that era remain unblemished by all the chaos of the decades since then. Watch collectors have been turning their attention to these vintage pieces, which in turn inspired this story. The historical models chosen here all have very specific stories tied to them, and all are unavailable without some effort or special access. 

“Watches with an aviation and space history and connection have always had a fascination for collectors and I expect they will always be desired in one way or another. This is where watchmaking and aviation industries need to work together by finding innovative ways in order to stay relevant,” said Wind. Clearly there is an idea lurking about that there is a future for this sort of co-branded venture. We found just one current venture, discounting the limited edition AOPA Breitling pieces, which is one more than we were expecting, if we are honest… 

On that note, the writers acknowledge a debt to both the experts consulted for this story, including auction houses, and the original Hodinkee story published in 2021 that features many of the same models.

Concorde Air France Quartz Plastic Watch

Developed together by Air France and British Airways, the Concorde opened a whole new era of air travel through its supersonic capacity that made it possible to reach world’s major cities in the shortest time. It reigned in the sky from 1976 to 2003, and might be making a comeback. However that pans out, the most unforgettable moment of Concorde happened to be in 1996 when it safely completed the journey between New York and London in two hours, 52 minutes and 59 seconds. So, this inherently disposable watch is an ironically famous bit of memorabilia that brings back the memory of those days straight away. Anything related to Concorde is invaluable and collectable because of what it stood for—a technological feat in the field of commercial aviation. If you can get a version that works, where the battery was removed for safety’s sake, it might be worth your time. 

Breitling AOPA Navitimer

Breitling Navitimer B01 Chronograph

Shared goals between partners lead to incredible milestones, or at least they can, as evidenced with Breitling and the AOPA nearly 70 years ago. In 1952, the Swiss watch manufacturer started working on the Navitimer for the AOPA, to the organisation’s requirements. Nevertheless, it took two more years for Breitling to launch the Navitimer with a slide rule and finally introduced it with the AOPA logo at 12 o’clock on a black dial in 1954. The same year, it was declared the official watch by the AOPA for its members with the word Breitling being conspicuously (to contemporary eyes) absent. The 1956 41mm Breitling Navitimer ref. 806 with slide rule had both logos present. It proved to be the ideal wrist companion for both military and civilian pilots in the 1950s and 1960s. To this day, the old Navitimer remains an iconic tool watch thanks to its Venus 178 movement, beaded bezel and Mark II white-painted. 

Hence, early Navitimer timepieces were solely tailored for the American aviation industry, including the famed 1959 version that was reissued in 2019, and the current crop of Navitimers that all pay tribute to the 50th anniversary of the watch. As of this year, the number of Navitimer references produced since 1952 stands at more than 40, making this the most successful of all the watches featured in this story. 

The unsigned versions of the watch with the AOPA logo that were powered by the Valjoux 72 calibre were only in production from 1954 to 1955. Reportedly, these traded on the open market even then so non-AOPA members may have started wearing them already. Interestingly, these early models did not have reference numbers mentioned anywhere on them, making them extremely rare and prized by collectors. 

SAS Universal Genève Polarouter

The 36mm Polerouter ref. 20217-6 stainless steel timepiece bearing the SAS (Scandinavian Airlines System) logo on the dial was designed by Gerald Genta for Universal Genève when he was just 23 years old. Regarded as one of his most important watch designs, it was launched by the watch manufacturer in order to commemorate SAS’ first direct polar flight from Copenhagen to Los Angeles in 1954. The route required anti-magnetic timepieces (for which Universal Genève was the go-to-watch brand back then) since SAS flights had to fly directly over the North Pole to reduce the distance between these two cities. Soon after this historic moment, Universal Genève became the sole supplier of chronometers and anti-magnetic watches to SAS. In fact, the initial pieces were distributed among pilots and crew members as soon as the flight landed at LAX on 15 November 1954. 

Powered by the calibre 138 bumper automatic movement, the watch is a collectable piece, for obvious reasons, including that movement. It is also notable for its lyre lugs, a solid case and a simple silvered dial. According to Adam Hambly, a seasoned expert on Polerouters, there are only 150 examples of verified SAS-signed examples today. In 1955, Universal Genève changed the model name from Polarouter to Polerouter. Sadly, Universal Genève is defunct now. 

Tudor Prince Oysterdate Reference 74000N Philippines Airlines

Collectors will not be surprised that Rolex and Tudor have a history of filling corporate orders, and thus creating models that are unavailable to the general public. While we do not have an example of Rolex working with an airline with a co-branded watch, we do know about the Domino’s Pizza logo on the dial of an Air-King watch made for the pizza chain in the 1970s that still resonates with collectors. No, we are talking here about the Tudor Prince Oysterdate reference 74000N, with the logo of the Philippines Airlines (PAL) on the dial at 6 o’clock. The geometric palette of the logo placed on the silvered dial gels well with the overall look of the 34mm watch, which is powered by calibre 2824-3.

It is believed that PAL offered this watch to its employees after they completed 25 years in service to the airlines from the 1980s. There is another Tudor reference, the Oysterdate ref. 9101/01, that was produced with the name and logo of Philippine Airlines circa 1979. 

Such watches are hardly accessible through normal retail channels, making them even more desirable. A quick check on secondary sales sites shows that prices are not out-of-reach by any means.

Air France Tudor Black Bay 58 Blue and Black Bay Gmt

While Rolex is no longer making very many special editions, if any, Tudor continues to do so, as seen in a couple of stunners for Air France. There is not much information on this relationship, or on the Black Bay 58 and Black Bay GMT models specifically. While these certainly exist, the exact details are cobbled together from purely speculative sources, besides the Hodinkee story. Nevertheless, it is perhaps unsurprising that Tudor aligned with Air France to produce the Black Bay GMT Ref.79830RB-00AF with “Pepsi” bezel in aluminium and Black Bay 58 Blue Ref.79030B-00AF, both in 2020. Only 300 pieces of Black Bay GMT with calibre MT5652 were made (supposedly) while only 100 pieces of Black Bay 58 Blue with calibre MT5402 were produced (supposedly) and they were all sold to the flight members of Air France albeit at a discounted rate. Whether this is borne out in the exact details, these models are certainly unavailable to the general public, and are not currently listed for sale on any reputable pre-owned shops.

Seiko ANA 7S26-0620 

This one is a real treat because it was actually available to the public, and it was designed and developed in cooperation with ANA pilots in 2003. It was made available through the in-flight catalogue of ANA (All Nippon Airways) in 2004 so those who want to go hunting for the model can start there. As far as we can tell, it was only available that year. Notable here is the ANA logo at 9 o’clock, which balances out the day and date displays; yes that is a Kanji day wheel, which of course is highly desirable and very distinctive, as if we even have to say it. The ANA logo is also stamped on the left side of the case. 

Obviously, passengers flying on ANA flights were able to book their orders for this particular watch, and it does appear on some pre-owned specialist sites. Powered by the in-house 7S26 movement, this 40mm from Seiko is typical for the brand. Its popularity also quadrupled thanks to the Japanese Kanji date wheel. As a result, it was hard to find making it the cult favourite watch. I’m sure all this will be enough to stir up watch lovers’ curiosity for it. 

Fossil Southwest 50th Anniversary Watch

Last year, Southwest Airlines teamed up with Fossil to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the airliner being founded in 1971. As part of this collaborative alliance, 1,971 units were produced with the logo of the airline on the dials and casebacks. Each Retro Pilot Chronograph watch comes in a tin box in the blue colour of Southwest Airlines. There are possibly two versions to get into. One is a 44mm watch with a blue dial with a blue leather strap and a 36mm one that boasts a silver dial with contrasting details and 

a blue leather strap. The crowns of both watches are decked up in the blue, red and yellow of Southwest Airlines. Amazingly, the leather straps of both watches have been constructed from recycled seats of the airlines, further underscoring what a pivotal role the watch industry can play in addressing the sustainability crisis. Well, however you feel about that message, it is a nice touch to have the watches secured by something viscerally tied to the heritage of the airline. 

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