It is far from being the cheapest of hobbies, but more and more Britons are taking to the skies, and these budding pilots are looking for watches to accompany them on their adventures, be it for functional purposes or just to look the part.
In 2012 the UK Civil Aviation Authority issued 2,438 professional pilot licenses and 2,486 private licenses. This total figure of 6,020 licenses was up on the 4,924 licenses issued in 2011.
Aviation and watches have a long intertwined history dating back to the days when pilots actually needed a watch that could keep them on track and up in the air. Now, with the introduction of computerised flight decks and reliable instruments, that need is less so, but while pilots – and aviation fans – might not need dedicated watches, they certainly want them, and demand in the UK for these products is high.
“We’ve seen an increase in brands that have entered the aviation watch segment and consequently increased not only the awareness but also competition within the market,” says Simon Chambers, UK brand director at IWC. Last year IWC upgraded its complete Pilot collection, which included introducing new materials, such as ceramic used in the Top Gun line. It also created a new in-house movement, calibre 89, which it fitted in watches in its Top Gun and Spitfire aviation collections and added new complications to its pilots’ watches, including a digital date perpetual calendar in the Spitfire models.
While IWC has changed its main focus in 2013 to motorsports with the launch of its Ingenieur range, pilot watches are still selling well and the brand introduced new additions to the range at SIHH at the beginning of the year.
IWC has also been running a series of pop-up showcases of its pilot watches in London’s Canary Wharf in association with retailer DM Robinson.
“There has always been an interest in this watch segment and no doubt this is set to continue,” says Chambers. “The market is consistent but is certainly influenced by new products and collections being launched by brands.”
Chambers says that shoppers looking for an aviation watch from IWC are on the hunt for a functional watch that delivers technical precision with key elements being a clear and legible dial and luminescent markers to keep time accessible in all visibilities.
AVIATION FOR ALL
One of those new brands entering into the market that Chambers describes is David Mason London. Director Cos Costa admits that the watch industry in general, and aviation in particular, is a tough segment to break into as an unkown but says that the choice to release aviation watches was a natural one for this young company. “On entering the market we had the opportunity to create one type of timepiece, and due to our preference and leaning toward aviators and David Mason’s love of planes and his historical interest in WW1 and WW2 the decision was easy,” says Costa.
David Mason London has created a new line of aviation watches for 2013 called The Aviator with retail prices ranging from £275 to £385. The collection offers a more affordable price point than IWC and Costa says that David Mason London’s target audience is “in short, anybody and everybody”.
“It’s no longer just a watch for a pilot, it’s a watch that everyone wants to own,” says Costa. “They are historical, clear and offer variations that other types of watches don’t. You can have a chronograph, day date, big date, GMT, second time zone, third time zone, you name it. You can’t do that with a diver really, or a sports watch – who wants a second time zone on a sports watch? You want a chrono really. Same as with a diver – why would you want to know what time it is in England when you’re 500ft under water in Egypt?”
TW Steel UK brand manager Mark Ryder agrees with this observation. TW Steel launched its first pilot’s watch last month, along with a high-profile campaign in conjunction with new Superman film Man of Steel, and Ryder says that the timepiece is more about the look of a pilot watch than the functionality.
“The reason we are launching the Pilot collection is because there is a demand for this style of watch in the UK,” he says. “The consumers like the clean, crisp styling of the Pilot collection, and the opportunity to buy into an oversized watch, which maintains a slim profile and so appeals to a wide market. We have found that the pilot watch appeals to many consumers, not just the aviation fanatics who are looking for a technical piece, but also people who simply like the look and style of the pilot watch.”
SELLING THE DREAM
While Swatch Group brand Hamilton admits to a wide ranging audience for its aviation watches – men aged between 25 and 45 – chief executive Sylvain Dolla believes that the key to selling aviation watches is still to tap into the dream of flying.
“Becoming a pilot is still a dream for a lot a young men everywhere in the world, and being linked to such an emotional profession is a very strong source of inspiration for our product team,” he says.
Aviation watches at Hamilton have enjoyed double-digit growth every year for the past seven years and 2005 launch the Khaki X-Wind – a pilot watch with a drift angle calculator – is still one of the bestsellers in the UK. Dolla believes that this upwards trend is set to continue with not just pilot’s watches proving popular but three-hand watches with a strong aviation look.
In response to this interest Hamilton is working on a new aviation watch due to launch in June. The Khaki Pilot pioneer Auto Chrono is powered by the Hamilton exclusive movement H-31, based on the ETA 7753 chronograph Valjoux movements. “From the barrel to the mainspring, the entire kinematic chain has been refined to increase the power reserve from 42 to 60 hours and assure optimal reliability and accuracy,” says Dolla. “Work has especially been carried out on the sapphire crystal to make it look like the plastic glass of its ancestor from the 1970s, which was strongly domed shaped.”
Oris has also partnered up with some professional aviators, the Australian Flying Doctors. It has created a limited-edition version of its Big Crown aviation watch in honour of the group, which provides aero-medical and primary healthcare across Australia.
Bremont meanwhile has succeeded in creating a watch brand that appeals across the board to pilots, aviation fans and men and ladies who just love a great watch. Recent launch ALT1-B2 (see p22) started out as a model for aficionados but has now been rolled out to general consumers following high demand.
“Working on this project with the B2 crew could not have been more interesting; they knew exactly what they were trying to achieve, which was great,” says Bremont co-founder Nick English. “They are a fascinating group of people, most of whom are MIT or Harvard graduates as far as I can work out; probably a prerequisite to fly a B2 Stealth Bomber. The B2 watch was a huge success with the Squadron, it also received rapturous applause from civilian watch aficionados so we knew there was a strong demand for general release version, hence the introduction of the ALT1-B2 chronograph.”
Citizen is also doing a roaring trade with aviation watches. It has sold more than 27,000 of its RAF Red Arrows watches in the UK since the collection’s launch in September 2010.
“We believe there is something for everyone,” says Citizen UK managing director Mark Robinson. “From the consumer who wishes to purchase a stylish-looking flight chronograph to the consumer who prefers the look and feel of the more technologically advanced Skyhawk A.T Range, which has also been purchased by some light aircraft pilots.”
The Citizen RAF Red Arrows collection is set to expand with the launch of the World Chronograph A.T.; a watch with atomic timekeeping, automatic time in 26 cities, 1/20 second chronograph measuring up to 60 minutes, perpetual calendar, 12/24 hour time, power reserve indicator, non-reflective sapphire crystal and water resistanance to 200 metres.
Whether selling an aviation-style watch or a genuine pilot instrument, the general market for aviation watches sems to be enjoying a high. Not only are these timepieces commercially successful, they have inspiring back stories juicy enough to tease out enthusiasm from even the most sceptical of salespeople.
With more and more pilots signing up for a license, a fresh raft of brands entering the market and serious product innovation from the stalwart manufacturers, now is a great time to refresh, invest and take your watch offer out of the holding pattern and into the clear blue skies.