History Today

WHEN you think about it, a mechanical wristwatch is an inherently retro item – as one CEO of a Swiss brand put it to me, “we’re really still producing steam locomotives in the age of the bullet train.” Despite the mixture of modern and traditional techniques that go into making them – parts cut by computer-operated machines at microscopic tolerances on the one hand, watches hand-assembled, calibrated and painstakingly finished on the other – they still run on the same technological principles that have governed timekeeping for hundreds of years.

In fact, many of the most familiar tropes found in watches are left over remnants of functions that haven’t been useful for decades. The tachymeter markings around the bezels of some watches, once essential for pilots to measure speed based on elapsed time; similarly the telemeter scales found on certain chronographs, which could help you work out the distance of an event that could be seen and heard, like a lightning strike or artillery being fired; heck the chronograph itself, a stopwatch in an age when we don’t need stopwatches. And then there’s that slide-rule bezel encircling the dial of Breitling’s famous Navitimer chronographs – looks fantastic, never met a person who’s used it. Which is no reason at all not to own it.

But accepting the essential retro-ness of mechanical watches in both form and function, one may as well dive right in and celebrate the fact. There’s something of a trend right now for watches that very specifically hark back to past eras, that speak from the same design language as watches now found in the pages of vintage auction catalogues. And bearing in mind the associations of the functions mentioned above, there’s a particular place for such watches linked with a bit of old-fashioned derring-do.

IWC and Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Take the case of Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger, Comte de Saint Exupery – aviation pioneer, author, filmmaker, philosopher, inventor and (naturally) poet, who having penned that magical favourite The Little Prince, taken New York society by storm, earned the Legion d’Honneur, flown countless courageous missions in war and peacetime and survived a crash in the desert, finally died an appropriately romantic death by disappearing over the Mediterranean in 1944, presumed shot down.

An understandable figure for IWC, a company with a particularly strong history in pilots’ watches – as a style they still form a mainstay of IWC’s core collection – to have celebrated with a number of limited edition pieces in the past few years. The latest is, I’d say, the strongest piece yet – a perfectly realised piece of boys own timekeeping. A special take on the brand’s Pilot’s Watch Chronograph, it bears the stylings of the great age of aviation and a first-class in-house movement. It’s a collector’s item that’s in the vanguard of retro-themed watches celebrating the exploits of the past. Below are four more.

Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Edition Saint-Exupery
Limited edition of 500 watches in rose gold with chronograph, date display and in-house movement.

£25,500 from Harrods.

The Victory Watch
The British watch company is producing a limited run of retro-styled watches containing wood and copper from HMS Victory, and an innovative movement with retrograde seconds and date.
£11,500 in steel.

Type A7 Avigation
Just released, this is a reinterpretation of a classic aviation watch from the 1930s. It has the movement and display shifted round by 40 degrees for easy reading when worn on the inside of the wrist while flying.


Speedmaster “First Omega in Space” Moonwatch
Classic Speedmaster
style from the brand famous for its moonlandings associations. This recreates the first
Omega worn in space back in 1965.


Bell & Ross WW1 Monopusher
Bell & Ross, known for its square chronos, also has a line of pieces inspired by military aviation watches of the WW1 era. The chronograph here is started, stopped and reset by a single push button.