Hot Now
  • Guinand Starfighter Pilot II Chronograph

    Mach 2 for the wrist

  • Lady Gaga meets David Beckham for Tudor
    Lady Gaga meets David Beckham for Tudor

    The exciting collaboration of two superstars


Finding the right beat

The difference between mechanical, automatic and digital pilot’s watches
Avatar photo
23 May 2024

A delve into what makes the pilot watch connoisseur tick

So intertwined are timepieces and aviation, that those with a love of flying often find they are partial to a pilot’s watch (or two). Take, for example, luxury watch brand Laco – a German manufacturer that prides itself on creating authentic, often vintage-inspired pilot’s watches that capture a synergy between technology and precision. Or, indeed British watchmaker Bremont, whose co-founders are brothers who were inspired to continue their father’s legacy and passion for vintage aircraft and mechanics. Wherever you look on the market, you’re bound to stumble upon a reputable watch manufacturer that specialises in pilot’s watches, be they mechanical, automatic or digital. But what’s the difference?

While it is true that mechanical watches lack the advancements that modern technology brings to the table, they are equally, if not more, sophisticated. Shrouded in allure, they are a horologist’s weak spot. Whether a collector of pilot’s watches or not, a true watch aficionado can often find himself in awe of a movement’s complexity and the intricate craftsmanship involved in its harmonious, rhythmically beating engine. As complex as they may be, mechanical watches are not quite as accurate as quartz movements but certainly deliver character and charm by the bucket load.

Mechanical watches can be divided into two main categories – the manual winding kind and the self-winding kind.

Mechanical pilot’s watches

In a nutshell, mechanical watches can be divided into two main categories; the manual winding kind and the self-winding (automatic) kind. Both work in a similar way, but while a hand-wound watch requires you to manually wind the movement via the crown, an automatic watch will wind itself according to the natural movement of your wrist. That said, an automatic watch can be wound at the crown too. You’ll need to do this should you have spent some time away from your watch. Mechanical watches release energy from a mainspring. Once you wind the spring manually through the crown (or by a rotating weight if automatic), the tension in the spring unwinds slowly, thanks to a series of gears and toothed wheels.

Bell & Ross is a prestigious pilot watch manufacturer that specialises in instrument panel-inspired designs heavily weighted on automatic movements. The instantly recognisable circle-within-a-square profile has formed the foundations for its flagship BR 03 watch collection, not to mention its sportier BR 05 watch collection.  While the manufacturer tends to modify ETA movements to power its rugged, bold designs, other manufacturers specialise in manufacturing their own. IWC Schaffhausen develops its own in-house movements and has been specializing in aviation wristwatches since the 1930s.

IWC Calibre 52010
IWC Calibre 52010
IWC / Kaliber 52010

Quartz pilot’s watches

Quartz watches operate in a completely different way from mechanical ones. The accuracy of a quartz watch is afforded by a battery, which sends a current to a microchip. This causes a piece of quartz crystal to vibrate at an astonishingly rapid rate – 32,768 times a second to be precise! These oscillations are picked up from the crystal by another microchip, creating an electrical impulse that sends the hands around the dial. Digital pilot’s watches also work in the same way. Citizen, Casio and Garmin have all dipped their toe in manufacturing digital pilot’s watches. One industry leader in quartz pilot’s watches, however, is Bergmann. These German-made watches are worth checking out if you’re looking to expand your pilot’s watch collection on a budget.

A quartz movement is characterized by an oscillating quartz crystal, which vibrates at a high frequency and is powered by a battery.

The market for pilot’s watches, both mechanical and quartz, is brimming with innovative collectables. No longer worn solely as cockpit instruments, they have come to be loved the world over for their unmistakable style and vintage character, and long may that continue.

More about pilot watches

Overview of manufacturers of pilot watches with mechanical and digital movements

What is a pilot watch?
Jerry Zhang / Unsplash

What is a pilot watch?

Rise high with style

Christopher Ward

Christopher Ward

The best value mechanical watch in the world