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The magic marker

What is the small triangle on a pilot’s watch for?
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Laco
04 July 2024

Exploring where that distinctive 12 o’clock triangular marker came from in aviation timekeeping

I often wonder why there is no standardisation for pilot’s watches, like there is for the common dive watch. Wouldn’t it make things so much simpler? We could confidently define what makes a pilot watch fit into this niche category of timepieces. And we collectors do love to categorise things and put them into neat little boxes, don’t we? As it stands, one of the world’s most popular watch styles goes without any identification tick-list, but it does have a general set of criteria that most manufacturers adhere to. Devoted fans of Flieger watches and B-uhr watches have no trouble spotting one, but do they know what that triangular marker at 12 o’clock represents?

A Tool Born Out of Necessity 

These utilitarian-looking tools aren’t worn by professional pilots half as much as they used to be. Today, we like to wear them as statement pieces too, and can you really blame us? They are one of the most coveted styles on the market, after all. They also make for great daily companions because they’re so legible, and their practical features are solid and reliable. It’s sometimes hard not to lose sight of the fact that these were born out of necessity at one point. Pilots needed wrist-worn tools like this to help them navigate long, sometimes life-threatening journeys above land. And up there, it got pretty darn cold and dark! This brings me to the topic of that unmistakable triangular pointer on a pilot’s watch dial, often accompanied by two circular dots. What is that marker even for and why did pilots need it?

The 12 o’clock triangular marker 
Laco Fliegeruhr Münster 42
Laco Fliegeruhr Münster 42
Laco pilot´s watch Münster 42 / Laco

Useful pilot watch elements 

Well, that triangular marker, flanked by two dots, was a quick and effective way to locate the 12 o’clock indication on a watch if you were a pilot. This quick orientation of the dial enabled a pilot to keep track of time at a glance. By the way: When you look at the quintessential features of any pilot’s watch, they’re all pretty significant. The luminous Arabic numeral hour track, for example, was highly legible and generously coated in luminous material to assist a pilot with timekeeping during the night. The prominent onion-shaped crown is another example of an indispensable pilot’s watch feature. It was easy to grip under the fingertips of a pilot’s gloved hand. Modern iterations of the pilot’s watch often feature an anti-reflective sapphire crystal glass front to rid the dial of any undesirable glare when accessing vital timekeeping information. Part of the reason why pilot’s watches are so popular today is down to the preservation of these features. They retain the identity of the watch and they’re also pretty useful!

The B-watch with the small triangle 

Back during The Second World War, the German government called for an essential war tool. It selected five manufacturers to make these B-uhr watches. They needed to be anti-magnetic and chronometer-certified. Only a few hand-chosen companies were selected for the job, including A. Lange & Söhne, IWC Schaffhausen, and Laco. The basic design of these watches included a large case, Arabic numerals, an onion-shaped crown, a large, durable strap that could be mounted to the top of a pilot’s jacket, and , of course, that distinctive 12 o’clock triangular marker for orientation purposes.

Pilot’s watches were about staying in the loop with the broader plans of the battle.

Imagine the three-dimensional effect on the body of flying a fighter aircraft. It’s hard to comprehend since the majority of us have only ever experienced smooth passenger flights when travelling on business or going on vacation. But the looping and sudden changes of direction experienced in flying a fighter plane, for example, are bound to cause sensory conflicts and illusions that make it hard to reference the time on a watch. One solution to the problem was that luminous-coated triangular 12 o’clock marker, and an indispensable feature it was! To pardon the pun, pilot’s watches were about staying in the loop with the broader plans of the battle. So, now you finally know the answer to that burning question; “What is the 12 o’clock marker on a pilot’s watch used for?”. That distinctive dial marker still exists as part of the pilots’ watch DNA and an ode to those covetable vintage designs of yesteryear.

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