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Trends - What has become of the military watch?

Trends What has become of the military watch?

Has the erstwhile tool become no more than an accessory? The military watch is struggling to find its way. And yet it laid many of the technical foundations of modern watchmaking.

1914: The military watch begins to gain favour. 1945: It has become essential. 2019: What has become of the military watch? The military watch, which reached its apogee with the major world conflicts of the last century, is today struggling to define its place, somewhere between utility (which is waning) and reputation (rising). 

“A military watch is about technicality, history and a sense of belonging,” explains Romain Réa, a watch expert who has been called to testify before the courts. For him, this trio of qualities defines the essence of the military watch. It can sometimes be more than this, but never less.

150 years of history

“Historically, we find traces of military-type watches as far back as the Franco-Prussian war [1870], with, for example, modified Girard-Perregaux watches, watches that are reinforced, and worn on a jacket, in a pocket, or on the wrist,” he continues. “What fuelled the rise of the military watch was primarily aviation, which imposed demands in terms of legibility, and also a rotating bezel.” Many will think of the Type XX, XXI and XXII by Breguet, an illustrious name not only in watchmaking but also aviation, in whose development another branch of the family played a decisive role. Louis Breguet (1880-1955) turned his attention away from watches to focus on making planes, and became a pioneer.

Qu’est devenue la montre militaire ?

© Breguet

The second half of the 20th century would see the emergence of the military diving watch. Blancpain, Rolex, Tudor, Triton and ZRC improved them considerably with feedback from military users. Thanks to a moisture indicator (Blancpain), a crown at 12 o’clock (Triton) or 6 o’clock (ZRC), depth records (Rolex), and a contract with the French Navy (Tudor), among other accomplishments, the diving watch ascended to heights of technical accomplishment over the span of 30 years.

A paradigm shift

Today, military-issue equipment no longer includes combat watches. “In France, for example, the last Tudor Submariners were decommissioned in the 2000s,” notes Tudor. Watch brands are no longer able to point to any long-term commitment to the armed forces. 

Panerai continues to maintain a distinction, though. Its latest Submersible Marina Militare Carbotech is specially designed for the most extreme commando experiences. What is more, with it comes the opportunity for just a handful of clients – 33 adventurers, one for each of the 33 watches in this limited edition – to take part in a training course with COMSUBIN, the Italian commando frogmen. For those unable to benefit from this experience, the same timepiece is also available in black, in a non-limited edition, featuring the same imposing 47mm case.

Qu’est devenue la montre militaire ?

Submersible Marina Militare Carbotech © Panerai

And so, in 2019, there is not one military watch, but many. The major watchmakers who shaped the history and techniques of this paradigm have turned their attention to other things. Rolex is focusing on sustainable development; Blancpain is campaigning for the preservation of the oceans; Bell & Ross is concentrating on cars and more urban pursuits; and Dodane is prioritising pilots. There are nevertheless some exceptions, such as Panerai, with its Comsubin. 

Some niche brands have jumped into the breach to win over elite squads: GIGN and RAID for Mat Watches, or the Combat Swimmers of the National Navy for Ralf Tech. Then there are all the new “outdoor” timepieces, such as Casio’s iconic G-Shock (the GravityMaster is dedicated to the RAF, the British Royal Air Force). Garmin, with annual revenues of over 3 billion dollars, has a colossal R&D budget to give it a comfortable lead in the multi-functional smartwatch, which has become the most popular kind of timepiece for members of the armed forces. This is how Tudor sums up the situation with respect to its own watches: “Today, ‘military’ watches produced by the brand are more commemorative items specially commissioned for particular units than watches used in the field, although some exceptions remain.” 

Qu’est devenue la montre militaire ?

Pelagos © Tudor

Green or khaki?

So, in 2019, what remains of the military watch? The three pillars of technicality, history and belonging have beaten a retreat. In the last 15 years, technicality has been replaced by the electronic capabilities of ultra-robust smartwatches. Affiliation with an elite squad is a marketing device used to support the strategies of brands using far less bellicose rhetoric. Today, green is far more profitable than khaki!

Qu’est devenue la montre militaire ?

Khaki Pilot Pioneer Mechanical © Hamilton

When history becomes heritage

So what about history? The major watchmakers all call upon their history to support the most effective argument with clients today: vintage. The fact that they equipped major military forces 70 years ago is proof of both legitimacy and provenance. Not long ago, Blancpain unveiled a reissue of the Air Command, a highly technical flyback from the late 50s, only a few of which were ever made. Hamilton is continuing to explore the heritage of its Khaki – recently, a Khaki Pilot Pioneer Mechanical was reissued to commemorate a 1970s model produced for the RAF. Tudor is also investing in its Pelagos, reminding collectors that its first major professional diving watch was launched in 1954 under the name… Submariner.

Qu’est devenue la montre militaire ?

Chronograph Air Command © Blancpain

Not military (but almost)

The line between history and inspiration is a very fine one, and many watch brands have not hesitated to cross it. There is no ISO-type standard for military watches, but certain aesthetic canons have gradually come to be accepted. “The Pilot line borrows the codes of the first wristwatches delivered to air forces,” explains Laurence Bodenmann, Zenith’s heritage director.

Qu’est devenue la montre militaire ?

Pilot Type 20 Adventure © Zenith

Over at Anonimo, CEO Aldo Magada explains how a military-style watch has been designed to “accompany the wearer in all their activities, however extreme, without letting them down.”

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Militare Chrono, bronze © Anonimo

And then there’s Richard Mille, who has chosen to focus on the martial image of a man who was never in the military: Sylvester Stallone. The RM 25-01, in titanium and carbon, features a compass, a mirror, a spirit level and water purification tablets. It’s a complete survival package on the wrist!

Qu’est devenue la montre militaire ?

RM 25-01 © Richard Mille

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