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Pilot Watches - All about Fliegeruhren

Category: Articles | Date: March 4, 2016

Put the golden age of aviation on your wrist with the Geckota K1. In this article Al take us back to a golden age of classic aviator timepieces...

Put the golden age of aviation on your wrist with the Geckota K1

The new Geckota K1 pilot’s watch is inspired by decades of classic aviator timepieces. It’s the third-generation of our tribute to classic 1930s and 1940s German Beobachtungsuhren (navigators’ watches) and delivers classically functional style to your wrist – and lifestyle. As ever you’ll find a few modern twists this time around. To fully appreciate the inspiration for this watch, come back to aviation’s early years with us…

The story begins when wrist watches were still often considered effeminate. In fact, with a few exceptions, ‘real men’ still carried pocket watches until World War 1. Then everything changed and watches were never the same again.

Changed perceptions about wrist watches

The adoption of wrist watches by artillerymen and naval officers, as well as aviators such as Alberto-Santos Dumont and Charles Lindbergh radically changed perceptions. No surprise then, that pilot watches remain such a distinctive part of the watch market.
Thus, over 30 years, two fields of endeavour completely changed watch design and use. These changes ultimately led to timekeeping icons that have been to the moon and found their way onto the wrists of the most adventurous – and those most aspiring to adventure – among us.

Transcending context to become classics

One of the earliest pilot’s timepieces was the Longines Weems second-setting watch. It went on sale in 1929, two years after Lindbergh’s celebrated transatlantic flight. In 1931, Lindbergh helped Longines develop a Stundenwinkeluhr (hour-angle watch) for long-distance flyers. As Monochrome, an online magazine dedicated to fine watches, pointed out in 2013’s ‘The History of the Pilot Watch Part Five: B-Uhr’, ‘some watch designs not only stand the test of time … but transcend their original context to become classics.’ Such was the Lindbergh watch and so were the specialist pilot watches, or Fliegeruhren, designed and manufactured in 1930s and 1940s Germany…

The influential 1940s Fliegeruhren

Most notable were the timepieces from watchmakers such as Lacher & Co/Durowe (Laco). Lange & Söhne, Wempe, Walter Storz (Stowa) and IWC – and other, less famous, but equally collectable, makes. We unashamedly drew inspiration for our Geckota K1 series from these watches. In our opinion they’re the timepieces that literally shaped the modern pilot watch.

To fully understand their significance for the design and characteristics of the Geckota K1, let’s return to a golden age of flying, a time when navigational aids were much less sophisticated than today.

After WW1, as aviation developed, aircraft systems started to include built-in timekeeping. By then, wristwatches were increasingly only required for backup or for individual crew-members’ tasks on the new multi-crewed planes.

From the early days of aviation, flight deck instrumentation has often influenced watch design – as with the cockpit instrumentation from the 1930s Junkers JU52 which has subsequently served as the model for classic pilot-watch faces.

Think back to 1930s Germany

Aviation has always been associated with adventure, freedom and independence. Over decades, opportunities for genuinely new adventures within Earth’s atmosphere have declined. But between the First and Second World Wars, thanks to Lindbergh, Post, Earhart and others, ultra-long-distance flights still made headlines.

So, as you relax in your airline seat, sip a drink and check time’s passage on your Geckota K1, let your mind wander to 1930s Germany. The characteristics and function-following form of your watch can be directly traced back to the iconic B-Uhren of the time.  These are the Beobachtungsuhren or ‘observation watches conceived by the RLM, Germany’s Reichs-Luftfahrtministerium, in the 1930s.

B-Uhren – forerunners of today’s pilot watch

The now-classic B-Uhren evolved from RLM aircraft development and the associated aircrew timepieces – ostensibly for civilian purposes, but actually for Germany’s rearmament. The watches joined timepieces such as Alberto-Santos Dumont’s Cartier and Lindberg’s Longines as direct forerunners of modern classics: watches such as Breitling’s Navitimer, the Rolex GMT-Master (developed for Pan-Am), and Omega’s Speedmaster ‘moon watches’.

Five manufacturers: two main designs

The RLM-specified B-Uhren were manufactured by five Germano-Swiss firms: A. Lange & Söhne, Wempe (Chronometerwerke Hamburg), Lacher & Company/Durowe (Laco), Walter Storz (Stowa) and Switzerland’s IWC. The watches were made to two designs, a Baumuster ‘A’ and ‘B’ (Baumuster means model; literally ‘build design’). The first features a simple outer chapter ring and sweep-second hand. With the later ‘B’ model came an inner hour dial.

True iconic status

Undoubtedly, as subsequent proliferation of pilot watches showed, the RLM’s watchmakers produced a novel design. It’s a design that has attained genuine iconic status. Whether as highly-prized originals, the manufacturers’ continued output, or as watches like ours that are inspired by B-Uhren, these classic watches remain highly sought-after at all price points. As originals or respectfully conceived replicas, they demonstrate Louis Sullivan’s ‘form follows function’ ethos. They are simple, unadorned and purposeful.

Even if the price tag of an original B-Uhr is beyond your budget, you can enjoy a similar experience with your choice of Geckota K1.

Characteristics of the classic B-Uhren

So what are the characteristics that made the B-Uhren so iconic and practical – and continue to define their modern successors, including the Geckota K1 range?

ACCURACY

From early aviators’ navigation to coordination of military missions, aircrews have always needed accurate timepieces. With the B-Uhren, this meant meeting the strict standards of Hamburg’s Deutsche Seewarte (naval observatory). And that required them to be based on the most accurate movements available at the time – large-calibre mechanical pocket watches with precision Breguet balances.

CLARITY

The resulting large-case watches met another aircrew requirement too:  ease of use and readability in poor light. Consequently, B-Uhren had large-diameter (44mm or 55mm), high-contrast dials. Theses had separate minute tracks and high-quality glass to minimise the likelihood of scratches or reflections reducing readability.

The original Fliegeruhren had high-visibility black dials with a single outer ‘chapter ring’, luminous Arabic numerals and blued hands. In the past, sometimes only indices, not the numbers, on watches were illuminated. Because of this, to help the wearer orientate the watch in poor light, the B-Uhren’s twelve o’ clock position had either a filled triangle and two dots (Baumuster ‘A’) or a filled arrowhead (Baumuster ‘B’). The convention subsequently entered the visual language of pilot watches.

If any characteristic of the simple, unadorned B-Uhren was visibly over-engineered it’s probably these reading aids. From the start, all possible ways to help orientation in the dark were used. Your Geckota K1 continues this tradition with its fluorescent markings and other readability aids. What’s more, with the benefit of 80 years’ knowledge, your watch is now available with the latest fluorescent paints and an amber dial-marking option.

EASE OF USE AND MINIMAL COMPLICATIONS

To enable easy adjustment of B-Uhren while wearing flying gloves, the RLM specification stipulated large, easily manipulated zwiebelförmig (‘onion-shaped) or diamond-shaped knurled crowns. The originals also had a distinctive double-rivet extensible strap for easy attachment over overalls or gloves. References to strapping B-Uhren around aviators’ thighs appear fanciful. And impractical, as the watch would be at a very hard-to-read 90 degrees from the aviator’s sightline!

From precision tool to fashion accessory

By 1942, the five main manufacturers had supplied around 1,200 B-Uhren; other watches came from firms such as Glashütte and Hanhart. To date, no watchmaker can claim exclusive rights to B-Uhren; hence numerous companies have subsequently paid homage to the RLM design. That’s why we’ve been able to establish ourselves alongside such esteemed names as Laco, Stowa and IWC with our painstakingly researched and keenly priced tribute to these iconic timepieces – your Geckota K1.

As developments of the originals, new features may not be strictly correct from a historical perspective. However, we believe you will appreciate the added refinement and usability, particularly as we are careful to maintain the originals’ character.

The pilot watch remains popular

Modern aviation equipment and systems long-ago meant the end of a purely navigational requirement for wrist-borne timepieces. Yet pilot watches remain popular. It’s a logical marketing approach by original manufacturers as well as brands like Geckota. Especially when we maintain the character of the originals, enable you to identify with and share their style and functionality, and make them so affordable.

Don’t worry if you only fly for holidays, business or pleasure flights at your local airfield. Joining the ‘pilot-watch club’ and associating with past and present aviation is rewarding however you do it.

As a discerning watch buyer, you’re on a fast-track to share the zeitgeist of aviation. Your watch choice is an enduring symbol that makes an important personal statement and will give you years of pleasure.

What better way could there be to pay homage to the golden age of adventure and pioneering aviation than by choosing your Geckota K1 today.

The 2016 Geckota K1 range

The latest Geckota K1 range continues a tradition of high-quality, accessible timepieces inspired by, and including, classic design cues associated with the classic B-Uhren.

This is our take on a time-tested design that’s endured and strengthened since the 1930s. With the launch of the third-generation Geckota K1 (just 320 pieces) you have a timepiece that improves on the original (300, all sold) and the updated 2014 watch (again 300, now nearly sold out).

True to the original B-Uhren, the 2013 model had one dial option (the Baumuster ‘B’) and three case finishes. For 2014, along with Baumuster ‘A’ and ‘B’ dials, we introduced superior Swiss Super-LumiNova paint. Also, two case finishes and the option to buy the watch head on its own – so you could personalize your strap choice.

For 2016, you can choose from two dials (Baumuster ‘B’ and a brand new instrument-panel-inspired design). There are also four case finishes, fresh custom colours for the luminous markings and a new higher-durability sapphire-crystal face. Again, because it’s only sold as a watch head, you can add the strap of your choice.

Finally, as further homage to 1930s aviation, a striking aircraft-graphic is embossed on every Geckota K1 case back.

Order soon because this is another limited edition with only 40 of each version available. That’s a total of just 320 watches, each with its unique engraved serial number – just like the original B-Uhren…

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