Fly Buys: Pilot Watches

With the long-awaited sequel to Top Gun on the horizon, watchmakers are flying high trying to stake their claim in the market.

Appeared In
Special Issue
Menswear issue 06/18/2012

Word that Tom Cruise will return as Maverick in the long-awaited sequel to the 1986 hit movie Top Gun has provoked a dogfight among watchmakers. It started in January, when the Swiss luxury brand IWC declared 2012 “the year of the pilot’s watch” — and an ideal time to push its Top Gun collection. The company’s licensing deal with the U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program (popularly known as TOPGUN) dates back to 2005, but with a Top Gun 2 on the horizon, IWC expected the category to heat up.

This story first appeared in the June 18, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.


And so it did. Breitling, another Swiss brand, shot back with a press release touting its limited-edition Chronomat 44 ($10,135), which bears the official seal of the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School. “The real Top Gun watch carries the Breitling signature,” the release claimed.


Although Breitling, which sponsors a team of jet pilots, has solid aviation credentials, IWC quickly asserted its exclusive right to use the Top Gun trademark for watches. By April, on the eve of the Baselworld watch fair, the rivals had reached an agreement — Breitling would make no further mention of Top Gun — and the matter seemed to be settled. Still, Thierry Prissert, Breitling’s U.S. president, managed a parting shot.


“They are movie pilots,” he said at the time, referring to Cruise and his cohorts. “We are in contact with real pilots.”


A slew of other watchmakers have since entered the fray. The Swiss brand Zenith recently unveiled three new watches in its Pilot collection, including the Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 ($10,300), which makes a bold statement with its 57.5-millimeter titanium case. “The idea was to say, ‘Okay, a lot of brands do pilot watches, but nobody can claim the rights to it as loud and clear as we can,’” says Zenith chief executive officer Jean-Frédéric Dufour.

“We own the rights to the word Pilot,” he adds, noting the company has been producing Pilot watches for more than a century.


Hamilton, founded in the U.S. but now part of the Swatch Group, produced a watch worn by the first American airmail pilots in 1919. To underscore this heritage, the brand bills its new Khaki X-Patrol timepiece ($1,695), as a “portable cockpit for navigating lifestyles.” Bell & Ross, for its part, is promoting three new limited-edition watches based on aeronautical instruments — including the BR01 Turn Coordinator ($6,000) — with the tagline: “From the cockpit to the wrist.”


Not to be outdone, Bremont, a 10-year-old British brand that makes exclusive watches for elite military squadrons, recently introduced the World Timer ALT1-WT ($5,695), a chronometer geared toward civilians. Especially those who feel what Maverick famously called — and will no doubt call again — “the need
for speed.”