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Time Is Money: The Luminox P-38 Lightning GMT

Do fighter planes have clocks? I ask myself when I look at Luminox’s P-38 Lightning GMT ($500+). If they did, they’d certainly look like this one.

There’s something about a watch you could actually buy with your current bank account, right now, that gets the heart thumping and the synapses firing. These watches — specifically, the ones that cost less than $1,000, many of them less than $500 — are the subject of our new series “Time Is Money“.

Do fighter planes have clocks? I ask myself when I look at Luminox’s P-38 Lightning GMT ($795), (street price a little under $500). If they did, they’d certainly look like this one. That’s the point: the P-38 is part of Luminox’s line of “Air”-inspired watches, which includes other pieces inspired by the F-35 Lightning, SR-71 Blackbird, F-117 Nighthawk, and F-22 Raptor. Its black dial has puffy rounded white numerals that were, in fact, taken right from the P-38 fighter’s readouts. While it can’t capture the plane‘s weird twin-tailed design, the Luminox has what seems to be an authentic aesthetic, with its four concentric circles of numerals and markings. I can almost imagine the hands spinning wildly as the hero in the cockpit struggles desperately to PULL UP!

At 44 millimeters, its squarish brushed stainless steel case is big enough to make my wrist look like a sad little noodle, and its black leather strap is similarly enormous and sweaty in the summer heat, like a seat belt for the arm. To be fair, 44mm is apparently far from monstrous by some standards. On a larger man, or just one that has a thing for aeronautics, the Luminox P-38 will be great with its striking, tough-guy look. The aesthetic here is that of a P-38 fighter, and that means military aviation from the 1940s. Luminox, a Swiss company known particularly for their rough-and-tumble, sporty watches, has strayed a bit in their looks in this case. They’ve captured the rawness of a plane’s dashboard; the watch is less aggressive and more retro. You could wear it and look incredibly cool while flying a plane, or while sitting in first class on the way to a body-building competition in Brazil, or emerging from a swamp after a hearty game of assassinate-the-dictator. Or probably after a lot of other things. On me, it’s the look of a poseur who can afford a cool watch but who gets air sickness.

The watch has few eye-drawing points, and is somewhat plain with its brushed stainless steel and black and white dual-color face. It does work in concentric circles: from outer to inner, it’s a sliding 1-24 bezel, a layer of vertical hash marks and little division symbols, puffy hour numerals, and then a very small 24-hour world timer scale, around which the watch’s GMT hand shows the time anywhere in the world. The movement is quartz, the crown is screw-down, the case back has a raised P-38 to really drive home the point, and in the dark each of the hands and the lines of the division marks glow with night vision tubes.

So yes: it’s an aviation enthusiast’s watch for $795 from a trusted, if not traditionally aeronautically focused, brand. But there’s some unforeseen utility at the P-38’s price point. This “aviation instrument” niche is not a great marketplace for the money-mindful. Bell & Ross, Sinn, and Bremont are all making watches with the same bent — at over (and well over) $1,000. Still, there are one or two affordable alternatives besides the Luminox. Tsovet has the SVT-GG42 ($495), which was torn off the P-51 Mustang while no one was looking; it’s a more clean watch than the P-38, but lacks the GMT and is, to be fair, a bit more feminine with its light blue hands.

Speaking of which: if you want a GMT complication, this isn’t a bad place to get it. The “travel watches” attracted by the mention of a world timer tend to have disastrous price tags — frankly, because they’re made for jetsetters. The P-38’s GMT, though the hand is stubby and a little too dedicated to its tool look for me, is easy to set and, after a little bit of mental gymnastics, is easy to read. (Because of my aforementioned airsickness and general lack of excitement in my life, I set mine to West Coast time to see when I could call my buddies who live out there.) Still, though, you could always look to something like the Steinhart GMT Automatic, which has a similar look, and a GMT, and an automatic movement, for about $600, or a Hamilton Khaki Navy GMT automatic (again, similar look, GMT and a mechanical movement) for anywhere between $700 and $1,000.

At the end of the day, the P-38’s goose was cooked for me before it had a chance. It’s just too big; and honestly, these sorts of dashboard readout looks are not my thing. But if you weren’t born a shrimp (or if you were and have a thing for big wrist bling), have need of a GMT complication, and play WWII pilot simulators in your free time, Luminox’s instrument is worth a try.

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