Given even a quick glance, it's easy to imagine Airain's Type 20 in the role it was intended for: helping mid-20th-century French military pilots navigate the skies and make critical calculations. As a modern re-edition, it evokes this image better than almost any other current alternative, having been lovingly recreated right down to the original Type 20's defining flyback chronograph function and near-accurate vintage sizing. It offers a connection to history, a versatile design and remarkably strong value — but does it do its namesake justice?
Model: Airain Type 20 Re-Edition
Case Diameter: 39.5mm
Case Depth: 10.85mm (plus 3.92mm with the crystal)
Water Resistance: 50m
Movement: La Joux-Perret AM1 hand-wound
Airain was one of several companies that made the badass chronographs known as Type 20 in the mid-20th century. Today, these watches are legendary among vintage and military watch collectors, but generally remain somewhat under-the-radar compared to iconic chronograph watches from prominent modern brands that have remained in production. In other words, the Type 20's got a bit more of an in-the-know, enthusiast-approved cool factor that places it slightly outside the "mainstream."
As a modern brand, Airain was recently resurrected and isn't directly associated with its historical namesake, but is offering a remarkably accurate and attractive connection to its history. Though a millimeter or so larger than the originals, it's sized on the small side for a modern chronograph (39.5mm), which helps it wear easily and feel period-correct. The dial and other details are like carbon copies of vintage models, and most notably of all, it includes special functionality of the original known as a flyback feature, allowing you to restart the chronograph without first stopping and resetting it. Today this is considered an exotic feature — especially at Airain's price.
Who It's For
Vintage fans romanced by the Type 20 have a significantly more attainable option in Airan's Re-Edition. Though it doesn't exhibit quite the same character and authenticity of the original, it's more affordable and readily available than an actual vintage model and comes with substantially convenient modern upgrades. (Of course, this is the same set of tradeoffs that applies to many vintage reissue or similar watches.) It also offers an alternative to Breguet's prestigious and expensive Type XX and XII while offering its own story. You could, however, completely ignore all these associations and simply enjoy such a watch as a handsome and easy-wearing chronograph with retro vibes and a strong value.
Several companies which made Type 20 watches for the French military between the 1950s and 1980s are again making them today. Breguet is easily the most notable, but its Type XX is a high-end product that'll set you back $14,900. Auricoste's version includes a flyback function but measures 42mm and costs over a grand more than Airain at around $4,300. Mathey-Tissot's modern interpretation costs only around $2,175 but uses an ETA 7750 movement with no flyback and also measures 42mm. (Dodane has also offered their own version, but currently lacks information on its site.) Each might be worth a look depending on your tastes, but all in all, Airain's combination of price, features, historical accuracy and size are hard to beat.
If you're generally looking for retro-styled mechanical chronographs (and you don't care so much about the flyback), the good news is that there's some great value to be found even under $2,000. For aviation-specific interests, look to ze Germans: the Hanhart 417 ES is a classic sharing a lot in common with the Type 20 for around $2,000. The Junghans Meister Pilot has similar appeal, but stands out for its unique look with its 12-sided bezel for around $2,500.
As so many other watches of the 2020s, the Airain Type 20 Re-Edition is a near replica of a historic model. That means there are two parts to evaluating it: First, there's everything from the story and design of the original that makes it cool. Then, there's exactly what the modern version offers, how well it's executed, how it differs from its historical counterpart — and how much those differences matter. There'll always be a gap between the two and tradeoffs either way, but let's begin by noting that this is a very close recreation of a vintage Airain Type 20 and it offers a strong value for the modern luxury watch space it occupies.
"Type 20" is the name of the French military chronograph that developed from specifications first issued to watchmakers in the 1950s, most notably to Breguet. As with other military watches, however, various companies were chosen to supply the government — so, despite some differences in watches made by different companies over time, all worked from the same brief. Airain was among them, and the the modern brand's website gives a partial list of the French government's specifications:
- A case diameter of approximately 38mm wide and no more than 14mm high
- Screw-in case back
- Black dial, with two registers at 3 and 9 o’clock that can record up to 30 minutes
- Arabic numbers
- Luminescent material on both hands and numbers
- Flyback function (retour en vol)
- Bi-directional 12-hour rotating bezel
- Movement accuracy of within eights seconds a day
- Power reserve of at least 35 hours
- Ability to operate the chronograph function reliably at least 300 times
The list almost looks like it describes German pilots' chronographs that preceded it from the previous decade, such as those made by Hanhart and Tutima. (Those watches included the flyback feature, but not elements like the 12-hour rotating bezel.) The Type 20 can probably be seen as an evolution of these watches, but this is a French watch with its own story and traits.
It's easy to see why the Type 20 watches capture collectors' imaginations: military watches always impart a sense of purpose and adventure, but they also demand watchmaking excellence. A chronograph is significantly more intricate than a time-only mechanical watch, and the flyback function only adds complexity. All that, and the accuracy requirement, had to hold up under stringent conditions well enough that pilots could rely on them for the likes of navigation, calculation of fuel consumption, etc. (The flyback function allowed, for example, coordination with radio signals in which the difference of seconds it takes to restart a non-flyback could affect the aircraft's bearing.)
The flyback sounds simple conceptually, offering the convenience of a single button push instead of three (stop, reset, start) to restart the chronograph from zero. Chronographs already being complex mechanisms, however, the somewhat niche flyback feature only adds to a watchmaker's cost and therefore has relegated the complication to relatively higher-end, collector-oriented watches. In fact, you'll be hard pressed to find more affordable flyback chronographs than Airain's.
It's cool that Airain has included the functionality of the original watch rather than simply offering one in the style of the original. The style, however, is pretty spot-on: Airain isn't quite following the military specs from the 1950s, but there's a clear effort to stay as authentic as possible while offering some modern tweaks that can mostly be considered upgrades, the case being 1.5mm larger than the French government called for, for example.
One area in which Airain shows a conscious effort to stay true to vintage specs is its use of Hesalite crystal. It's "box"-shaped, meaning raised and domed a là vintage watches, which is a style I love, and I would have preferred to see it in potentially more expensive sapphire. Although such acrylic crystals are often seen today as a cost-cutting measure, they're also what was actually used on many vintage watches and many collectors prefer their qualities and retro feel despite the fact that they scratch more easily (Airain has given its crystal an anti-scratch treatment). These choices are always polarizing and essentially come down to individual preferences, and for Airain, the choice seems very deliberate rather than a matter of cost.
In terms of comfort and wearing experience, Airain's Re-Edition is thin for a chronograph — it’s 10.85mm in depth (though the domed crystal adds 3.92mm), much thinner than the Type 20 specs’ maximum of 14mm (if you don't count the crystal). Even after throwing it on a bund strap (Hodinkee's $170 Heaton as shown in the pictures), which tends to add bulk, it remained easily wearable. The proportions — 39.5mm with a wide dial adding visual size — might be among the most perfect and comfortable this reviewer has ever strapped on — and it's sure to fit different wrist sizes, as well.
Interacting with the movement when winding, setting or playing with the chronograph (or actually timing something) is pleasant, and every motion feels smooth and solid. Airain uses a manually wound movement called the AM1 from Swiss movement maker La Joux-Perret (now owned by Citizen Watch Co.), which is known for supplying a range of higher-end watch brands. You get 60 hours of power reserve from the movement, while a column wheel adds more value for collectors who prefer the smooth operation this feature provides.
With its Swiss movement and Dutch ownership, the only thing that could make the Airain Type 20 Re-Edition more genuine and attractive is if it were a bit more French. You can't blame its owners for not being French, however, and they've clearly put a lot of care into recreating this legendary watch in a thoughtful way. Tom van Wijlick is the man behind Airain's rebirth as well as the owner of Le Bois & Co. an original sister brand, both of which were created by the Dodane watchmaking family, from whom the Airain brand rights were acquired.
If you're in love with the Type 20 watches, as tends to be a part of many enthusiasts' journeys, Airain is offering one of the best and most accessible ways to enjoy them. To get an actual military-issued vintage Type 20, you'd pay a lot more — and very well may be afraid to wear it on a regular basis, much less use its chronograph. Wear this modern Re-Edition with confidence, and you just might find that it channels your inner pilot.