Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the Glycine Airman.
A watch executive walks into an airplane cockpit.
This isn’t the beginning of a joke, or a security drill, but the origin story of one of the most interesting and purpose-built pilot’s watches. They talked, and the pilot told the executive exactly what kind of watch his profession required, a kind that didn’t exist. Within a few months of the conversation, however, it did exist, incorporating a host of novel features which make the Glycine Airman an enduring classic that stands out even today.
The year was 1953, commercial air travel was still very young, and passengers could apparently casually wander into an airplane cockpit during a long flight and check out the futuristic-looking controls. During a Thai Airways flight between Bangkok and Calcutta, Altus-Glycine executive Samuel Glur did just that and chatted with the pilot about his profession’s wristwatch needs. This, at least, is how the legend goes.
The pilot had a host of features in mind, probably without any sense of how they could be combined or what such a watch would look like. Most importantly, it would be able to track two time zones at once. Air traffic control refers to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) as the standard anywhere in the world, but pilots of course also need to know the local time wherever they happen to be.
Another feature requested was a 24-hour dial rather than the typical 12-hour one. The utility of this is obvious for time zone-hopping pilots, but it’s uncommon on watches. The second time zone would be tracked by a rotating bezel, also with 24 hour markers, and a locking mechanism (in the form of a 4 o’clock crown) would prevent the bezel from accidentally turning while being worn. It’s a pretty simple but elegant solution. The watch would further have a date function, automatic winding, and be “waterproof.” The executive was taking notes as they talked and sent a letter about their conversation as soon as they were on the ground again.
The watch the pilot was describing didn’t exist at the time, but only a few months following this conversation, Glycine released this watch, and called it the “Airman.” It was cutting edge in 1953. Its rotating bezel, for example, is a common feature now mostly associated with dive watches, but the Rolex Turn-O-Graph (a Submariner precursor), Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms, and let’s not forget the Zodiac Sea Wolf, all also released in 1953, were some of the earliest watches to feature it alongside the Airman. The famous Rolex GMT-Master, also using a rotating bezel to display a second time zone was released later, in 1955.
Glycine found the Airman successful, and the brand has continued to produce it, in myriad iterations, up to the present day. Its earliest forms, however, hold the most fascination for many watch collectors. The design that best represents the classic Glycine Airman probably solidified after a few years tweaking elements like the handset, which would eventually feature a prominent arrow to indicate the hours.
In his conversation with the pilot, Samuel Glur thought he had identified an untapped market, but it wasn’t only commercial airline pilots who found he Airman’s unique features practical and attractive. Its popularity among US pilots in the Vietnam and Korean wars, for example, adds a gritty element to the Airman’s story. Despite the its success, there have been few other watches quite like the Glycine Airman. GMT watches which use another 24-hour hand on the (usually 12-hour) dial are the most common way to display a second time zone today. In an interconnected 21st century, this function is more useful and popular than ever.