It’s hard to get into a discussion about the history of timepieces without eventually happening upon military history. Since the mid-1800s, militaries around the world have relied heavily on timepieces to coordinate tactical maneuvers, navigation, diving, and range estimates. Though the watches vary between their respective countries of issue, you can be sure each watch is purpose-built with the intent to survive tough climates, shock, water submersion, dirt and grime — you know, a thorough beating.
As it goes for just about anything “military”, issued timepieces are some of the most collectible in the watch world. Between enthusiasts looking for a rugged watch to go on adventures with, fashionable folks pulling off military-inspired looks, and history buffs bolstering their military regalia collection, the military watch market faces the perfect storm of demand. Couple that demand with a fixed number of issued timepieces, and you start to see the whole picture. The rabbit hole of military watches and their history delves very deeply, very quickly, so we’ve broken our overview into two parts: those countries from the West with influential and interesting military timekeeping history, and those from the East. This week, the West — America, Britain, Germany, France, and the unlikely Brazil, Argentina and Peru — flexes its stuff.
The A-11, Rolex, Tudor, Blancpain, DOXA and the modern battery set
The U.S. military isn’t exactly the senior member on our list, but it’s certainly old enough to have a rich history of pocket watches and wristwatches. Prior to WWII, specification standards were nearly non-existent, which allowed for a wide range of watches to be found on the battlefield. Eventually, pocketwatches and makeshift wristlets gave way to Mil-Spec wristwatches.
Specification designations like the A-11 — which led myriad companies such as Bulova, Waltham and Elgin to produce watches with increased shock- and water-proofing, center sweep hands and added hacking seconds capabilities — truly drove the evolution of American military watches from mere timekeepers to useful battle hardware. While WWII A-11 watches and others are highly collectible, they’re a bit antiquated and small for modern wear. It’s the watches from the 1960s and ’70s that really draw the big bucks. Rolex, Tudor, Doxa and Blancpain could all be found throughout U.S. military units as the mid-1900s wore on.
Since the military must be (ahem) responsible with its budget, the days of issued mechanical watches are mostly gone. Today, American soldiers typically wear highly functional battery-powered watches from Casio, Marathon, and Luminox — and they actually have to purchase their own, as standards do not dictate a specific watch be issued.
The Mark XI, Rolex MilSub, Omega SM300 and W10 Mil-Spec
British watchmaking was going strong in the late 1800s, and early examples of battlefield timepieces would likely have been domestically sourced. But moving into the early 1900s, Swiss movements began replacing British ones — a foreshadowing of what was to come for MOD-issued watches.
Like the U.S. military, the MOD began issuing watches according to recognized specifications during WWII. The Mark VIIB and VIII were two of the early variants, followed by the Mark XI just after the war, which has become one of the most collectible of that era. Produced by IWC and Jaeger LeCoultre, the Mark XI navigator watch was so ahead of its time that it was issued for over 30 years. It’s a must-have for any serious military watch collection, in addition, of course, to a Rolex MilSub and Omega SM300.
Companies like Seiko, Pulsar, Citizen, and Precista have been able to reap benefits of the shift in power from mainsprings to batteries, all having earned contracts at various times with the MOD over the last 30 years. However, the classic W10 Mil-Spec watch — a reliable relic of the Cold War, and favorite of military watch collectors — is still being made by CWC and MWC.
The first wristwatches, and Fliegers from Stowa, A. Lange & Söhne, IWC and more
While the history isn’t exactly crystal clear, the German Imperial Navy had some influence in the adoption of the wristwatch for military use somewhere around 1880. Prior to that time, only women dared fashion a wristwatch. These early wristlets proved the utility hands-free timekeeping could provide, eventually pushing the new look into the mainstream.
Where the Germans had an even bigger influence on the watch world was the pilot watch, or Flieger, first commissioned by the Luftwaffe in 1936. The original brands contracted to produce Fliegers are household names today: Stowa, Laco, A. Lange & Söhne, Wempe, and IWC. The Type A and Type B Fliegers, differentiated only by their dial designs, remain immensely popular, likely on account of their clean yet sporty looks and rich history (for better or worse).
The rest of the German military’s watch history is littered with extremely functional and robust watches from brands like Heuer, Sinn, and Tutima. Compared to the über expensive MilSubs and original fliegers, later issued models like the Heuer Bundeswehr are relative bargains.
Longines, Stowa, Hanhart, Doxa, Blancpain — and the Tudor Submariner
French military watch history is much like the other European countries — moving from pocket watches to wristlets and then on to simple three-hand watches. Along the way, a mixture of some excellent watchmakers have provided watches for the French, including Longines, Stowa, Hanhart, Doxa, and Blancpain. However, the star of the show is the Tudor Submariner, which was issued to the French Navy, or Militare Nationale.
It’s not exactly known how many Tudor Subs received the “M.N.” designation over the watch’s 30 year run (from the ’50s to the ’80s). What is known is that the current market for them is intense, no doubt in part because of Tudor’s recent resurgence. Verifiable issued Tudor Sub prices and availability are very much in favor of the seller — textbook supply and demand here, folks. While they aren’t quite in the MilSub price range, expect to sleep on the couch for a month or so if you decide to jump on one.
Brazil, Argentina and Peru
The Cartier Santos, the Valjoux 72, Rolex and Heuer
Though he wasn’t quite a military member, it would be a disservice to not recognize Alberto Santos-Dumont’s influence on both wristwatches and military aviation. An aeronautical pioneer, Santos-Dumont is known as the Father of Aviation in his home country of Brazil. During his flying days, Santos-Dumont wasn’t a fan of fumbling with his pocket watch, so like any average world-renowned aviator, he went to his friend Louis Cartier and asked him for help. What resulted is one of the most iconic wristwatches in history: the Cartier Santos. It’s good to have friends, no?
In nearby Argentina and Peru, military aviators received iconic chronographs powered by the Valjoux 72 calibre. From roughly the early ’60s and into the ’70s, Rolex provided timepieces for the Peruvian military, most notably, the Daytona. Since vintage Daytonas are already quite pricey, adding the rare military provenance likely doubles the value. Too rich for you? Keep an eye out for a Heuer Autavia issued to the Argentinian Air Force in the 1970s. What you lose in the (overpriced) name, you gain in the knowledge that you scored an uncannily similar piece at a great value.