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Standing to attention – how watch brands are reimagining the military-inspired watch

Timothy Barber
April 25, 2024
5 min

At first glance, this watch offers many field-ready attributes: a neat, unornamented case; a dark dial (complete with a faded, vintage-chic finish); a mission-friendly minute track with five-second numerals; and blocky hour numerals laden with tea-stained lume, as are the retro, syringe-style hands. Look again though, and the watchmaker’s trick reveals itself. Despite its sleek silhouette, the case carries Patek’s emblematic hobnail pattern, but on the flanks rather than the bezel. In fact, to extend it around the entire circumference of the watch in this way necessitated a novel construction to affix the lugs, without interrupting the engraving. The dial carries an idiosyncratic stippled texture inspired, so Patek’s president Thierry Stern says, by the bodywork of vintage Leica cameras. Such details only heighten the feeling of being taken back to the mid-century; even the utilitarian numerals are fringed with polished white gold.

Patek Philippe’s designs have cross-pollinated an increasingly broad range of styles and ideas during Thierry Stern’s tenure, responding to the current era’s demands for narrative, colour and adaptability – and existing in steep contrast to the restraint exhibited when his father ran the show. Still, going the military route might seem an eccentric move. When Patek launched the aviation-style 5524 Pilot Travel Time in 2015, it at least attempted (rather amusingly, I thought) the suggestion of historic skin in the game, thanks to a couple of ‘hour-angle’ navigational watches it had knocked out in the 1930s, now in its Geneva museum. The 5226 carries no such precedent, but nor do the times demand it in the same way. There may still be purists who expect strict adherence to codes and lineage, but the military watch has vaulted free of its own backstory to become simply one more stylistic choice.

Take IWC’s Mark watches: stemming from perhaps the most storied and illustrious of all the military timepieces, and the ultimate archetype of the style, the Mark 11. Made in the late-1940s for the British Royal Air Force, and worn by its pilots across four decades, the original Mark 11 descended from the development of the robust, highly-engineered ‘Wrist Watch Wearable’ models used by British armed forces during World War II, and made by 12 companies including IWC, Omega, Jaeger-leCoultre and Britain’s own Vertex.

As the Mark 11 became collectible in the ‘90s, IWC was canny enough to bring it back as the Mark XII, which would set off a succession of iterations that continues to this day. Once a relatively niche corner of the collection aimed at enthusiasts rather than punters (and for a long time overshadowed by that other WWII descendant, the Big Pilot), the modern Mk 11 casts its net more broadly. There’s still the black dial, but emerald green and deep blue round out the offer; softened and refined with a new finish, it’s less about utilitarian legacy and more about expression and choice.

Blancpain Air Command. Photograph © Adam Goodison for QP Magazine UK

Rather more niche, and considerably more expensive, is Blancpain’s Air Command, the tremendously handsome revival model introduced in 2017. The original was intended for US Air Force pilots in the 1950s but was evidently never commissioned – only around a dozen prototypes were made. Still, Blancpain rightly surmised that the design was far too desirable to lie forever in the archives and brought it back with all the refinements and polish of modern high-luxe watchmaking: including a de rigeur antique black-and-tan colour way. That was a 500-piece limited edition, but the current titanium iteration, with a dial and bezel in inky marine blue, is unlimited, lively, and benefits from a clean view of the high-tech fly-back movement. Interestingly, Blancpain offers the watch in a reduced 36.2mm sizing, and in gold as well as titanium (at both sizes). The idea of the historically correct military chronograph as unisex style statement is hardly an expected development, but a welcome one.

Panerai Submersible Forze Speciali PAM02239

The relationship to a military past is more fundamental for one brand more than any other, and more problematic too. For years, Panerai has been moving away from tales of World War II frogmen and torpedoes, but recently moved to reclaim the military narrative with a watch tied to the country’s modern day special forces, the Submersible Forze Speciali. For a distinctly non-utilitarian £25,500, you get a hulking, high-tech chronograph with a 47mm case in black-coated titanium, a blue ceramic bezel, crosshair sub-dials and a distinctly tactical air. Most notably, its ‘time to target’ function – a variation on the yacht-timer complication – allows you to count down to any given event. Tick, tick… boom?

Subtle it is not – but it does at least add new dimension to the idea that a battlefield-inspired wristwatch should be an inherently retro affair. The history is there if you want to find it, but this boys’ toy will put up quite the fight without it.