What is an Aviator Automatic Watch?

Just a few decades ago, watches were relied upon as the main source of time telling.  Today, we tend to rely more heavily on our smartphones or other devices for this information.  However, just because timepieces aren’t necessarily our go-to for time telling doesn’t mean we aren’t still fascinated and obsessed with them.  In fact, many watch styles of today pay homage to the watch styles of yesteryear by showcasing their iconic style.  Aviator automatic watches are one of these watches. Styled to look and feel like the aviation timepiece that first entered the scene during the golden age of aviation, an aviator automatic watch bears some of the same recognizable features that made the original “pilot’s watch” so beloved.  


The first aviator watch was developed by Louis Cartier in 1904.  At the time, men were still accustomed to wearing pocket watches and only women were wearing wristlet styled watches.  However, there was a need for a pilot to have quick access to the time without having to fumble around in a pocket while attempting to pilot the tricky controls of the first flying machines.  The first aviator watch was encased in a square shape, however shortly thereafter as the aviator watch was used in military scenarios, they were required to be circular.  

By 1909 the iconic features of today’s modern aviator automatic watches were in place.  Most notably, the marking on the dial were large and extremely luminous.  The crown is almost always large and ratcheted.  As time went by, the actual size of the watch case grew.  Originally, the watch case was approximately 38 millimeters, however today’s standard aviator automatic watch is anywhere between 42 millimeters to 47 millimeters, making it larger than life in recognizable size.  


There are several features and complications (functions) that set the aviator automatic watch apart from other classic men’s watches.  Here are the distinct features you’ll find on an aviator automatic.

  • Large, round case.  The aviator watch, often called a “big pilot watch” is recognizable mostly because of its large watch case size.  Measuring in diameter anywhere between 42 millimeters to 47 millimeters, this watch is in a class of oversized watches that demand to be noticed.
  • Black dial and luminous markings.  Originally designed so that a pilot could easily see the time by glancing at his wrist, the contrasting black dial and luminous markings of an aviator automatic watch make it easy to see.  Additionally, there is usually a triangle marking at 12:00.  
  • Automatic movement.  An aviator watch is generally automatic in its movement.  This means the watch is powered by wrist movement.  A metal weight inside the watch spins every time the wearer moves their wrist.  This is different from quartz movement.  
  • Ratcheted crown.  The final defining feature of an aviator automatic watch is large ratcheted crown on the side.  The crown is used for setting the watch and on an aviator automatic watch the crown is often referred to as “the onion” because of the lines engraved in the sides of the crown and the large size.  

Aviator automatic watches are popular today with modern aviators and general watch enthusiasts alike.  Their iconic style provides a throwback to the golden age of aviation which can be appreciated by everyone.  Many luxury watch brands have their own line of pricey aviator automatic watches which are highly sought after.  However, you can obtain a gorgeous, high quality luxury aviator watch from a micro-brand for a fraction of the cost.  Purchasing an aviator watch from a micro-brand ensures your watch will come with the same quality you’d expect from a pricier luxury brand at a price that won’t break the bank.  

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