These days, guys may sometimes wear watches for show, but for the aviators over the past century, the timepieces made a real difference. Chronographs, tachymeters, and all the other complications you’ll find in the best pilot watches are time-tested tools for keeping an aviator in the air—but can also be useful in your everyday life.
“Pilot watches are one of the coolest gear watches because they have this rich history that’s dictated their design,” says the founder and CEO of watch retail site Crown & Caliber Hamilton Powell. Cartier created not only the first pilot’s watch, but one of the first-ever wristwatches—called the Santos—in 1904 for famous Brazilian pilot Albert Santos Dumont, who was struggling to read his pocket watch mid-flight. Unlike many round pilot watches today, it had a square bezel and Roman numeral hour markers. “Today, onboard computers take care of the necessity of the pilot watch, but the spirit hasn’t been lost,” Powell says.
But if you’re considering a pilot watch, there are a few things you should know before you buy. If you’re looking to use all of a pilot watch’s capability, consider one with a chronograph—a stopwatch function controlled by two pushers on either side of the crown. A tachymeter—denoted by small markers on the dial starting at 12:00—can help you read distance over time. Some digital watches also display altitude, temperature, and barometric pressure. If you’re looking for one that just looks great on your wrist, be sure to choose one with a diameter that isn’t wider than your wrist itself. Watches between 38 and 42 millimeters wide are a safe bet for most guys.
“These watches are casual enough for a T-shirt, but can also look great with a suit,” Powell says. “And they can easily showcase their personality at a glance.” If you often wear a button-up shirt, choose one with a slim case. Sportier watches with large cases and busier dials often look better with casual attire, while simple, slim watches with fewer complications are a safer bet when wearing a sport coat or a suit.
No matter how you wear them, scroll down to see our list of the best watches to consider—whether you’re looking for all the functionality or want one that has a pilot watch-inspired style—starting at under $200.