Helvetia 1930/40s Pilots Watches
As well as manufacturing sports style watches in the 1930s Helvetia also provided a range of watches aimed at pilots that have gone on to become firm favourites among collectors.
Scroll down for more...
During the 1930s and 1940s a variety of watch manufacturers produced pilots’ watches of a very similar pattern. They are often known as 'Flieger' or '1928 Pattern' watches. They are usually larger than standard for watches of the period at around 40mm and have large luminous hands and numerals to allow easy reading of the time even in low light and a large crown so that adjustments can be made with gloved hands.
Along with their range of ‘Sports’ watches Helvetia also made several variations of these pilots’ watches and they are among the most popular among collectors today.
Part of Helvetia Advert From 1939
Helvetia started producing pilots’ watches in about 1932. They were approximately 41mm in diameter and were powered by the Helvetia calibre 51S movement. Helvetia fitted these first watches with, what I believe to be, a variant of the Depollier/Brun shock protection system that they had been using since the late 1920s in their sports watches. (For more information see the Sports Watches and Shock Protection pages). The cases were usually made of chrome plated brass and had a hinged inner and outer back cover. They also had large fixed lugs for passing through a long, wide strap that could be fastened over flying clothing if required.
To mark this new range of watches Helvetia adapted their standard logo with the addition of a propeller. Initially this was static below the name but in January 1933 they registered their famous spinning propeller logo.
Soon after the introduction of the 41mm version a smaller 36mm version was added. These used several different movements initially, I have seen Patria (another brand of Louis Brandt & Frere) and Fabrique d'Horlogerie de Fontainemelon (FHF), movements fitted to these watches.
By the end of 1934 the 51S movement had been superseded by the slightly amended 51-10 version and the shock protection replaced with the Helvetia’s own system patented in 1929. Within another year or so the movements used in the 36mm version had also been standardised as the Helvetia 81-24 again using Helvetia’s own shock protection.
In 1935 Helvetia produced a central seconds version of their calibre 81 movement. There quickly followed a central seconds version of the smaller Helvetia pilots watch using this movement.
These seem to be rare and the example pictured below is the only one I have actually seen.
During the 1930s a variety of dials were in use but after the start of World War 2 the majority of watches seem to have been of the standard style with the numerals 1 to 12 fully illuminated and fitted with ‘Cathedral’ style hands. By the mid 1930s a thick glass crystal also started being used, this was to help minimise condensation due to the change in temperature when flying at altitude .
A variety of dial types on 1930s Helvetia Pilots watches
As well as producing watches under their own name Helvetia also produced pilots’ watches for sale by retailers. I have seen pilots’ watches badged to Aero, Helbros, Huber and Savoy that have Helvetia cases with Helvetia serial numbers and are fitted with Helvetia movements. Often the movements are later improved versions of those fitted to Helvetias own watches.
Each of the two sizes of watch also came in rotating and non-rotating bezel versions. The rotating bezel version had a pointer attached to the inside of the bezel under the glass. This could be used to keep track of time elapsed which was used as a navigational aid by pilots. The larger 41mm case without the rotating bezel was numbered 7010 and that with the rotating bezel 7011. The smaller 36mm cases were numbered 3410 and 3411 again without and with the rotating bezel.
The rotating bezels have a knurled surface to make it easier to grip the bezel for turning whereas the not rotating bezel versions are smooth and clip onto the case, though the earliest example I've found pictured at the top of the page has a non-rotating bezel that is knurled and screws on.
Part of Helvetia Advert From 1938
Still from 1939 Czech Film Kouzelny Dum (The Magic House)
1934 Article From Flight Magazine Illustrating an Aero Branded Helvetia Pilots Watch Explaining the Function of the Rotating Bezel
1934 Advert by G & M Lane For an Aero Branded Helvetia Pilots Watch Explaining the Function of the Rotating Bezel
1940 Advert for Helvetia Pilots Watches & Chronographs
Helvetia’s pilots’ watches seem to have been particularly popular in Germany, though G & M Lane sold them in the UK in the 1930s under their Aero brand and Helbros similarly in the US during World War 2.
An interesting example of a Helbros branded version of the smaller Helvetia Pilots' watch is one that belonged to Damien Parer, a famous Australian wartime film cameraman that was gifted to the collection of the State Library of New South Wales by his son.
Damien Parer originally joined up as an official war photographer with the Australian Department of Information and was sent to Greece and North Africa. Later he was sent to New Guinea where he filmed along the Kokoda Trail including sequences used in the film 'Kokoda Front Line!' which won an Oscar in 1943.
Apparently disillusioned with Department of Information rules he joined Paramount News in the US and that is probably when he picked up this watch.
While with Paramount he filmed on Guam and then Peleliu where while filming walking backwards in front of advancing infantry he was killed on 17th September 1944.
It is unusual to see pictures of someone wearing a watch and know exactly which watch it is but luckily Damien Parer had some photos taken, including a set on Guam, where his watch is visible and thanks to his son's gift and the distinctive style of the watch we do know. It also shows some of the uses that these 'Pilot' watches may have been put too that didn't include flying.
An unusual variety of the Helvetia Pilots' watch is pictured below. As can be seen the case has one normal lug at the top and a hook or tab at the bottom. I think this must have been worn on the pilot in some way, or attached to their clothing, but I’m not quite sure how it would work. If anyone has any ideas please let me know.
These watches are very rare, I have only found a handful and this is the only one I have seen which has not had a lug manufactured at the bottom of the case to replace the tab. I have added pictures of some of them, a close look betrays the added lugs.
These cases have a clip on back and appear to be made with a dull finish. They are numbered 7013 instead of the normal 7011 for the large case with turning bezel.
There are other features that are unusual in these watches, the movements have no shock protection and the dials all have a red 24hr track added, I have only seen this added to dials in these particular cases.
Perhaps the most interesting feature is that all of them, apart from one that I am not sure of, have the text
'SVOJINA VOJSKE' or ‘Army Property’ in Croatian added to the dial, or show signs of this text having been removed and overpainted. I purchased the watch with the intact tab from Bosnia and it looks as if these watches were a special order for the Army Air Force of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The serial numbers date them to 1940 though they may possibly date to after the German invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941 when Croatia joined the axis powers.
These are the only 1928 Pattern watches I have ever seen that have official military markings from any manufacturer.
Helvetia continued to make their Pilots' watches up until the end of the war in 1945 when, perhaps not surprisingly, it looks as if production stopped.
There is a postscript to the story of Helvetia’s pilots’ watches however. Over time I have noticed several watches that use a later Helvetia movement, the calibre 80C which was introduced in the mid 1940s. These watches also have a stainless steel back, marked as such, and have the word ‘Shocprotec’ on the dial which again differentiates them from the standard Helvetia pilots’ watch and is more reminiscent of Helvetia’s 1950s watches. All of these watches have an unusual variation of Helvetia’s shock protection fitted, Helvetia did not patent this version until 1953. I have managed to obtain serial numbers for two of these watches which dates them both to around 1955, actually the serial numbers are within 50 of each other. Putting all of the above together it looks as if Helvetia resurrected their iconic 1930s pilots’ watch 10 years after they stopped making them in 1945 though in the same classic style, without the serial number and patent evidence you would never know!
It looks as if this resurrection of Helvetia's pilot watch didn't last long and that it finally was the end for these fantastic watches around 1960. If anyone has anything to add however please let me know!