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.
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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 an adapted 16 Ligne pocket watch movement the calibre 51S. 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 The General Watch Co) 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By the end of 1934 the 51S movement had been superseded by the slightly amended 51-10 version and the shock protection replaced with the Helvetia’s own system patented in 1929.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.
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.
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. Helvetia continued to make them 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!