To some – no, make that to many – IWC’s Mk 11 is the definitive pilot’s watch. Even though it didn’t arrive until 1948, the Mk 11 Navigational Wristwatch did more than any other timepiece to establish the requirements and the look of every pilot’s watch since. As it’s pretty much perfect, those that have followed seem somehow rococo, fussy, overdrawn.
Birthed the Modern Wristwatch
It must be remembered that pilots’ watches gave birth to the modern wristwatch, not the other way around. It answered a demand created by the new field of aviation, because the various wristwatches which appeared before 1904, when Santos-Dumont asked Louis Cartier to devise a timepiece for use during flight that was less cumbersome to use than a pocket watch, were isolated cul-de-sacs.
Cartier’s Santos described not merely a timepiece suitable for the aviator to check times mid-flight: unintentionally, it formed the template for any small watch strapped to the wrist. The original design, which carries on to this day, suggests nothing particularly “pilot-esque” about the Santos, other than it being worn on the wrist. Conversely, the Mk 11, even without the hindsight that tells us it’s a pilot’s watch, is inarguably a purposeful tool watch, with superlative legibility an overriding priority.
This must be considered in context. Between the Santos and the Mk 11 were pioneering models from Zenith, various Weems-based watches (including, crucially, Longines’ Hour Angle a.k.a.“Lindbergh”), IWC’s own “Special Watch for Pilots” of 1936, assorted “big crown” fliegeruhren designed for the Luftwaffe for use in WWII, plus countless models from Breitling, Universal Geneve, Gallet and too many others to list. Some were given names by their makers that revealed their intent as pilots’ watches, e.g. Gallet’s Flight Officer of 1939; others were simply general tool watches – especially chronographs – that happened to go airborne.
Rooted in Purpose
IWC’s Mk 11, however, was designed from the outset as a navigational tool for aviators at the behest of the RAF; sales to commercial airlines and civilians came much later in its 36-year lifespan. But it was not born in isolation. Its direct predecessor, called the Mk X by collectors but which is formally a “W.W.W” from the “Dirty Dozen”, was not a pilot’s watch, as it was produced for the British Army. That said, at 35mm, it fit perfectly between IWC’s slightly bulkier 37.5mm 1936 creation and the 36mm Mk 11, and its dial, too, was highly legible, as was the 1936 model.
Inherited, too, by the Mk 11 from its elder siblings was high resistance to magnetism and water resistance. Unlike the Mk X’s snap-back, the Mk 11 featured a robust screwed-in case back. Visually, the Mk 11 differed from the earlier models in having a sweep seconds hand rather than small seconds at 6 o’clock. Inside was the sublime, chronometer-grade Calibre 89 movement with hacking seconds, designed by the great Albert Pellaton. Where it exceeded the others was in its anti-magnetic properties.
While the earlier Mk X featured non-magnetic parts in the movement, the Mk 11 added a soft-iron inner case that created a Faraday cage for far greater resistance to magnetism. This was deemed crucial because of the exponential increase in high-powered electronics present in aircraft, a technological revolution accelerated by World War II. And these created magnetic fields which would have affected timekeeping.
It must be recalled that earlier pilots’ watches were used to track location by coordinating the time with external radio signals, which – by WWII – had been replaced by more sophisticated methods. Pilots needed accurate timing, rather than the error correction afforded by the Weems design, created to compensate for various errors, or the rotating bezel with marker, seen first in IWC’s 1936 pilot watch (or more likely, Longines’ similar offering for the Czech Air Force in 1935). This accomplished pretty much what a Weems would do for error compensation, without breaching a patent.
So many variants of Mk 11 exist that the watch deserves a book of its own. The saga would encompass everything from how it got its name and why it’s the only one with Arabic numerals (nothing to do with IWC but with Royal Air Force numbering), how issued watches were meticulously serviced annually, how dials were replaced: it’s as fascinating a story as any. A case in point: my 1952 Mk 11 sports a dial that didn’t exist before 1963 – “Hook 7” and with Tritium “T”. Then there are the first models from 1948-1952, with a “12” instead of a triangle at the 12 o’clock position. Every ’48 I’ve seen has had its dial replaced with the triangle type.
Mk 11s weren’t always as sought-after as they are today. I recall the dealer telling me how he bought boxes of them for £25 per watch on the Clerkenwell Road and sent them all to collectors in Asia. By the time the watch revival hit in the late 1980s, with invigorated passion for both vintage and new mechanical watches, the Mk 11 was a bona fide collector’s item and an auction catalogue regular. Today, depending on the watch’s condition, slight variations in the dial and the territory of the auction, you can expect to part with anything from £1500 to £5000 for a Mk 11. And £1500 will get you one which is knackered at best.
After a long run – 1948/9 to 1983/4 – the Mk 11 was retired. But IWC observed the Mk 11’s value climb in auction and noted how collectors coveted this relatively obscure watch with a passion rarely shown for contemporary, commercially-available offerings. Following a brief period without a replacement, the Mk XII filled the gap from 1994-1999.
While it added date and an automatic movement, its looks remained close to the Mk 11. This watch enjoyed a relatively short lifespan and will prove to be a future collectible, so grab one if you see one. The buzz for it started a couple of years ago. While it doesn’t enjoy the military credibility of the Mk 11, it’s a gem, as is the Mk XV.
Those that have followed in the “MK” line only depart in degrees from the original recipe, so the new Mk XVIII maintains the spirit of a watch celebrating its 70th anniversary. And that spirit is a sense of purpose and purity. As for mine, it’s the one watch with which I will never part. Then again, it was the first serious vintage watch I ever acquired. For a princely £250.
IWC’s Mark Series Watches
It began as a field watch for the infantry (Mark X) before it was reconfigured for the Royal Air Force (Mark 11). As the ultimate in everyday utility, IWC has kept its “Mark” series watches alive and well in its collection through the years. Apparently, “XIII” and “XIV” were skipped on superstitious grounds