Golden Age Of Aviation: The Watches That Flew On TWA, Pan Am, And The Concorde
Today, the thought of air travel conjures images of cramped seats, crying babies, and borderline inedible food. While it’s true that these inconveniencies are the price we pay for affordable airfare, we can’t help but long for the luxuries typical of the Golden Age of Flight. So, today on Watchonista, we daydream about the watches we could have spotted on flights during those halcyon days.
Call me Mrs. Maisel, but I can’t help but long for the luxury of those golden days of air travel. Women were always dressed to impress with an impeccable hairstyle. Men were always well dressed in a suit with manners that would put many of today’s men to shame. The airplanes of the time tended to be overly stylized, especially in comparison to today’s minimalist tendencies. But they were comfortable and inviting, and made you feel at home.
To put things into perspective, the golden age of flight lasted from the 1940s into the early 1980s. The picture-perfect flight attendants politely welcomed you aboard with a smile and usually a glass of champagne. While you were comfortably seated, they would serve you a five-star meal on fine china. There were no plastic plates or lidded cups that are reminiscent of a toddler's sippy cup anywhere to be seen. It was a glamourous affair as if you were being entertained at a friend’s house.
But flying was extremely expensive back then. Usually, if people needed to travel, they would take a bus, train, car, or boat instead of a plane. As a fan of those times, this writer wonders: What watches would we spot while flying during the Golden Age of Flight?
Pan American World Airways was the exemplar of luxury travel, they were principal overseas carriers, for both passengers and mail. Pan Am were pioneers of commercial air travel and were the first to introduce many of the luxuries we know today.
It is quite widely known that Pan Am approached Rolex with a task: Create a timepiece capable of telling the time in two different time zones. First, Rolex came up with the GMT Master reference 6542 with a 38mm Oyster case, black dial, and striking 24-hour red hand. It was a great help to pilots during their transatlantic flights, allowing them to keep time with home, and keeping them from getting confused by the constant time changes. Later on, the watch was famously worn by the villain in Goldfinger and gained the nickname “Pussy Galore.”
In regards to passengers, however, we can draw a certain profile of people flying during that age. Considering the expense of a plane ticket, we can conclude that the jet-set of the time were quite selective. Men would probably be seen wearing an American LeCoultre (called LeCoultre or Vacheron LeCoultre until 1985 in the US). These were made with a movement from the manufacture in Le Sentier but housed in a slightly different case. One of the most widely known is the LeCoultre Deep Sea Alarm Automatic. Ladies would likely find themselves wearing some kind of Art Deco watch, like Marilyn Monroe’s Blancpain.
Trans World Airlines (TWA) has returned, in force, these past two years by opening the TWA Hotel at its iconic Terminal 5 at JFK International Airport. Their sleek, mid-century modern architecture has become a go-to spot for Instagram moments and lovers of the ‘60s. Don't feel like making the trek to Queens? They also opened the TWA Lounge at One World Trade Center with a glorious view of the Big Apple but also of JFK Airport. Part of the “Big Four,” TWA was the airline of choice for Americans taking intercontinental flights.
Honestly, I'm in love with Breitling’s Breitling Navitimer B01 Chronograph 43 TWA edition timepiece. I’m sure that in the 1960s you could find a Breitling Navitimer on the wrist of many pilots. Not to mention that the watch was made with a flight-specific slide rule, making it the easy choice for pilots and even astronauts like Scott Carpenter.
For many female travelers, elegance was at the forefront of their minds. I dream of a time where guests in the cabin could be seen wearing something classic and timeless like the Cartier Tank Vermeil mechanical from the ’70s with its stylish “red” dial. The iconic Cartier Tank is also a timeless selection for discerning travelers. Hard to go wrong with such a classic shape.
While the passengers would be flying their daily flight from New York to Los Angeles for business or for simple leisure, would be seen on the other hand, gentlemen, would be wearing an Ultra-Thin Gold Vacheron Constantin in a modern square-shaped case. Vacheron Constantin beautifully revived the timepiece in 2010 with the Historique Ultra-Fine 1968.
Going from New York to London in 2 hours and 52 minutes? Yes, please! To this day, many airlines have tried to replicate the British Airways Concorde flights, but results have been lackluster.
The Concorde’s life was short but quite successful, and flying the supersonic transport was an event in itself. The average ticket price was $7,995, the equivalent of $12,700 in 2020, making it 30 times more expensive than the cheapest option for the route. Therefore, it's not a huge leap to guess that Concorde passenger were wealthy and, most likely, wearing their best attire, including watches.
This iconic airplane was primarily used for trans-Atlantic flights, so pilots needed a watch capable of keeping up with their crazy schedule. While Pan Am initially had their Rolex GMT Master ref. 6542, Concorde pilots were often seen wearing the Rolex 1675 GMT Master 'Root Beer' in solid yellow gold. There was also an impactful Rolex advertisement in the late 1960s that said, “If you were flying the Concorde tomorrow, you would wear a Rolex."
While pilots lived to break the sound barrier with a gold Rolex on their wrists, passengers were comfortable in the all first-class cabin. Reputedly, the service in the Concorde was flawless and passengers expected no less from their timepiece. So, what could be better than an Omega Speedmaster? After all, this iconic watch took a roundtrip to the moon, making it the perfect watch to record a record-shattering flight time.
We could talk all day about what watches that would have flown on those iconic airlines. Although two of these airlines and the Concorde don’t fly anymore, I can’t help but daydream about all the watches I would spot during these golden years. And while many brands were worn on the flights, I decided to focus solely on my favorite vintage timepieces.