Military Grade


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Pilots in aircraft both slow and supersonic have relied on accurate time for generations, and the digital era hasn’t supplanted the A-13A’s instantly readable, tapered white hands.

These days, there are very few instances when the word bespoke can truly be applied with sincerity and authenticity. Especially when the item in question is an analog watch. It isn’t hard to find a watch today. They are showcased in amply lit retail cabinets and velvet-lined displays brimming with diver’s, chronographs, field watches and even “pilot’s” watches—row upon row, meticulously arranged. But it is highly unlikely that any of these timepieces will have been made and tested for the wearer by the actual maker. One contemporary example of modern bespoke production is the A-13A pilot’s watch. This gem is neither found at stores, nor does it get worn without the maker and wearer getting to know each other along the path to purchase.

In the case of Italian engineer and pilot Paolo Fanton, his foray into the world of custom, small-run watchmaking has brought him a assemblage of clients and like-minded friends across the globe. The vast majority of them are actual pilots who value the simple elegance of a pilot’s watch.

“I started putting the first drafts of the design on paper 10 years ago, when I was considering using the Lemania 5100,” says Fanton. “The first prototype was completed in December 2015 … S/N 001, the first production item was produced in September 2017.”

Timepieces in this genre are expected to do two jobs well for pilots—tell them the actual time, and provide them with easily read segments of time, such as the 120 seconds needed to complete a standard 360-degree turn, perfectly coordinated. Flying in circles is apparently far more precise than running in them, and aircraft cockpit instrumentation is the perfect marriage of form and function. Fanton’s original glass-and-stainless steel progeny has already evolved into a second variant, the “HA” for high-altitude flying. The A-13A-HA was commissioned by an elite group of U2 spy-plane pilots who sought out a watch that would work outside of their pressure suits. Not content with just one clock in the cockpit, they chose Fanton’s creation as the basis for a special pressure-compensating variant that would survive the extreme conditions at 70,000 feet.

It is in the rarified environment of military jet cockpits that Fanton’s design was born. Its face is more than just an homage to the original and venerable A-13A cockpit clock that has graced military aircraft cockpits for more than half a century; thick hands that semaphore time with incredible clarity, numbers that replicate the original military-spec typeface that has been read by generations of fliers— whether in straight-and-level flight; in a fierce dogfight or when a “Maverick” moment strikes, and they ask for permission to buzz the tower.

Before the author’s watch arrived in Hawai‘i, its course started with correspondence between maker and buyer. That revealed a story that is oft repeated with Fanton’s other clients—both of them are pilots and share a passion for purity in design, exceeding specifications, and yes, stripping all that does not serve an integral function. Common threads emerged between exchanges, and the watchmaker discovered that his new client was embarking on his own personal journey, and the watch being made would soon become a part of that.

While the steps along the way to wearing a customized watch like this can be few and small, they can also include fun options, such as being able to choose one’s serial number. Fanton tests each watch personally, and he pens a letter to recipients prior to shipping it. The author’s watch in particular, S/N #110/500 was chosen to reflect one of his vehicles, a Land Rover Defender 110—itself one of a batch of just 500 that were made for the U.S. market in 1993. Like the watch, the vehicle is simplicity, defined. Both are basic, classically timeless—perhaps “iconic” is a better term—in design, and each of their forms leans toward the functional end of the spectrum. Similar to the vehicle, the timepiece is the embodiment of functional performance. Paired together, they reflect a subtle appreciation for an aesthetic that is free of superfluous frills and handcrafted to ensure decades of service.

Will Fanton continue to pursue his new role as watchmaker? The short answer is yes.

“Sure, if only for the human factor,” says Fanton. “It’s great to deal with true enthusiasts.”

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