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March 30, 2010

War Zones

Ryann Cooley

They may have their origins in army tanks and battleships, but military-inspired watches are for officer and gentleman alike.

War," as the late Mr. Edwin Starr used to ask rhetorically, "What is it good for?"

Fashion designers, at least, seem to think it's a great source of inspiration. Military styles dominated recent catwalks. There was the army-green bomber jacket at Alessandro Dell'Acqua, a heavily brocaded Sergeant Pepper style at Dolce & Gabbana, and Burberry did its classic trench in everything from washed leather to gold lamé. Though in truth, watches were the original signposts of military chic.

World War I was the impetus for perhaps the most significant timepiece trend of the 20th century: the wristwatch. What with the mortars, artillery shells, and poison gas, you had little time to fumble in the pocket of your uniform to check the hour. But while it was only during WWI that the wristwatch became the military and civilian standard, records show that Girard-Perregaux was making them, complete with a protective grill around the dial, for Kai-ser Wilhelm of Germany and his navy as early as 1880. General John Pershing of the U.S. armed forces was one of the first men to wear the now classic Cartier Tank, which was inspired by Renault's sketches for a combat vehicle that made its debut in a 1916 battle.

Although Cartier's Tank—probably the best-known military-inspired watch—is a fairly delicate affair, the rough-and-tumble nature of warfare necessitates a more robust mechanism. In 1936 the Italian firm Panerai created its coveted Radiomir overscale divers' watches for the navy during Italy's war with Ethiopia. World War II sparked the introduction of Breitling and IWC watches with extralarge faces for military pilots. Breguet made the substantial Type XX (now called the Type XXI) at the request of the French air force, and Blancpain's Fifty Fathoms was borne out of the specific needs of the French version of the Navy SEALs (nageurs de combat, to be exact).

Indeed traces of military DNA can be found in most watch brands. Patek Philippe's Calatrava line, for example, includes one of the most discreet and genteel timepieces you will ever see fastened around a gentleman's wrist. The hinged back, called an officer's case, can be opened so that you can admire the movement, and it recalls the protective covers with which those in the trenches shielded their precious timepieces. For the urban warrior the feature is, one would hope, purely decorative.