This story is part of the GP100, our annual roundup of the best products of the year. To see the full list of winners, grab the latest issue of Gear Patrol Magazine.
Vintage-inspired watches are on the come-up and have been for years. From midcentury racing chronographs to military timepieces only issued to servicemen, nouveau-vintage pieces are — to varying degrees of adherence — modernized, reimagined versions of their respective originals. And though the vintage trend spawned dozens of reissues over the calendar year — including some that are simply an easy cash-grab — it also informed one of the most unique watches in recent memory: the Blancpain Air Command.
Few people have ever gotten their hands on the obscure original that inspired the modern Air Command. In the 1950s, Swiss manufacturer Blancpain was contracted to produce the now-iconic Fifty Fathoms dive watch for the U.S. Navy, to be distributed by Blancpain’s American distributor, Allen Tornek. The Air Command, a flyback chronograph where the chronograph hand can be reset to zero and started again with a single button push, was then constructed roughly to the design of the famed Type 20 military chronograph and intended for use by the U.S. Air Force. However, only a dozen timepieces were ever produced, and the watch never made it to full serial production.
In other words, this puppy is all kinds of rare. Once every blue moon, an original Air Command will surface at an auction, hammer for somewhere north of $100,000 and quietly fade into the ether.
“This is one of the most intriguing watches in Blancpain’s history, and a real mystery watch,” says Jeffrey Kingston, noted collector, author and speaker on watches. “Did Blancpain create the Air Command and then Tornek tried to sell it to the Air Force, or the other way around? It’s the classic chicken-and-the-egg question.”
Whatever the answer, someone seems to have done some head-scratching at Blancpain before the company created a new limited-edition version of the watch, available in a run of 500 pieces. Apart from a few concessions to modernity — an upgraded, in-house movement with automatic winding, Super-LumiNova-coated hands and indices, and sapphire crystals among them — the new Air Command is otherwise a dead ringer for the original.
Like the original, the design of the modern watch remains utility-focused. It is intended for pilots, and it can record intervals up to 12 hours in duration using the chronograph function (the original’s running-seconds subdial has been replaced with a 12-hour subdial, though both models feature 30-minute subdials at three o’clock). The dial features both a 1/5th-seconds track and a base-1,000 tachymeter, used to compute speed or distance traveled in conjunction with the chronograph. Then there’s the rotating countdown bezel, used to measure remaining time in an event, and the aforementioned flyback function, making it a cinch to time intervals such as one-minute holding patterns. In other words, the Air Command is a textbook example of a pilot’s watch, and it oozes midcentury cool.
Kingston, a pilot and flight instructor himself, loves the utility of the Air Command: “The feature that you don’t see very often is the countdown bezel. What you’re always thinking about as you’re flying is the time to the next ‘fix,’ which is a destination or a waypoint. A countdown bezel allows you to measure the amount of time to the next fix, and not many watches that call themselves pilots watches have this feature.”
But the question on the mind of every watch nerd out there has nothing to do with its usefulness or historical accuracy — it’s a question of laziness. If watch companies continue relying on recreations of vintage pieces, what will the iconic designs of tomorrow look like? Updated versions of the iconic designs of yesteryear?
The Air Command occupies a special place in the modern horological landscape. Having never been commercially available — hell, having never been available even to the U.S. military — a modern remake gives the general public access to a product that it would otherwise never have been able to appreciate, let alone own.
Case Diameter: 42.5mm
Power Reserve: 50 hours