If the concept of pilot’s chronograph is well-established today, it owes its origins to a series of legendary watches. Think about the WWII Flieger Chronographs for the Luftwaffe, the 1953 Breitling Co-Pilot Avi 765 and, of course, the Type 20 Chronograph of the French Aeronavale. The latter has gained true cult status among military and pilot watch enthusiasts and has come to define an entire generation of aviation instrument watches. Many attempts have been made to resurrect the concept, among which are the famous watches by Breguet. Recently, we announced the comeback of one of the suppliers of Type 20, a brand named Airain. Today is the big day, as the brand presents its first model, which is a really cool re-edition of the original Airain Type 20.
The Type 20 Watches
The original concept of pilot chronographs owes a lot to German Flieger watches. Produced during WWII by Hanhart or Tutima, these watches were commissioned by the Luftwaffe. On the contrary to the B-Uhr (short for “Beobachtungs-Uhren” or Observation watches in English), oversized 3-hand watches which were made for observation purposes and to synchronize bomb launches, these chronographs were for pilots to enable them to make in-flight calculations. The concept was clear and functional: a circa 40mm diameter, a steel or chrome-plated case with a rotating fluted bezel, a two-pusher chronograph and a two-register black dial with highly contrasted and legible Arabic numerals (luminous, of course).
The French government commissioned the Type 20 chronographs for the French Air Force, the Centre d’Essai en Vol (the CEV) and the Aéronavale (naval aviation). Type 20 refers to an internal military specification – note that military watches were named “20” in Arabic numerals, while Breguet used “XX” for its civilian models. Following an open invitation to tender, multiple brands were selected to manufacture the Type 20 Chronographs: Breguet, Mathey Tissot (which produces some of Breguet’s watches, hence the resemblance between these two), Chronofixe, Airain, Auricoste, Dodane and Vixa (the latter being unique in this list, as it uses older Hanhart movements and case architecture, recovered by the French government as payment of war damages).
The concept behind the Type 20 (and later Type 21) watches was clear and effective: a steel or chrome-plated 38mm chronograph watch with a rotating bezel (fluted with a marker or with a 12h scale), two-pusher architecture, a black dial with two or three sub-counters, large luminous Arabic numerals and hands, and mostly, the addition of a function called “retour en vol” or flyback. This complication was extremely practical for pilots as it allowed them to perform successive calculations – thanks to this function, a single press on the pusher at 4 o’clock stops and resets the chronograph, instead of the standard 3-step (stop-reset-start) operation.
Among the many brands producing Type 20 watches was Airain, a French brand largely associated with these watches, even though many more models came out of this manufacture. However, the combination of the quartz crisis and the end of the contract with French military forces brought Airain to a standstill during the 1970s.
Airain is back, thanks to a Dutch enthusiast
As we explained earlier this year, the brand Airain has been revived. And its thanks to Dutch watch enthusiast and entrepreneur Tom van Wijlick, who already rebooted Lebois & Co. with the introduction of two new watches, the Avantgarde and the Venturist. Having a weak spot for vintage watches and finding out that another great brand from the past was for sale, he immediately jumped on the occasion.
It is no surprise that these two names are linked once again. Lebois & Co. was carefully crafted by the renowned Dodane watchmaking family, which also produced the now-legendary Airain brand. Van Wijlick has managed to secure the trademark rights for Airain. He has united the two brands (Lebois and Airain) under the flag of his Compagnie des Montres Lebois & Cie.
The Dutchman has announced plans to create a whole family of historically relevant watch brands and is quietly eyeing other classics. To fund his plans, Van Wijlick has set up a crowd investment campaign, much like the ones we saw from Reservoir Watch and Czapek & Cie. a few years back. The campaign is now accepting pre-registrations on Eureeca, an equity crowdfunding platform for serious investors.
But the best has just landed, as the first watch under the revived Airain brand is here… and it is an ultra-cool, faithful re-edition of the legendary Type 20 Flyback Chronograph.
The Airain Type 20 Re-Edition
No question about it, the re-edition created by Van Wijlick is simply, clearly, utterly faithful to the original watch and, as such, makes for a super-attractive piece. But this new piece is more than just a pretty face, as the Dutch entrepreneur has pushed the concept quite far in terms of execution, historical relevance, mechanics, and (best of all) also in terms of price.
Looking at the new watch, the filiation is undeniable. Sure, some of the specifications have obviously been updated to modern needs, but overall the Airain Type 20 Re-Edition is extremely faithful. The 1950s shape and design of the case, with its angular lugs and instrument look, have been entirely reproduced. The case retains a combination of brushed and polished surfaces, with mushroom-type pushers and a large, unsigned crown. The case is only slightly larger than the original watch and has a 39.5mm diameter – due to the modern movement that is found inside.
Other typical elements of the vintage Type 20 have also been re-incorporated, such as the bi-directional countdown bezel with a 12h scale and a circular-brushed top surface. The side is finely notched with a coin-edge profile. On top is a domed crystal, which is (surprisingly) not made of modern sapphire. Just like the original, this vintage-inspired model is equipped with a Hesalite crystal – certainly less resistant to scratches, but more faithful and full of charm. The caseback is screwed with markings inspired by the 1950s military models.
The dial of the Airain Type 20 Re-Edition is another example of the exactitude of the reproduction. All the elements of the vintage model are back, from the fonts, the numerals, the different types of hands to the logos. The base is matte black with snailed sub-counters and a typical bi-compax layout – with the same position for the small seconds and the 30-minute counter.
The large Arabic numerals are raised with hand-applied Super-LumiNova in a beige colour that recalls the original 1950s watches. All the hands – straight lance for the hours/minutes, luminous baton with specific counterweight for the central seconds, arrow for the minute recorder and baton for the small seconds – are identical, and so are the logos. The only notable difference is jewel count, now “28 rubis” instead of the “17 rubis” on the original watch.
The classic version, with its matte black dial, is available in two references: 421.436 with a black suede strap and 421.437 with a cognac suede strap. In addition to these two, the Airain Type 20 Re-Edition will be available in a limited edition (reference 421.458) with a chocolate brown dial and strap for a cool patina effect.
As you might have guessed, there is no longer a hand-wound Valjoux movement inside the case. However, this neo-vintage Airain has opted for a nice solution with a hand-wound chronograph movement developed with La Joux-Perret. Derived from the Valjoux architecture, it is equipped with a column-wheel architecture and, obviously, a “retour en vol” flyback function just like the original Type 20 military watches. The movement runs at a 4Hz frequency and boasts a comfortable 55h power reserve.
Availability & Price
The Airain Type 20 Re-Edition with a black dial will be priced at EUR 2,540 while the limited edition with a brown dial will retail for EUR 2,600 – all in all, a relatively reasonable price for a flyback chronograph watch with historical relevance and great looks. The pre-order campaign is now launched at www.airain.com and deliveries are expected for July 2021.
Also, investors who contribute to the international equity funding platform Eureeca are offered advantageous pricing (up to 40% off retail price) on watches of both brands.