Modern Classics: The Glycine Airman

Glycine Airman 1953 by Ken Kessler

24-hour dials are one of those experiences that watch enthusiasts have to try at least once. They’re like manual gearboxes, varifocal glasses or Marmite: you’ll either love them or hate them … as I learned when I wore one during an 11-hour flight with a nine hour time-zone shift and arrived thinking that 12 midnight was 6am. What’s undeniable, though, is their appeal to professionals, especially pilots: when you work on a 24-hour clock rather than am/pm, nothing beats a 24-hour read-out.

Amongst the genre’s granddaddies is Glycine’s genuine classic: the Airman. Its heritage is enviable, for Glycine – which celebrates its centenary in seven years – was among the first companies to produce an in-house automatic, and, in 1952, a watch with air-tight monocoque construction called the Vacuum.

Eugène Meylan, an engineer whose name now graces an hommage in the form of a Glycine dress watch, founded the company in Bienne by acquiring another young firm. He immediately set out to create an innovative brand with high-end appeal. Over the decades, Glycine manufactured small, precise movements for ladies watches – deliciously ironic when you consider that the company now produces one of the largest wristwatches on the market – housing them in gold and platinum cases, often clad with gems. Again, not what you’d expect as a precedent for militaria and sport watches.

More influential, though, in the lineage of the Airman was the arrival in 1934 of a line of chronometers, but the Depression and WWII combined to hinder Glycine’s development. Yet the company did survive, and one of its most productive periods would be the immediate post-war years.

Having relaunched itself right after the war with a complete range of automatic watches, Glycine was poised to participate in the burst of inventiveness that saw the arrival of Omega’s Constellation, the earliest Rolex sport watches, Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms, Breitling’s Navitimer and many other horological milestones. In 1953, concurrent with those historically notable pieces, Glycine launched the Airman to immediate acclaim.

As well as professional aviators, its market included the first notable generation of world travellers, the direct by-product of the phenomenal growth in commercial air transportation. With transcontinental crossings taking hours rather than days or weeks, the importance of watches able to communicate the time zones increased logarithmically. The lasting appeal of this type of watch is inarguable: along with Rolex’s GMT and the Navitimer, Glycine’s Airman has never been out of production.

Glycine worked closely with both civil and military pilots to establish the design and features of this watch. Of course, legibility was paramount, and Glycine addressed this with distinct hands for each function, including a broad arrow for the main hours and a separately coloured hand for the secondary time zone, as well as thinner seconds and minutes hands. Additionally, the Airman boasted two concentric 24-hour rings, the outer ring engraved on a rotating, lockable bezel activated by a crown at the 4 o’clock position, with the date viewable through an aperture at 3 o’clock.

Over the decades, the Airman kept up with market demands, including quartz-driven models, but the general renaissance in men’s mechanical watches, especially oversized timekeepers, seemed made to order for the Airman. 40 years after its birth, the Airman was hot once more.

Directly responsible for the current Airman 17 – our choice of the contemporary models – was the Airman 2000, launched in 1998. Model ref. 3764, the Airman 2000 was fitted with an ETA 2893-2 movement, in a 42mm stainless steel case. The following year, the Airman line was enlarged to 46mm, while the freak of the family, the Airman 7, appeared in 2002 with three independent automatic movements in a 53mm case, able to indicate four time zones. To reassure doubters, its sapphire glass back allows viewing of the three movements. And to delight the more crass elements of the market, it is now available covered in diamonds.

But Glycine responded to the global demand for retro-purism with a close replica of the first Airman of the 1950s. Launched as the Airman 8, ref. 3831, it was an immediate hit that proved the viability of the Airman as a complete range. It was joined in 2004 with the Airman 9, which added a full-function chronograph to the basic Airman. A year later, Glycine succumbed to the juggernaut that is bling-bling by adding the Airman 7 in 18k rose gold.

But those are mere detours and aberrations. For the watch enthusiast’s needs, they’re perfectly served by the Airman 17 Ref. 3865 (£1500) with ETA A07.171 automatic movement with 28,800 vibrations per hour and a 46 hour power reserve. Its functions are identical to the original: display of hours, minutes and seconds, second 24-hour hand, date display in window. The movement features a rhodium-coated oscillating weight on a ball bearing, decorated with ‘Côtes de Genève’, Glycine crowns and an airplane engraving, with rhodium-coated ‘perlé’ decorated bridges and blued screws.

Supplied in a 46mm stainless steel case – the similar Airman 18 (£800) comes in a 38mm case – the Airman 17 is 15mm thick and has a see-through sapphire glass back. The screw-in back and screw-down crown ensure water resistance to 20 atmospheres. Dial choices include black, blue and yellow, and the customer can choose between a black or blue calfskin strap, a natural rubber strap or a stainless steel bracelet.

While 24-hour dials require some readjustment on the part of the user –hands positioned at the traditional vertical, which says ‘6 o’clock’ on a 12-hour dial, is 12 noon on an Airman – the whiff of professionalism is reassuring. Glycine’s Airman is a no-nonsense precision instrument with a genuine claim to aviation suitability. Which, by definition, makes it as admirable, commendable and genuine as a Rolex Submariner. In other words: ‘Respect.’


Breitling Navitimer Cosmonaute Ref 717 (£2785)

While Glycine’s Airman precedes it by a decade, Breitling’s Navitimer Cosmonaute is probably the more famous 24-hour watch. I guess you can’t escape company size and success. Anyway, the Cosmonaute – tastelessly named after Russki spacemen despite a Yank providing its debut – was developed in the early 1960s when Breitling was swept up with a number of other brands in the mania that was space exploration. A natural evolution of the Navitimer was a space-going version featuring a 24-hour dial, since, as Breitling succinctly puts it, ‘Night and day are all but meaningless in space; this dial style prevents possible confusion between noon and midnight.’ Astronaut Scott Carpenter was the first to test it in space, on 24 May 1962, during his orbital flight aboard the Aurora 7 space capsule. In addition to 24-hour time-telling, the Cosmonaute is a full-function, flyback (return to zero and restart) chronograph. Available in a selection of dial colours and metals, the Cosmonaute comes in a 41.5mm case, has a minimum power reserve of 42 hours and features the Navitimer’s signature circular slide-rule.

Chronoswiss Timemaster 24H

Relatively speaking, the new kid on the block is Chronoswiss’ handsome Timemaster 24H, part of the semi-retro Timemaster series. This range found immediate favour because of the wonderful styling and legibility: knurled-edge bezel, big fat ‘onion’ winding crown, in-you-face luminosity and oversized hands, highly legible digits. The 44mm stainless steel case houses a hand-wound Chronoswiss C.674 movement (based on ETA’s 6497) with 18 jewels, Glucydur balance with screws and Nivarox flat hairspring, Incabloc shock absorber and swan-neck precision regulator. The watch boasts almost 48 hours of power reserve and the 24-hour modification is exclusive to Chronoswiss. Unlike the Airman and the Cosmonaute, the 24H features 12 noon at the top of the dial and midnight (24:00) at the bottom. Available with an all-black dial or half-black and half-Superluminova, and a selection of straps or bracelets.

(QP, Issue 26)

© Ken Kessler 2007