The Brave New World of Instrument Watches

The quartz oscillator and the liquid-crystal display: Two technical advances that have forever changed the way instrument watches are designed and used. The first eventually brought us simple, inexpensive, accurate, but ultimately disposable timekeepers like the military-issue Sandy P650 above. The second brought out the true potential of the quartz movement’s integrated
micro circuitry with multiple functions (formerly complications) at that same level of low cost and carefree accuracy. It is this mating of the quartz oscillator and LCD that has resulted in our age of advanced tool watches.

Some feel that the great era of instrument watches lies behind us, as many of the archetypal tool watches are acknowledged as important horological works in their own right. To the connoisseur of fine mechanicals they are an underclass, somehow not “real” watches at all. For them words like “quartz” and “analog/digital” evoke images of crude, ugly, infernally accurate machines of little emotional appeal or aesthetic interest. I in turn think that there may be something of interest for those willing to look more closely.


Cheap, black plastic. Not a name to inspire confidence, but in many ways these have become the most dependable and depended upon watches made today. These are the watches self-selected by military
personnel around the world, as well as by law enforcement, and are the watches that many of us automatically reach for when engaging in sports or anything else that would pose a hazard to our precious mechanicals.

Casio’s G-Shock series is perhaps the best known of this class. First introduced in April of 1983, it is the only watch known to have been beta-tested by being thrown out of a third-story window — earning it the “Gravity-Shock” name. The basic style and functions which include a chronograph, perpetual calendar, alarm, and countdown timer, has over the years expanded into a dizzying array of functions and designs. It remains the standard of “rugged” quartz timepieces, and is one of three watches issued by NASA to its astronauts. Recently, less disposable offerings in titanium have become available (see
“Mr-G” image below). More information on the history, development, and technical characteristics of this line is available in the article Unbreakable.

Touted by Timex as the best-selling watch in the world, the Ironman Triathalon wristwatch is the infamous CBP chosen by U.S. President Bill Clinton. A sponsor of the classic Hawaii
Ironman, Timex created the Ironman line of watches in 1986 with the same basic functions of the Casio G-Shock, but with an additional lap and split timer useful to athletes. Lacking the elaborate and bulky physical armour of the G-Shock, the Ironman’s slim and trim profile has resulted in its even greater popularity. In 1992 the line was upgraded with
“Indiglo” electroluminescent dials — revolutionizing the night visibility of LCD displays. President Clinton’s early Indigo model has been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of American History.

One step removed from the true CBPs previously mentioned is Citizen’s Promaster line, an important part of the modern instrument watch inventory. Best known for the Aqualand series of dive watches and the analog/digital Navihawk aviation chronograph, the line has been recently been expanded with the Navisail and Navitach chronographs The greater breadth of Promaster models offered in Japan include a series of titanium-cased watches built around Citizen’s “Eco-Drive” solar-powered movements. Particularly of note are the Promaster “Tough”(1,
2), “Tough GMT,” and “Super Tough.”

An Officer and a Gentleman

For almost as long as there have been CBPs there have also been a few high-end multifunction instrument watches mainly focused (or at least marketed) towards a group of professionals whose working environment does not dictate a need for “disposability” — the aviator. From the first these watches have utilized titanium, the fashionable wonder metal of our day, and an old standby in aerospace engineering.

The Officer

The Omega Speedmaster Professional X-33 has been generally acknowledged by many aviators as a nearly optimal and useful flight instrument, no doubt due very much in part played by those pilots and astronauts which consulted for Omega and
tested the watch throughout its development. The large distinctive central LCD screen features a large curved digital readout. First seen on the Seamaster Multifunction, it has in this case been optimized to permit reading of the display without having to remove one’s hand from the flight controls. It’s movement is factory rated to +/- 37 seconds a year (which means that it is using some form of temperature or other accuracy compensation) and features pilot specific functions like “Mission Elapsed Time” (MT) and “Universal Time” (UT). The design obviously places function above aesthetic considerations, but the polished steel bezel is unforgivable. While the X-33 is flight qualified by NASA for manned space missions, there is some general skepticism about this watch being used on a manned mission to Mars — other than in the movies that is.

The Gentleman.

First introduced in 1985, Breitling’s Aerospace is one of the earliest uses of titanium in wristwatches and I expect is the first multifunction quartz watch built with this material. While not an official aviation instrument like the X-33 which it
preceded, it has been employed by pilots and non-pilots alike for its famous legibility, light weight, slim profile, and of course for its very elegant design — perhaps the most elegant multifunction watch yet produced.

A design of amazing longevity, it lacks the recently invented electroluminescent backlighting of the X-33 and other current LCD watches. The multipurpose pusher/crown is its most controversial aspect, accounting for its elegant and clean styling and probably contributing to its 100m water resistance rating, but also to its less than optimal functionality. Likewise the infamous Breitling “rider tabs” provide protection to the sapphire crystal, but are the undying bane of shirt cuffs and anything else they can bite into. In recent years this classic has been tainted with the bizarre “Repetition Minutes” function and dial script, also changing the movement from calibre 65 to 67.

The Aeropsace has even more controversial relatives: Breitling’s Emergency, released 10 years after the Aerospace which it is based on, features a single-use micro-transmitter (the military version has an on/off switch) that broadcasts on the 121.5 MHz (general aviation) or 243 MHz (military) emergency frequencies. If used in an actual emergency, the watch will be replaced by Breitling at no charge (according to The good news is that it uses the Aerospace’s earlier calibre 65 and non-italic font, and dispenses with the cuff-eating rider tabs. The bad news is its price tag.

Three years after the Emergency Breitling released the B-1 — named after one of the U. S. Airforce’s most expensive and least successful developments. Oddly it is not
titanium, instead using a luxuriously polished steel case and bracelet — not really in line with instrument watch aesthetics. Evidently an attempt to recreate the immortal Navitimer as a multifunction quartz watch, it overlooks many of the instrument watch design principles that made the original an effective and useful tool. I expect that it will find a larger audience with passengers than with pilots.

The Next Generation

For those that desire greater or more specialized functionality than offered by the average CPB and the pilots watches above, there is a new generation of analog quartz watches based on the designs and principles of mechanical-era instrument watches, and new innovative CPBs unlike any seen before.

Seiko’s Prospex group is a little-known series that is only marketed and sold in Japan. Using analog displays exclusively, they are built upon various cutting-edge quartz movements, notably the AGS (kinetic), Kinetic Auto Relay, and temperature-compensated Perpetual Calendar. Titanium is used for most cases, bracelets, and bezels — though steel and even ceramic has been utilized for a few watches. Many models (like the Landmaster Sagarmatha above) have monocoque cases, 200m water resistance, and all feature sapphire crystals.

Each line within the Prospex group is specialized for a specific purpose, including the previously mentioned
Landmasters, Scubamasters, Flightmaster (1,
Transocean, and even a Speedmaster. Two new lines have been recently introduced under the Landtrek and Sportura names. Some of the earlier AGS models use calibre 5M45 with a 7-day power reserve, but most new models incorporate calibre 5M65 with a 6-month power reserve. Sizes vary from 38mm
(Flightmaster) to 42mm (Sagarmatha).

Anyone who considers himself an “outdoorsman” will be familiar with the advanced CBP watches being exported from Finland. Suunto’s
“wristop computers” dispense with analog hands as they feature an unusually large LCD screen. The extra-large 37mm-wide screen necessarily means an even larger case a massive 50mm wide, held on with a 22mm strap. The X-Lander shown above has an aluminum case (lighter than titanium) with a carbon fiber back. The features include digital compass, altimeter, barometer, and thermometer in addition to basic CBP
functions, and a few specialist watches like a heart-rate monitor and two sailing timers. The lithium batteries are user changeable. These watches are not sold through watch retailers but rather through sporting goods stores.

Casio also produces a number of highly technical watches specialized for outdoors use in its Pathfinder and Forester lines (Pro Trek internationally), featuring
altimeters, barometers, thermometers, tide and lunar displays, digital compasses, and even GPS satellite navigation amongst other functions too numerous to mention. The styling is classic CPB — which has its limitations and disadvantages at this level of complexity.


As we have seen, the realm of instrument watches has undergone vast technical change, and they continue to evolve at a rapid pace. The group of
instrument watch users has changed and evolved as well. Fewer specialized instrument watches are tools developed for professional use, and more are accessories for sportsmen. While these quartz wristwatches may be anathema to the mechanical purist, I think that they have both functional value (as tools) and real horological significance in the continued evolution of the personal timekeeping instrument.

Photo Credits:

Sandy P650 by Hyunsuk Seung

Casio Mr. G by kny

Seiko Landmaster by Katsuhira, Higuchi-Inc.

Suunto X-Lander by Alex Struk

Copyright © 2000 Carlos A. Perez

All Rights Reserved