Hands-on with the Detroit Watch Company Aviator

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I’d been anticipating the package from Detroit for a couple of months. Watch company? Detroit? At this point, you might think you know what watch company I’m going to write about. But really, this is about the other one. The Detroit Watch Company, who like their juggernaut of a neighbor, assembles in Detroit.

I’d studied the Detroit Watch Co. website and seen a few photos of the Aviator, and I was eager to get my hands on the piece in the metal.

DETROIT_WATCHCO_AVIATOR_DIAL4

When it arrived, the Aviator didn’t disappoint. It’s a bold watch at 44mm, but it’s not so big that it’s unwieldy or uncomfortable.  And it certainly looks the part of a pilot watch.

From the Aviator’s sales webpage, here’s why.

“Detroit native and oil millionaire, Edward F. Schlee had a thirst for flying.  In 1927, Schlee purchased a Stinson-Detroiter monoplane and named it, “The Pride of Detroit”.

“Two months after Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight across the Atlantic Ocean, Schlee and pilot Billy Brock embarked upon an ambitious trip to travel the globe in 15 days.

“The Pride of Detroit Aviator timepiece symbolizes an adventurous spirit and the strength of our own convictions as demonstrated by Schlee and Brock.”

The ethos of this watch is pure and simple: the adventure of flying.

DETROIT_WATCHCO_AVIATOR_FACECase: Steel
Movement: Miyota 821A
Dial: Black
Lume: Yes
Lens: Sapphire
Strap: Leather
Water Res.: 5ATM
Dimensions: 44 x 52mm
Thickness: 12mm
Lug Width: 22
Crown: 7.5 x 4.5 mm
Warranty: yes
Price: $795

Case

The 44 x 52 x 12mm case almost looks to be cast rather than machined. It may simply be over-polished. It doesn’t matter from a functionality standpoint, but it does mean the details aren’t quite as crisp as they could be. And this case does have some nice details. The lugs are nicely formed, slightly on the angular side, nicely proportioned and with a step detail that gives them a faint art deco look.

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The bezel has a similar step encircling the flat sapphire crystal- another nice finishing detail. When the watch arrived, the bezel was loose. At first it gave the illusion of a rotating bezel, not uncommon on a pilot’s watch. However, there are no markings or knurling present, so its purpose in rotating was a mystery. Turns out it’s a screw-down bezel, part of the mechanical design of the case assembly. Ultimately, this was simply a minor quality control issue.

The crown, signed with a fleur-de-lis and boldly knurled (more of that bold theme), is a reverse conical shape. It’s reminiscent of IWC crowns, and provides an excellent grip when winding or setting the watch.

DETROIT_WATCHCO_AVIATOR_CASE4

I like the fact that the case back is solid and held in place with five screws (another nod to IWC?). It gives the watch a certain no-nonsense appeal, and further distinguishes it from a dive watch (divers seem to be the province of a lot of start-up watch companies these days). Even with a screw-fastened back, the Aviator claims 5ATM of water resistance. In case you need to ditch at sea.

Overall, the case back design shows the watch means business and can’t be bothered with showing off what’s simply a solid, workhorse movement. Nothin’ to see here folks. Move along.

DETROIT_WATCHCO_AVIATOR_CASE2

Except that there is something to see. The folks at Detroit Watch have seen fit to etch the full metal back with an image of Schlee’s and Brock’s “Pride of Detroit,” an old single-engine tail-dragger, surrounded by stylized streamlines.

Dial and Hands

The black dial is simple, classic for a pilot watch. A railroad minute track runs around the edge. Hour points are marked with raised paintedArabic numerals from 1 to 12.

The dial is relatively free of printing. Below the 12 is Detroit’s stylized logo – a D with three-lined “wings” – along with “Pride of Detroit.” Two more lines of text above the 6 complete the clean look.

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Pride of Detroit is no joke. You’ll find the company name and manufacturing (assembly) location in small print discreetly tucked along the outer edges as well.

The modified sword shaped hour and minute hands are oversized to match the dial diameter.  Luminescence on the outer half of each ensures the ability to read in the dark light of a cockpit.

The tail of the red tipped second hand features the company’s stylized D – a nice touch. I’m not so sure about the red tip. It’s a bit of a challenge to find it in low light conditions, and the hand is not marked with luminous material.

DETROIT_WATCHCO_AVIATOR_DIAL3

Movement

The engine that drives the Aviator is the non-hacking automatic three hand plus date Miyota 821A. I was a bit surprised that Detroit Watch decided to use a non-hacking movement in a pilot’s watch. The ability to stop the second hand is a classically useful feature in aviation (flight crews would synchronize their watches for precise time measurement during a mission). And it’s certainly available in other similar movements from Miyota, for instance, the 9015, albeit at a probably higher cost.

I also noticed some jerkiness or flutter with the sweep seconds hand over ten or fifteen seconds of its revolution. Typically, the Miyotas are solid movements, so I figured the issue may have been specific to the test watch.

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With a little research, I was able to determine that the “problem” may be due to the indirect drive second hand of the 821A, vs. a direct drive. This means the seconds hand is driven off the third wheel and geared up to one rev per minute, rather than directly tied to the fourth wheel (which already revolves once a minute). Manufacturing tolerances in the wheels and pinions cause the flutter. The gearing up amplifies it.

Admittedly, this is a technical explanation to an aesthetic issue. I say aesthetic because such a set-up does not affect the movement’s accuracy.

Strap and Clasp

The 22mm calf strap tapers to 19mm at the clasp, a feature which adds significant refinement over what a straight strap would offer. It’s well-proportioned to the watch case, both in width and uniform 4mm thickness. Being non-padded and a uniform thickness for the entire length, it quickly conformed to my wrist.

Dyed in a sort of British Tan with contrasting white stitching, it nicely carried its part of the pilot watch look.

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The signed butterfly clasp is where I ran into trouble. It’s beautiful, but I’ve never been able to operate butterfly clasps as smoothly or quickly as deployants. I’ll let you in on a little secret (no jokes please). I dress in the dark because the sun comes up late where I live. Unfortunately, with the Aviator, I spent a lot of time each morning, fumbling with the clasp.

However, once snapped in place on my wrist, the clasp disappeared. The issue is really the effort it takes to buckle the watch to your person when you’re in a hurry.

Wearability

Overall, the Aviator is a joy to wear. It looks great, the strap is comfortable and, with large silver finished hands against a black dial, the watch’s readability is excellent.

And the Aviator is going to look good coupled with a sport shirt, a T-shirt and leather jacket, or a sweatshirt on a Saturday afternoon.

DETROIT_WATCHCO_WRIST_1
please note the watch is shown here on Zach’s wrist which measures 7″

At its size, it doesn’t fit well under the cuff of a tailored dress shirt. But I don’t think that’s the point of this watch. The Aviator is not a dress watch, so don’t count this as a mark against it.

Conclusion

The more I wear the Aviator, the more I like it. At $795, the price is on the high side for 821A powered automatic, though the original design and US assembly speak to the cost. It wears well, and looks good on my larger-than-average wrist.

The watch is not going to fit under a snug dress shirt cuff, but this is a watch for the guy who’s dressing to go places – literally. Not for the guy dressing for success.

You can check out and order the Aviator and its stable mates here: detroitwatchco.com

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28 thoughts on “Hands-on with the Detroit Watch Company Aviator”

    1. lift brah

      Kinda kidding, but plenty of big people wear watches too. Trends aside, someone with a large wrist looks weird wearing even a classic design if it’s 38mm or less. It doesn’t look that big on the author’s smaller wrists either.

      Also consider that old-school aviator watches were enormous – the original fliegers were 55mm, for instance.

      1. I agree that “plenty of big people wear watches too”. I sold watches for over ten years, and one thing thing I noticed was that there were a lot of customers buying big watches. While a 44mm was perfectly suited to someone who was six feet tall, broad shouldered, and had 7.5-8inch wrists, that sized watch tended to look comical on somebody with a smaller overall build who insisted on buying such a large watch.
        Full disclosure-my wrists are 6.5 inches, I own 28 wristwatches and (shock horror!) one of them is a 44mm Hamilton Khaki Officer’s Mechanical (read the review on my blog!).
        Perhaps you need to read my first response again. I have no problem with 44mm pilot-style watches. I just think the market is saturated with them, from brands that have been making them for decades, and I’m aware that some original fliegers were made in 55mm sizing. But none of us will find ourselves behind the stick of a Hawker Hurricane or Messerschmitt anytime soon, thinking ;”Oh man, CSI:Miami starts in half an hour!”, as we glance at our 55mm fliegers.
        And I beg to differ with you, sir. It DOES look big on the author’s wrist. Which is perfectly fine if that’s the look one is going for. Hell, I bought my Hamilton because

        1. (CONTINUED)… I wanted something big, loud and that made me look like an action figure.

          Sorry for the long reply, folks. Now I know that Disqus has word limits.

          1. A good point well (and humorously) made. While I agree that that 42-44mm is now the norm, it seems pointless to rail against popular demand. I now stick mostly to vintage watches and let everyone else wear what they like.

          2. I agree with you, Joe. I have no problem with large watches at all, but I have read far too many articles and posts where it is stated that large watches are standard. Forty-four mm watches have been in now for about ten years and it was really only the 46mm IWC Big Pilot and a few 44mm Breitling Crosswind Chronographs that really got the ball rolling, back around 2003. However, 42mm was considered big enough for the thirty or forty years prior to the birth of the large watch era. If you took a 44mm watch back in time to, say, 1967, I would bet that somebody would say;”Cripes, are you all around nine feet tall in the future!!!???”
            Just my two cents, but I earned them selling watches.

        2. the watch is actually on my, Zach’s, wrist not Ed, the author, who has a larger wrist. And it certainly is too big for my wrist. I’ll add a note there as that is misleading.

  1. $800 for a Mitoya 821a is disappointing. At that price point, it should have the 9015 in it or at the very least, anything that hacks. Seiko NH35 would be an option even. Especially when they already use the 9015 in another offering.

    It’s a nice enough looking watch, but I can help but think that 40 to 42mm would be better suited for the style.

  2. hand assembled in the USA for $800..love the design but not the size or price….42m at sub $600 and you have a sure winner

  3. A pretty yawn-inducing entry into the complete foreign made by US-assembled watch market.

  4. It seems that both Pride of Detroit and Shinola suffer from the same issue of overcharging for their product. Shinola makes beautiful and impeccably crafted watches, but I’m not about to pay ~$1,000 for a quartz watch when there are so many great mechanical options out there for the same price (or less). Pride of Detroit seems to be suffering from some growing pains as far as build quality goes, and again for the same price there are a plethora of beautiful watches out there that are better. Both companies need to step up their game!

  5. So the fact that it’s assembled in the USA with limited annual production is supposed to justify the price? That watch should be $550 max. Also, I think the “D” on the second hand is a little overkill. We already understand its made in Detroit by the name of the watch and excessive markings on the dial.

    I’m excited about watch manufacturing coming back to the USA but the prices we are seeing just aren’t making sense. Weiss at $950, this one at $795 for an 821a and Shinola topping out at almost a grand for a quartz chronograph!! Make it in America but make it accessible and reasonable.

    1. The thing is the $550 watches you’re used to seeing are from catalog cases and off-the-shelf parts for the most part, mainly from China. You can’t have your cake and eat it too – there will always be a premium for domestic design and assembly. If you don’t want your watch to get made in Shanghai, you have to pay more. Simple as that.

      It makes perfect sense. Whether you think it’s worth it is up to you. But a company employing American workers in smaller factories is not going to have the cost efficiencies that let bigger or foreign watch manufacturers pass savings on to you. You can’t want watches from the little guy without supporting him, just as you can’ expect to have a grass-fed quality gourmet hamburger while paying McDonalds’ prices.

      1. I can pay just over $400usd for a Steinhart Nav B with a unitas movement. A much better value that comes from Germany, not Shanghai. And the stuttering miyota in this watch from Detroit is off the shelf and not worth the price tag. If you want to pay more for a product just because it comes from Detroit, that’s up to you. I have a feeling the majority of people are going to go for something that offers a better value/price ratio. I would never pay that much for a watch with that movement in it no matter where it’s made. This is of course my opinion and I value yours, but I don’t agree with it.

        I hope they do well but at that price point, I don’t think they will. There are so many better options out there. People want bang for their buck, they don’t want to get banged for it.

        1. I’m sure there’s plenty of people that want to get banged for their buck.

          Agree with you re the Steinhart; additionally a 42mm Laco (Ref 861690) with a Miyota movement can be found online for under $400; Detroit should really look at that price point as a reference, especially when it’s using the same family of movement.

  6. Personally, the 42mm watch I wear daily looks a bit small on my wrist. I welcome the thought of a less sporty/more dressy watch in the 44mm realm (though this particular design doesn’t do it for me, still a nice looking watch). Now, I’m all for the made in USA thing… But the disconnect is the price. It’s the very reason a good number of us (dare I say most) buy imported watches. I want to see U.S. jobs created, especially in the watch industry, but I’m really curious about the profit margin on watches like these and Shinola. Get us hooked on your brands via some more affordable designs and we’ll be much more accepting of higher priced offerings down the road.

  7. Not everyone has small wrists. While big watches are popular, it doesn’t mean that they don’t fit anyone. Wearability is also limited at 38mm.

    This is like complaining that there are too many jeans in stores that aren’t your size. If you need to go bigger or smaller, then do it! No need to complain about the L-sized shirts people are buying if you need a Small. Just go get a Small!

    1. But that implies there is a store filled with this same watch in various sizes, like there would be at my local Levi’s store. There is not though. So it’s not as simple as you suggest to just buy another American (assembled, not entirely made, but still) automatic watch of this look and design.

  8. Hey. Sorry folks. However, writing this from across the pond it seems like you guys in the US are happy to accept just about everything as long as it is made in the US. Polished, looze bezel, non hacking movt. with a fluttering seconds hand. A Chinese homage do better than that! Still, the conclusion is positive… Denial? I like W&W a lot but this is a bit thick.

    1. Re: fluttering seconds hand – you should probably do a little research regarding ‘indirect seconds’ movement design. The phenomena is in fact a brief pause of the seconds hand, and it isn’t unique to this Miyota movement. Some Swiss movements have been designed this way as well. It is perhaps a bit archaic, but not an indication of poor quality.

      I have a flieger with Miyota’s 8N33 hand-wound movement and I was concerned when I first saw the second hand pause after I had moved my wrist abruptly. It doesn’t impact timekeeping and is just a characteristic of the movement design.

      I’m also not sure where the author mentioned a poorly polished bezel – he simply states that perhaps the case was overly polished, which I took to mean that it could use some brushed facets for texture. I do agree that a loose bezel, even if it is a screw-down design, is a bit worrisome from a quality-control standpoint for a $800 watch.

      Also, re: “happy to accept just about everything as long as it is made in the US” – that’s a bit rich if you hail from the UK (I’ll offer up British Leyland’s fine automotive offerings as a counterpoint). When it comes to watches, the US has experienced a void for several decades. You can’t bemoan someone for their excitement to see that industry come back with some domestic production. It’s not to say you overlook the faults, but for a small start-up, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a little patriotism.

  9. I like the hands, the strap and the legibility. I agree a 9015 would be better suited, but still pricey. They’re essentially in Lum-Tec territory with lower end movements and it sounds like lower end fit and finish.

  10. I get that it’s made in America, and that’s great, I wish I could justify the cost, but $795 for a Miyota 821A is just too much.

  11. Safe bet that most, if not all, of Detroit Watch Company’s parts come from Asia, too.

  12. A native detroiter started Detroit Watch Company almost two years prior. Look at the url http://www.detroitwatchcompany.com It predates detroitwatchco.com Unfortunately this is a case of who had more money. I won’t support this company. I’d rather get one off pieces from the first company or buy an Invicta instead.

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