The Gruen Airflight – A Watch With A Smart Complication For Under $1000USD
Looks like a watch with 24 date windows, no? Well, look again.
Let’s not beat around the bush: the Gruen Airflight has twelve see-through apertures in the dial. At 1 pm a thin under-the-dial plate shifts automatically to expose the numerals 13 through 24. How cool?!
When I unboxed my Gruen Airflight, I immediately wound it and tried the hour change mechanism. I wanted badly to know how it works from the inside. If my ‘new’ Airflight hadn’t stopped just 2 hours after being on my wrist, I never would have made the video you can see below. The balance wheel stopped balancing after a few seconds each time I made it move. The biggest disappointment in a watch collector’s life: you just bought the watch, but you can’t enjoy it, as it doesn’t work. But no drama this time, I wasn’t angry or frustrated. On the contrary, it was just a perfect reason to go and show it to my @watchmaker_tom.
I was sure it will be just a bit of dirt that got caught in the Airflight’s movement. Tom immediately understood I wouldn’t leave his watch shop until he fixed for me. RIGHT NOW! Especially when I come with all my shooting equipment to the store. Typical drill: my watchmaker closes shop and we start disassembling the movement. I love those sessions when I can see him working while he explains me in detail how the mechanics work.
Gruen caliber 510
We stripped the watch completely, we cleaned all the parts and put it all nicely back together. Our anticipation was correct – it just hadn’t been serviced in ages. The mechanism is pretty simple and as Tom explained to me, it uses the same principle also visible in cam actuated chronographs. As you can see in the video, it all starts with the central hour wheel with snail cam. At the end of the set of the levers there is a tiny pin tucked into the edge of the date plate. Once every 12 hours when the lever drops from the edge of the snail cam, the pink gets an immediate click impulse and jumps back and forth – moving the date disc along. Simple, but effective. Also explains the angling of numbers on the date disc.
There are a lot of 24 hour-dial watches out there either with two circular centric tracks (not really 24-hours watches) or hard to read watches marked with 24 indexes on one singular circular track. Yes, reading the lunchtime with an hour hand pointing south is a bit weird and needs some eye-training. This is exactly what makes the Gruen Airflight complication so genius. I am the first to vote that we should put it on the non-existing official list of horology simplifications.
Why 24-hours anyway?
Now you might be thinking: Is there any specific reason, why every time the hands hit noon, the inner dial skips to show time reading from 13 to 24? No big deal for Americans that are used to am/pm time frames. But for the average European guy (me) that sends hundreds of calendar invitations for 13:30 or gets hundreds meeting requests for 15:00, an easy-to-read 24-hours dial is a hell of a refreshment during long meeting days.
As the name suggests, 24-hour time or military time was crucial in aviation or military. There is a world within our world in which people have to be 100% certain with zero doubts about what part of the day a message or a command is related to. Avoiding time confusion might have a deadly impact. Gruen has quite a history with aviation with their watches to be supplied for Pan Am pilots, later available for civilians too. Speaking about the need for 24-hour time, we can’t forget doctors performing all day surgeries.
Gruen success story
I was surprised to find out there are not many mentions about Gruen watches here on our Fratello. So let’s take it from the top! Founder Dietrich Gruen was born in Germany in 1847. He made his way to the US after some schooling in Switzerland, the watchmaking Mecca. It didn’t take him long to file a patent for a safety pinion for pocket watches that prevented damage to the watch movement if the watch’s mainspring broke. Fast forward to Gruen & Sons being one of the first US watch companies that offered basic movements produced in Switzerland. Their watch portfolio is huge and revenues sky rocket to millions.
Their golden age ends in the mid 1950s’, „that is generally considered the end of Gruen watches at least as vintage collectors are concerned,“ says the amazing source of information on early Gruens, gruenwristwatches.com. The Gruen family leaves the business in 1953 and the company loses direction, faces scandals and financial problems. Gruen went bankrupt in 1976, with all the company records already destroyed. Bad news for watch collecting community. The lists of serial numbers, dates of manufacture and production quantities are forever gone.
Gruen Airflight birth
Looking for information on Gruen production between 1960 to end of the seventies is like diving in milk. You won’t see much. You will definitely find much more info on 1920s’ Gruens than you find on later production. That is why you have to excuse me for not being able to provide a specific launch date for Gruen Airflight. The wide variety of designs suggests that the watch was in production from the early sixties up to the closure in the late seventies. If you have more catalogues shots, we will be glad to see them!
Airflight I versus Airflight II
If you start looking for one, you will most probably stumble upon ones with clean pearl or silver sunburst dials that are housed either in chrome plated or ‘yellow’ cases. That’s how the Airflight I and Airflight II are distinguished in rare catalogue shots we found. Don’t ask what year the catalogue is from. If you get lucky, you might catch one with an Air Force Association (AFA) logo at six. When it was added to the Hodinkee shop last year in April, I decided to once again play my silly little game with watches I am sure will disappear minutes after adding to the shop. I started my Speedmaster chrono I was wearing that day. I remember it as it was today – not even a few full runs of the central second hand later and the Airflight was gone. With a 1500 USD price tag on it.
Special versions of the Airflight
If you keep digging (or just simply waiting), as I did, you might get surprised by an American Airlines logo popping out on the Gruen Airflight dial. Or some other peculiarities such as curling stones and broomstick symbols above 6, a prize for the winning team at the 1968 tournament. My Airflight isn’t very usual either – it was a lucky catch. I was just checking my emails when a restock email from my favorite French dealer landed in my inbox. I clicked on it, gave it a quick check and confirmed purchase.
I had never seen such a color combination in an Airflight before. It probably comes from later years, just before the sad closure of production. In terms of the design, it doesn’t have the typical hour hand with O-ring like many others do. But look at the color mix. A deep blue central ring contrasts with a rich grey outer track. No logo at the top, just the name. Juicy red hour indexes and red central chrono second give the watch balance on one hand and a fresh funky look on the other. While a typical Airflight design smells vintage, this Gruen Airflight with straight white hands feels strikingly modern and up to date. The dial is flawless, only the date numbers printing quality might give you some doubts as to its age. A closer inspection by my watchmaker suggest it is all original. I started sleeping well only after I found another piece sold in 2013 with the same hands / dial combination.
You get a fun but technically very smart complication for just under 1000 USD.
I apologize for the cheap black leather strap; I have to change it. With or without it, a Gruen Airflight is a light and entertaining wear. It feels sporty and classy at the same time. If you allow your wrist to accommodate smaller watches with a nicely shaped 35mm case in diameter, the Gruen Airflight might be a great refreshment. If you are a bracelet guy, look around for early versions with an expansion band that is unique in style. You get a fun but technically very smart complication for just under 1000 USD.