If you’ve been reading MONOCHROME for some time now, you might be aware of something about me; I have a long-lasting love affair with the Type XX and Type 20 watches. It is something I’ve shared over the years on many occasions since the Breguet Type XX is the watch that really started my journey as a collector. So when we received the news, about a year ago, that Airain – one of the original providers of Type 20 watches to the French army – was about to resurface, you can imagine that I was pretty excited. And when we saw the first images of the watch that was about to be launched, the excitement became even stronger. But today, we have a prototype of the Airain Type 20 Re-Edition with us, a brown dial limited edition version, to be precise. And it’s time for a good old hands-on session.
The Type 20 watches and Airain
It is no secret that pilots have been some of the most demanding users of watches in history. Since the conquest of the air, watches have become an essential instrument for pilots to achieve their missions. Responding to this call, many purpose-built models have been created over the years, including the watch we’ll be talking about today, the French flyback chronograph known as the Type 20.
During the 1950s, the French Ministry of Defence drew up specifications with a view to purchasing chronograph wristwatches for the Air Force, the Centre d’Essai en Vol (the CEV) and the Aéronavale (naval aviation); they were known as Type 20. The Type 20, which is the military name of the watch (civilian models are known as the Type XX), was introduced as a pilot’s watch equipped with a flyback chronograph, the emblematic function of this watch. The flyback function allows the chronograph to be reset to zero by simply pressing the lower push button. Along with Breguet, Mathey Tissot (which produces some of Breguet’s watches, hence the resemblance between these two), Chronofixe, Auricoste, Dodane and Vixa, Airain was one of the contractors engaged by the French Air Force to manufacture these watches.
The complete list of specifications for the original Type 20 watches (common to all brands)
- A case diameter of approximately 38mm and no more than 14mm high
- Screw-in caseback
- Black dial, with two registers at 3 and 9 o’clock that can count to 30 minutes
- Arabic numbers
- Luminescent material on both hands and numbers
- Flyback function (retour en vol)
- Bidirectional 12-hour rotating bezel or fluted bidirectional bezel on earliest models
- Movement accuracy within eight seconds a day
- Power reserve of at least 35 hours
- Ability to operate the chronograph function reliably for at least 300 times
The illustrious Dodane family originally conceived Montres Airain in 1934 as a manufacturer of trustworthy, high-quality timepieces. 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.
But one man decided to bring back the brand. 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, Airain has regained its wings. 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 Airain watches. 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 Airain Type 20 Re-Edition
You won’t need to spend much time with this watch to understand what it’s all about… A quick glance, and you’ll know you’re looking at a Type 20 watch from head to toe. What Van Wijlick has done is pretty simple since there are not many vintage-inspired, faithful watches based on the Type 20 concept on the market now. Especially now that the Breguet Type XX ref. 3800ST, a modernised version of the historic watch, was recently discontinued. And if some concessions to modernity have been made for this new Airain Type 20 Re-Edition, we’re still talking minor alterations, resulting in a watch – at least in my books – that fills a gap I’ve been waiting too long to be filled… that of a proper historically relevant model.
Let’s start with the case and the overall design. Here, no exception to the rule mentioned earlier. The Airain Type 20 is an accurate re-edition, with an overall design that is faithful to the original watches produced by Airain, but also Dodane under the Type 21 specification. This means an angular case with flat casebands, sharp lugs and overall, a very utilitarian design. Made of stainless steel, the case has grown a bit to 39.5mm in diameter – vs 38mm in the past. The height, without the crystal, is fairly controlled at 10.85mm and the lug-to-lug dimension, if not particularly small, remains fairly acceptable at 47.7mm.
Apart from the design itself, the 2021 Airain Type 20 retains all elements from the past, such as the bidirectional bezel with a 12-hour countdown scale, classic pump chronograph pushers, an unsigned, oversized and flat crown, lugs with holes and a screw-down caseback. Tom Van Wijlick even went to the point of offering a domed hesalite (with anti-scratch treatment) instead of a classic, more modern but far less charming sapphire crystal. Being a product of the 2020s, the overall quality is certainly much more appealing than that of the vintage watches, with finely brushed casebands, sharper edges, a smooth bezel and a nice feeling of weight – the old ones could feel a bit light. The case is also water-resistant to 50 metres, sufficient for a watch of this category. Overall, apart from the slightly larger case, there are not many differences between this Airain Type 20 Re-Edition and the vintage watch on which it is modelled.
And the same goes for the dial… While the classic and non-limited edition of the Airain Type 20 is equipped with a faithful matte black dial, Van Wijlick adds a limited edition to celebrate the launch of this model, equipped with a dark brown dial that mimics vintage tropical dials. This is the model we had for our hands-on session. Other than the colour of the dial and the strap and a specific engraving on the caseback, this watch is identical to the standard version.
Looking at the dial, what changes compared to the vintage watch? Well, nothing… Everything has been faithfully recreated and adapted to the new dimensions of the case and the movement, yet almost imperceptibly. Wherever you look, it’s simply identical to the original watch: the luminous pencil hands, the Arabic numerals filled with cream-coloured Super-LumiNova (a slight touch of patina doesn’t hurt, plus it’s here fairly measured), the railroad tracks on the sub-dials, the seconds hand with counterweight, the arrow-shaped 30-minute hand or the precision seconds track on the periphery with the same font for the numerals. Even the jewels count and “Incabloc” mentions are still there, together with the historic Airain logo.
Of course, the presence of a modern movement inside means that the position and size of the sub-counters are slightly revised, but the whole watch has been well dimensioned, so this remains fairly imperceptible. The dial itself has a matte, lightly grained texture while the sub-counters, like the original watch, are snailed. There’s a fair amount of reflection, but this is to be expected with a domed hesalite.
Under the screwed caseback is a rather interesting movement. While the original Valjoux column-wheel flyback movement had to be replaced, the Airain Type 20 Re-Edition remains, however, faithful to two elements of the original movement. First, a quite simple base architecture, which guarantees reliability. Second, some refinements with the presence of a column-wheel and, of course, a flyback function – this watch wouldn’t be a Type 20 without the retour en vol function.
The calibre AM1 was developed with Manufacture La Joux-Perret, on the grounds of the Valjoux 7750 architecture but with major modifications. The movement is now hand-wound like the original watch and assists in the slim case height. The cam has been replaced by a smoother, more accurate column wheel, and a flyback function has been added. This movement runs at 4Hz and boasts a comfortable power reserve of 60 hours.
The Airain Type 20 Re-Edition Brown Dial Limited Edition is worn on a supple, vintage-looking suede strap in brown, which complements the retro style of the watch. It is closed by a steel pin buckle.
I’ll have a hard time being objective when thinking about this watch, knowing how biased I am about anything Type 20. But that also allows me to be rather critical and demanding. If I had one (small) comment to make, that would be about the size of the case. I would have loved to see a 38mm case, just like the original watches. Now, I also understand the requirements for a modern movement, and altogether, even if larger, the watch remains compact enough to be a) comfortable and b) vintage looking.
For the rest, this watch is, to me, a success. The design is extremely faithful and brings back all the desirability of vintage Type 20 watches in a modern and well-finished package. Apart from the loyalty to the original, which answered my wishes for such a watch, what I also love about the Airain Type 20 Re-Edition is that it remains true to the original instrumental vocation of Type 20s. The Breguet Type XX was a great interpretation of the concept, but it was also miles away from the original military requirements. The Airain Type 20 Re-Edition comes closer in this instance, and even its price feels more in line with the original spirit.
Availability & Price
The Airain Type 20 Re-Edition Brown Dial is limited to 134 pieces and priced at EUR 2,600. The standard black dial models are priced at EUR 2,540. These are reduced pre-order prices.
The brand has already successfully completed the first round of its pre-order campaign, but a second round will be live this coming Friday (20 August 2021) on the brand’s website here, at www.airain.com.