The legacy of the Big Pilot collection might be among the newest in the world of luxury watchmaking. Many people know the Big Pilot watch collection from its 2002 launch when IWC introduced the gold standard of aviation watches to the world. But rather few are aware that the prodigious Big Pilot was first launched in 1936. The watch was created for use by civil aviators. The watch was big and robust and had special resistance to rapid temperature fluctuations. It could take on temperatures as low as -40 degree Celsius to temperatures as high as +40 degree Celsius and was also immune to magnetic fields. In many ways, the timepiece proved to be a benchmark for pilot watches in the years to come. With its larger than life dial for easy readability, antimagnetic properties, and extreme temperature resistance, the watch was a unique creation. This is where it all started for the IWC Big Pilot. Although, it would not get this name for another 65 years.
The 1936 timepiece from the International Watch Company not only laid the foundation for the Big Pilot devices but also opened gateways for IWC’s Pilot’s Watch series. These watches, as many will already be aware, would eventually propel IWC into a direction unexplored by the traditionally conventional watchmaker. Not only that but it also revolutionized the way people thought about large watches. Big dials, conspicuous hands, large crown, iconic sans serif numerals, everything about the Pilot’s Watch and the Big Pilot's collections, stands out when compared to their counterparts from their generation.
The modern-day Pilot’s Watch series can be segregated into the classic Pilot’s family, also referred to as the Mark series and the Big Pilot's family.
The Big Pilot: Bigger Than Just a Name
The Big Pilot collection celebrated its 15 years back in 2017 and the year before that was officially tagged as the ‘Year of the Pilot’s watch’. IWC has experienced a lot of success with this watch family over the years. But in reality, the Big Pilot has faced a lot of hurdles on its way to success. The very launch of the watch was a big gamble, to begin with. The Origin of the watch can be traced back to 1936 when it was created for use by pilots in civil aviation. The special anti-magnetic capabilities and extreme temperature resistance made this an ideal tool for the cockpit. The watch featured a rotating bezel along with an index for recording short periods of time.
The first official Big Pilot’s or the B-Uhr 431, was introduced in 1940 for the German Air force or the Luftwaffe. The timepiece was launched in 1000 pieces and sported features like a 55mm dial, a calibre 52 TSC movement, sans serif numerals, and a triangle flanked by two dots at 12 o’clock. The hands were in the shape of a dagger and the central seconds' marker was a sweep styled elongated hand. It also featured an oversized onion shaped crown that was a necessity for pilots wearing gloves. The watch was marvellous in so many ways. However, it does not get the recognition it deserves because of its association with the on-war German forces around the same time. This marked the beginning of a ‘big’ halt in the production of the groundbreaking timepiece. The world would not come face to face with this specimen up until 2002.
You see, the timepiece was not a creation that celebrated flight. Instead, it was an invention born for war. The birth of Big Pilot watches was due to the need for timed precision in situations of life and death.
Pilot’s Watch Takes Flight
The war had ended, the dust had settled, and the aftermath was anything but pretty. But watchmakers were still business.1949 witnessed the advent of the Mark XI, a watch that was made after a request from the British government. The requirements for the device were ultra-specific that included anti-magnetic properties. The watch utilized a calibre 89 movement and was supplied to Her Majesty’s Royal Air force and remained in commission till 1981. The Mark XI later came to be the first of the now immensely popular Mark series.
The 1990s were an exciting time for Pilot’s Watch enthusiasts. In 1992, IWC came up with Pilot’s Watch Double Chronograph and in 1994 IWC delivered the Chronograph Ceramic. Both the timepieces signified a big leap for the Swiss watchmaker on the technology front. The Pilot’s Watch Double Chronograph (ref. 3711) was an ageless classic that was presented at the Basel watch expo the very same year. For IWC, the watch acted as its first double automatic chronograph. The Chronograph Ceramic was no underdog either and ref. 3705 was an exceptional example. Launched in 1994, the watch operated on calibre 7922 movement and had a case made of a substance called zirconium oxide, a ceramic compound that is virtually imperishable. Another timepiece under the Pilot’s Watch banner was launched in 1994. This was the coveted Mark XII ref. 3241. The watch surpassed the Mark XI not only in name but in features as well. Features like the convex Sapphire Glass, date display, the screw-in crown, and the automatic calibre A8842 movement made the Mark XII the face of contemporary IWC.
Pilot’s Watches continued their triumph into the late 1990s with the UTC or the ‘Universal Time Coordinated’. 1998 was witness to the launch of ref. 3251, a watch running on a calibre A30710 movement that facilitated Universal Time. In essence, the user could not only keep track of times and dates of different parts of the world but also change them via the crown itself.
The beginning of the new millennium was welcomed with Spitfire, literally. This was the first time the Swiss watch house included this name in their collection. The Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Spitfire Automatic was delivered in a 1000 special edition launch in the year 2000. The timepiece, which was a direct homage to the legendary war aircraft, would later become an independent series under the aforementioned watch family as well as the Big Pilot's collection.
In 2016, the Swiss watch manufacturer conceptualized the Pilot’s Watch Mark XVIII celebrating the 80th jubilee of the Pilot’s Watch. The device donned a midnight blue dial, and a date display at 3 o’clock, and used a central seconds hand. Another jewel in IWC’s crown this year was the Timezoner Chronograph. The watch was unique in a way that it allowed the user to change the time zone he/she is in. All that needed to be done is that the bezel had to be pressed in a downward trajectory in order to select the desired time zone. The hour hand marker, the day-night display, and the date display would adjust automatically. Now, how cool is that?
The Big Pilot Returns
The 2000s were a special period. Not only did this era see the revival of the Big Pilot's but it also stood witness to the invention of the monster calibre 5000 series. The new Big Pilot's ref. 5002 was the first watch to operate on the calibre 5011. The timepiece featured a 46.2mm case, an impressive 7-day power reserve, a central seconds hand, and a date display at precisely 6 o’clock. In many ways, ref. 5002 was exactly like the 1940 B-UHR 431, yet different.
The subsequent years were almost like a paradise for Big Pilot's lovers as IWC launched several variants of the ref. 5002. These included the ref. 5002 Jordan, ref. 5002 Platinum Black, ref. 5002 Transitional, ref. 5004 Steel, ref. 502605 Sincere Perpetual, and ref. 500406 Gassan.
The success of this marvel was in question, however. The watch, without a doubt, was a loving and true tribute to the 1940 original. But the question vis-à-vis its success was related to its history with the infamous Nazi German Army. Regardless, IWC wagered a bet on the Big Pilot’s integrity, instrumental purity, and engineering genius. As history recalls, the watch not only transcended political opinions but found its way in the heart of watch enthusiasts and purists. With features like the Breguet overcoil, automatic Pellaton winding mechanism, and a 7-day power reserve, the watch was a trailblazer in every sense. The effect of its success can be seen in the form of the influence it has had on other Pilot’s Watches over the years, apart from the original Mark series.
No, this is not a reference to the 1986 Tom Cruise film. The Top Gun was added to the Pilot’s Watch family in 2007 when IWC released the Double Chronograph Top Gun Edition. The name finds its origins in the special training course provided by the US Navy Fighter Weapons School known as the ‘Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor’ better known by its legendary moniker ‘Top Gun’. In 2012, IWC launched the Top Gun watch series with five different models in both the Pilot’s Watch and Big Pilot's families. The timepiece did more than just good in carrying features such as black textile straps, subdued black cases, and militarily styled dials. Big Pilot's Top Gun Miramar (ref. 501902) and Big Pilot's Top Gun (ref. 502902, 502903) are among the most popular as well as revered watches under the Top Gun brand. Over the years, the Top Gun alias has become more than just a reference to the watch’s history in aviation. Instead, it has become a symbolism of state of the art technology and versatile watchmaking, synonymous with IWC.
Big Pilot Today
Even today, the IWC sticks to the basics when it comes to the Big Pilot’s watches. With a large 46.2mm case, Italian leather from Santoni, and an image of the Junkers Ju 52 aircraft, the Big Pilot’s watch collection maintains close relation to its predecessor. Nonetheless, the new generation of the collection never fails to reflect an eclectic mix of traits.
The best example that comes to mind is the Heritage series of 2016. The Heritage 48 and Heritage 55 showcase a 48mm and a 55mm case, respectively. On the movement front, the Heritage 48 operates on a calibre 59215 movement with an eight-day power reserve. Whereas, the Heritage 55 runs on an in-house hand-wound calibre 98300 with a 46 hours power reserve. When it comes down to contemporary design, the 2016 Big Pilot’s Top Gun (ref. 502001) is another fine example of the finesse that this watch family is famous for. This portrayal of the matte black ceramic case, the 46mm size, and textile looking calf-skin bracelet also had a Top Gun engraving at the back. Although, the equilateral triangle at 12 o’clock was not shoved all the way in like it is in most contemporary models.
IWC made a special effort in commemorating the popular French pilot-cum-author Antoine de Saint-Exupery as well as his book Le Petit Prince or the Little Prince in the form of ageless watches. These are available in the traditional 46.2mm cases and in several models under the ‘Le Petit Prince’ and ‘Antoine De Saint Exupery’ series. An emphasized feature of the two aforementioned watch series is the dial. The ‘Le Petit Prince’ collection exhibits a blue sunburst decorated dial. On the other hand, the ‘Antoine De Saint Exupery’ collection graces its watches by a brown sunburst dial.
Like all other IWC collections, in 2018 the Big Pilot’s family had limited ‘150 Years’ editions too. These Jubilee timepieces were the Big Pilot’s Annual Calendar (ref. 502708) and the Big Date (ref. 510503/510504).
Latest additions to this prestigious watch family were made at the very beginning of 2019 at the SIHH. Timepieces like the Le Petit Prince Constant Force Tourbillon PT (ref. 590302/590303), the Spitfire Perpetual (ref. 5036010, and the Rodeo Drive Perpetual (ref. 503001) made their debut in the cold of winter.
The legacy of the IWC Big Pilot’s collection has not only revolutionized the world’s perception of large watches but it has also cleared the path for its Swiss counterparts. It would be safe to say that the 48mm King Powers, 48mm Royal oaks, and 44mm Sea Dwellers would not have been in existence had the IWC not relaunched the original Big Pilot in 2002. That being said, the future for the luxury watch collection looks bright with the demand for aviation timepieces not plummeting anytime soon.