IWC SCHAFFHAUSEN’s Not-So-Big Pilot’s Watches

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IWC SCHAFFHAUSEN’s Not-So-Big Pilot’s Watches

Words by Mr Chris Elvidge | Photography by Mr Bruce Anderson

26 November 2021

The challenge faced by any heritage brand is how to walk the fine line between respecting the traditions of the past and fulfilling the needs of the modern consumer. Or, to put it another way, how to stay relevant while remaining true to your roots. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the oddly anachronic world of luxury watches. These intricate mechanical contraptions are relics of a bygone era, yoked to the past by the nature of their design. And yet this is an industry constantly on the move, beholden to many of the same market forces that drive trends in fashion. Innovation is the key to survival.

Not all brands, it must be said, manage this juggling act as well as others. But one that does it exceptionally well is IWC SCHAFFHAUSEN, whose Pilot’s Watch collection of aviator-style watches presents an object lesson in how to modernise an icon while keeping its fundamentals intact. Those fundamentals can be traced back more than 80 years to watches worn by pilots’ navigators in WWII, huge military instruments whose DNA lives on in the finer details of today’s Pilot’s Watches. Look at the numerals, the shape of the hands and of course that iconic triangular marker at 12 o’clock – originally designed for easy legibility in a gloomy cockpit – and you can’t help but notice the similarity.

While IWC’s modern Pilot’s Watches remain remarkably faithful to those early aviators’ instruments, what makes them so successful today is how that design language has evolved. From the 46mm Big Pilot, most similar in scale to those original B-Uhr watches, down to the 39mm model, which takes its design cues from the post-war Mark II, the Pilot’s Watch collection is a broad offering that only continues to grow, with new colours, case materials and complications added each year.

This year’s biggest development? Well, maybe “big” isn’t the right word. The 2021 edition of the brand’s venerable Big Pilot is, it turns out, a little smaller than usual, measuring 43mm in diameter. That’s still a substantial watch by any means, but it’s noticeably smaller than the most common 46mm model, which were designed to be worn over a flight jacket and measured a gargantuan 55mm across.

Shaving off just three millimetres might not seem like a huge deal, but it’s a democratic move from IWC SCHAFFHAUSEN that makes the Big Pilot accessible to a far bigger audience. Make no mistake, this is an iconic watch –just ask Mr Christoph Grainger Herr, CEO of the brand, who rightly describes it as “a cultural icon” and calls it “one of the most recognised watch designs in the world”. With its unique design, this watch is particularly appreciated for its bold look and is regularly seen on the wrists of action heroes.

Aside from the smaller size, what marks the new Big Pilot 43 out is the purity of the design. Take a look at the dial and you’ll see neither date window nor power reserve indicator, both of which feature on the original Big Pilot. This results in not only a more balanced, but a more legible dial as well: in the larger model the date window and power reserve indicator obscure the numbers 2, 3, 4 and 6. “We have returned to the extreme purity of the original observation watch designed more than 80 years ago and created a simple three-hand watch with no other elements on the dial,” says Mr Christian Knoop, the company’s creative director. Rather than a question of millimetres, it is this very simplicity that reminds whoever wears this watch of its historical design.

And it’s not just the Big Pilot that has been given a new, sleeker profile. Inspired by the success of its Spitfire chronograph, which featured a bronze case measuring 41mm in diameter, IWC’s classic Pilot’s chronograph is now also being made in the same size – that’s down from the standard 43mm. Featuring an IWC-manufactured 69385 calibre movement that’s visible through a sapphire-crystal case back, it’s also available with either a petrol-blue or emerald-green dial.

Has this downsizing at IWC – and of arguably its most iconic design, the Big Pilot – come as a surprise? Hardly. We’ve been noticing a trend for smaller watches across the industry for a while now; it was only a matter of time before it came for the biggest watch of all. What’s more surprising is just how well these rugged, tool-like watches wear their daintier dimensions – and all while sacrificing none of IWC’s proud aeronautical heritage.

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