Zenith’s aviator’s chronograph returns in the Pilot Big Date Flyback
With its new Pilot collection, Zenith reimagines a classic tool watch along distinctly contemporary lines.
Established in 1865, Zenith is a watchmaker that has borne witness to one of the most important innovations of the 20th century — namely, the development of the airplane. In fact, company founder George Favre-Jacot was so bullish on this technology in the late 19th century that he filed a trademark for the term “Pilote” in 1888, and the English equivalent, “Pilot,” in 1904. This would prove to be a prescient decision; as the aviation industry came of age, Zenith developed dashboard instruments and other timepieces for pilots, including for Louis Blériot, a French aviator who made history in 1909 when he became the first person to fly across the English Channel. From 1939’s Type 20 Montre D’Aéronef aircraft clock to the beloved “Tipo CP-2” chronograph of the 1960s, Zenith’s pilots watches have become classics, beloved by collectors around the world.
While the Le Locle-based maison could easily fall back on vintage designs and rest on its horological laurels, this isn’t the course taken by CEO Julian Tornare in Zenith’s new Pilot collection. Consisting of the Pilot Automatic and Pilot Big Date Flyback, the lineup is a thoroughly contemporary riff on the idea of an aviation timepiece; while it does feature vintage inspiration, it doesn’t fall victim to the idea of “reissuing” a particular reference. Rather, the Automatic and Big Date Flyback make use of aesthetic nods to pilot’s watches past, but include new features that help them stand out in a crowded market.
The Zenith Pilot Big Date Flyback
Measuring 40mm in diameter, the Pilot Automatic features a new case design with a flat-top bezel, making for a simple, handsome look more in line with the knurled bezels of early 20th century watches rather than the rotating timing bezels of the 1960s and on. Th e stainless steel version, with its vertically-brushed, satin finish, seems all business — that is, until one notices the polished chamfers that hint at the watch’s more luxurious remit. Its cousin in black ceramic, meanwhile, is fully microblasted, lending it a tactical air that was rarely seen on vintage pilot’s watches.
The 40 mm Pilot Automatic in black ceramic with its interchangable second strap
Of course, a pilot’s watch wouldn’t be complete without an oversized crown that’s easy to operate with gloved hands. While the version on Zenith’s new fare still hints at the “onion” shape of older pieces, it’s been updated to lend it a less bulbous, more contemporary form. Th e dial, meanwhile, is distinctly modern in design, with a black opaline surface beset with horizontal grooves reminiscent of the corrugated metal used on vintage aircraft frames, while large Arabic indices are applied, rather than painted, and filled with bright Super-LumiNova. A handy date window at 6 o’clock is topped by a horizontal white index that recalls the artificial horizon instrument seen in cockpit dashboards, while a highly legible sword handset with a long-tipped seconds hand leaves no mistake as to the precise time. Finally, the dial is proudly marked with the word “Pilot,” as Zenith remains the only brand with the rights to use such a moniker.
The Zenith Pilot Automatic is powered by the legendary El Primero 3620 automatic high-frequenccy movement
While the time-only Pilot Automatic is a minimalist take on a classic tool watch, the Pilot Big Date Flyback provides a more interactive experience, brimming as it is with subdials, windows, pushers, and more. Measuring 42.5mm in diameter, it similarly comes in either stainless steel or ceramic and is water resistant to 100m, much like its time-only siblings. And while it features a black dial with horizontal grooves and applied Arabic indices like the Pilot Automatic, it’s equipped with a flyback chronograph mechanism that manifests in the form of a dual-register chronograph display, plus a patented Big Date above 6 o’clock that jumps in .007 seconds.
The Pilot Big Date Flyback. The El Primero 3653 automatic high-frequency chronograph caliber with big date and flyback functions visibe through the caseback
The steel version, like the steel Pilot Automatic, comes paired to a handsome, black Cordura-effect rubber strap plus an extra brown calfskin leather strap, while the ceramic comes with a black Corduraeffect rubber strap with a specially designed folding clasp and a khaki Cordura-effect rubber strap. All, of course, feature a quick-release mechanism for easy swaps.
Being contemporary Zenith watches, neither Pilot model would be complete without a trusty automatic movement from the El Primero line: In the Pilot Automatic, this takes the form of the El Primero 3620, a high-frequency movement with a 60-hour power reserve and a beat rate of 5 Hz. In the Pilot Big Date Flyback, timekeeping is via the El Primero 3652, which provides both big date and flyback functionality, plus an “artificial horizon” rotor that’s visible via a display caseback.
The sum of these many notable features is something still easily recognizable as a “pilot’s watch,” but that feels very much of-the-moment, rather than stuck in a distant past. “It’s important for us to come with a contemporary approach to the Pilot, because it’s still seen as a very vintage watch,” says Zenith CEO Julian Tornare. “This is a new approach — we’re not going where our competitors are going.”
“It’s important for us to come with a contemporary approach to the Pilot, because it’s still seen as a very vintage watch. This is a new approach — we’re not going where our competitors are going.” – Zenith CEO Julian Tornare
The Zenith Pilot Big Date Flyback with a 42.5 mm black ceramic case., oversize crown, and corrugated textured dial.