The New Pilot Collection Debuts at Watches & Wonders 2023
Watches and Wonders

Fly Me, I’m Zenith: The New Pilot Collection Debuts at Watches & Wonders 2023

In Geneva, Zenith breathes new life into one of its pillar collections that, until now, has – ahem – flown below the radar a bit.

By Mike Espindle
Executive Editor

In the recent flurry of releases focusing on the El Primero movement’s more traditional sport chronograph executions and the flexible design of the DEFY collection, one might almost forget about Zenith’s esteemed legacy of fine pilot watches.

But that would be a big mistake because Zenith’s aviation history runs deep (flies high?). Now, the brand’s totally redesigned Pilot collection announced at Watches & Wonders 2023 is the maison’s longest-standing line.

Daring Men, Flying Machines

As far back as the late 19th century, Zenith’s founder Georges-Favre Jacot could see the game-changing role the budding field of aviation was about to play in human history.

Thus, in 1888, Zenith filed a trademark for the French term “pilote,” followed by the same operation for the English term in 1904. Shortly after that, the manufacture not only became a leading producer of specialized watches for aviators but of in-cockpit flight instrumentation also.

So, while it might feel like it’s been a while since we’ve felt compelled to focus on a Zenith pilot watch, it was really only a few years ago that the maker released the El Primero-equipped Pilot Type 20 Chronograph Silver during LVMH Watch Week 2021. That timepiece smacked of a kind dashing pilot watch classicism, a goggles-and-flowing-scarf jauntiness that reflected Zenith’s golden age of aviation endeavors.

However, the newly released 40mm Pilot Automatic and 42.5mm Pilot Big Date Flyback are both a modern re-write of Zenith’s deep-heritage pilot watch design codes, kind of like how a stealth fighter is a modern re-write of the bi-plane.

They Don’t Call it a FLYback for Nothing

While a flyback chronograph might be more popularly associated with car race timing, where you’d use a quick-reset chronograph function to time multiple events occurring back-to-back, it can be equally essential in aviation. Low-altitude, combat, and complex navigation flying can often require a series of discreet, jarring, and quick maneuvers over the course of a few minutes. Or even less.

The new version of the El Primero 3652 calibre that gives lift to both of the new Pilot Big Date Flyback models not only empowers the useful chronograph function, it also folds in another flyer-friendly feature: a very legible big date aperture at 6 o’clock, with lightning-fast date disc jumps, just above the dial’s “Pilot” badging.

The 42.5mm Pilot Big Date Flyback is available in either a sleek, stealthy black micro-blasted ceramic case execution or a stainless steel version. But we’ll go more into the stainless steel iteration below.

The more modern looking, the black version is dichromatic with vibrant white accents popping off a black, horizontally corrugated dial in the form of large lumed Arabic hour markers (with an artificial horizon flat line indicator at 6 o’clock and dot indicators for 3 and 9 o’clock); minute hash marks; lumed hour, minute, and central chronograph seconds hand; numerals, gauging, and hands for the small seconds sub-dial at 9 o’clock and the 30-minute totalizer sub-dial at 3 o’clock; and, of course, the big date numerals and all badging.

The black ceramic Pilot Big Date Flyback comes with two straps (a black textured rubber strap and a black khaki fabric strap) and lists for $13,500.

Steely Nerves

As a counterpoint to the sleekness of the black ceramic version, and maybe to give an extra nod to some heritage, the new Pilot Big Date Flyback is also offered in an intriguing stainless steel execution.

An homage to 1997’s El Primero Rainbow, this new “Rainbow Flyback” carries a 30-minute totalizer that tallies time in alternating colors (green to white to yellow to white to blue to white) for better visualization of five-minute intervals. In another nod to the 1997 El Primero Rainbow, the central chronograph seconds hand and the 3 o’clock chronograph minutes hand are colored a bold, orangey red. Still, even with those historical nods, along with the contoured rectangular chronograph pushers and prominent crown both versions carry, the effect is totally modern.

The 42.5mm stainless steel Pilot Big Date “Rainbow Flyback” comes with both a black textured rubber strap and a brown calfskin leather strap and lists for $11,500.

Automatic for the Pilot People

Zenith’s new vision for a three-handed pilot’s watch debuted yesterday as the 40mm Pilot Automatic, powered by a 60-hour power reserve toting El Primero 3620 automatic movement. Like its flyback-equipped sister, this timepiece is available in either a stealthy black ceramic case with white accents or a straightforward stainless steel case with a black dial and white gauging for those who might want a touch more of a traditional look.

While the lack of chronograph pushers makes the prominent pilot’s watch-style crown even more so, the absence of sub-dials means there’s room on the dial for full numerals at 3 and 9 o’clock. Moreover, the much smaller date aperture at 6 o’clock is now below the artificial horizon flat line, bringing the indicator up towards the center of the dial a bit more.

The overall effect is quite similar to the Pilot Big Date Flyback: thoroughly re-thought and modern, with just the right amount of a traditional functional nature to make it a fully legitimate pilot’s tool.

The black ceramic version will list for $9,600 and comes with the same strap options as its flyback sibling. Meanwhile, for the steel version, expect to pay $7,500, again, with the same strap options as the “Rainbow Flyback.”

You can learn more at Zenith’s website.

(Photography by Liam O'Donnell & Pierre Vogel)

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