I’ll begin this article with a fun fact, something that’s not just cool trivia watch geeks can show off at social gatherings, but also highlights the long-term vision of Georges-Favre Jacot, the founder of watch brand Zenith. In 1888, Jacot registered the trademark for the word ‘PILOTe’ (French) and later in 1904 ‘PILOT’ (English). As a result, Zenith is the only watch brand in the world that that can have ‘PILOT’ written on its dials. Jacot’s idea to have ‘Pilot’ on the brand’s aviation watches to provide an instant connect seems like a masterstroke in marketing for those times, but then Jacot was a forward thinking man – he knew that the world of aviation was going to take flight (literally and metaphorically), which it did at the turn of the century.
Cut to 2023, and this little detail, this word, was at heart of Zenith’s offerings at Watches and Wonders, held in Geneva. Reviving its Pilot line with a contemporary design, the brand showcased four models - the Pilot Automatic, and the Pilot Big Date Flyback, both in steel and ceramic versions. Our October-December 2023 Digital Cover watch, the Pilot Big Date Flyback in ceramic, perfectly personifies this new design direction (though flair seems more apt) that moves away entirely from the vintage-inspired look that had characterised the line thus far, while also furthering the legacy that Zenith has in aviation watches. Zenith Pilot Big Date Flyback
The Pilot Big Date Flyback is a 42.5mm timepiece whose case is entirely microblasted for a stealthy matte finish. The case design is new, with a distinct flat-top round bezel that rests atop a rounded case, from which extend smoother, curved lugs. The watch has a black opaline dial, with horizontal grooves that are inspired by the look of corrugated metal sheets that make up the fuselage of older aircrafts – the play of light on these creates a striking chiaroscuro effect. On these rest applied Arabic hour marks that are modern, and a far cry from the Gothic font of earlier models.
Details of the Zenith Pilot Big Date Flyback
To maintain a certain cleanliness in design, 3 and 9 have been replaced by dots to avoid halved digits and give the chronograph counters – 30 minutes at 3 and small seconds at 9 - their due space, while at 6 rests a horizontal line, which is reminiscent of the artificial horizon instrument in planes; it is also a subtle, and allows the eye to be drawn to the big date and the signage ‘Pilot’ below it, both important elements. The big date matches the dial colour and has large white numerals. There are five hands on the dial, four of which are lance shaped; the central seconds hand has an extended tip that reaches the white seconds track on the periphery of the dial. All the applied metal elements are filled with white Super-LumiNova. The oversized, grooved crown is easy to hold and features the Zenith star.
The case structure and design
A short history of Zenith’s Pilot line
While the departure in design on its own certainly demands attention, this facelift needs to be seen in the context of the line’s history and historical models to have deeper significance. At the turn of the century, Jacot wanted in on the world of aviation, and so, in 1909, when French aviator Louis Blériot successfully flew across the English Channel, he did so with the help of a Zenith watch on the wrist. The timepiece had a chrome-plated case with a large onion-shaped crown that extended out of the case for easy grip with gloved hands. The black enamel dial featured large Arabic numerals and cathedral hands, with luminescent hands and hour markers. At 6 o’clock was a small second subdial. Ironically, the dial didn’t sport the word ‘Pilot’, and instead said ‘Special’, in concurrence with the occasion. The Louis Blériot Zenith
With the success of the timepiece, Zenith cemented its expertise in the aviation watches, making cockpit instruments like altimeters and stopwatches as well. In 1939, Zenith unveiled the Type 20 montre d’aéronef (‘aircraft clock’), a hand-wound clock for aircraft cockpits, whose knurled bezel was used to wind and set the watch. It was the clock that had a large influence on the design of the Zenith Pilot watches that came in the 2010s – we’ll get to that in a bit.
Another important Pilot watch that Zenith made came in the early 1960s, when the brand supplied pilot’s chronographs to A. Cairelli, a Rome-based watch retailer. A. Cairelli was a supplier to the Italian military, and the A. Cairelli ‘Tipo CP-2’ chronographs, powered by the Zenith handwound Calibre 146 DP, ended up being worn by the Italian airforce and navy. Only 2500 of these 43mm, dual register watches that featured a scaled bezel for calculations were made, but not all were sold to the Italian military. The A. Cairelli CP-2 watches were in use until the early eighties. In 2016, Zenith did a modern re-issue of the watch, called Cronometro Tipo CP 2, limited to 1000 pieces. Powering it was the El Primero 4069 movement.
A 2016 Zenith Cronometro Tipo CP 2. Image: Courtesy GPHG
The Zenith Pilot reawakened
With the creation of Zenith's iconic El Primero automatic chronograph calibre in 1969, the brand turned its attention to racing, and the Pilot’s line took a backseat. It was resuscitated in 2012 under the leadership of Jean-Frédéric Dufour, and introduced as the Montre D’Aéronef Type 20 at BaselWorld. This was an enormous 57.5mm watch thanks to a movement, the Calibre 5011 K, that was originally made for deck watches and marine chronometers used on ships – at the Neuchâtel Observatory trials of 1967, the 5011 K had emerged as most accurate movement ever tested by the observatory. Historically inspired by the Montre D’Aéronef Type 20 clock and even Bleriot’s watch, Zenith’s Type 20 watches featured luminous numerals, cathedral hands, and an oversized knurled onion crown, straight lugs, and a titanium case.
The subsequent years saw the Montre D’Aéronef Type 20 become the centrepiece of the Pilot line, and version with enamel, meteorite and skeleton dials came, boasting functionalities like GMT, chronographs based on the iconic El Primero movement, three-hand, time-only ‘Extra-Special’ versions, and more, and in materials like gold, silver and bronze.
A new movement
The fact that the Pilot’s line has featured a historic movement such as the Calibre 5011 K in the past, only meant that the latest version deserved a worthy engine as well. Enter El Primero 3652, a version of the 3600 calibre, which Zenith developed with new functions keeping specifically the Pilot in mind – it boasts a power reserve of 60 hours. The calibre has a 5Hz frequency to straddle both the flyback function and the big date – the latter features a next-gen patented compliant mechanism that ensures that both the date wheels move and stabilize in less than 0.03 seconds. The rectangular chronograph pushers click comfortably, a far cry from heavy push that many chronograph watches require. The date wheel, adjusted via the crown, too glides effortlessly. El Primero Calibre 3652
Turn the watch over and the El Primero 3652 can be seen through the sapphire caseback. The oscillating weight is skeletonised, and replicates the ‘artificial horizon’ found in cockpits to inform the pilot of the aircraft’s orientation relative to Earth’s horizon. Also visible is the blued column wheel.
The movement view through the caseback and the interchangable strap functionality
The Zenith Pilot Big Date Flyback is offered with two straps – a black and a khaki green cordura effect rubber one. And both can be changed with a quick-release mechanism integrated into the back straps. The design of the steel triple-folding clasp is also new.
For Zenith, the past few years have been about the Chronomaster and the Defy lines, and a comeback of the Pilot in this new design points to a renewed interest in a legacy collection. Also to be noted is that as of now, only these four watches are showcased as being part of the Pilot’s line on the brand website – all older references have been removed. A sign of things to come? We think so.
Images: Courtesy Zenith