IWC's Beloved Big Pilot Just Got a Little Smaller And a Lot Easier to Wear
When it was launched in 2002, the IWC Big Pilot was a bold statement indeed. At 46.2mm in diameter, it was a heritage piece, aimed primarily at collectors. It resurrected a famed line of military-only tool watches from IWC’s past that it timed very neatly with the trend to big watches. 46.2mm was huge by the standards of the time, but it was nothing like the size of the watch that inspired it.
The Beobachtungs-Uhr Flieger 23883 was a whopping 55mm in diameter when it was issued to pilot “observers” (or navigators) in the Luftwaffe from 1940. Its size, back then, had less to do with trends than with it had to do with practicalities. The large pocket-watch movements inside determined the size of the case. But the real advantage to end-users was the stripped-down dinner-plate of a dial, showing only lumed hands, numbers, and markers, making it one of the first super-legible functional readouts in watchmaking.
This year, IWC introduced a new 43mm version of the Pilot with an option of black or blue dial. Ostensibly the move suits smaller wrists and smaller tastes. The simple three-hand design with roman numerals and a minute track are steeped in its ancestor’s functional purpose, with only an exhibition case back as a nod to glamor. The double-riveted calf-leather deployant strap is another hallmark of the Big Pilot, reaching back all the way to the double length straps of the first B-Uhr watches. But the new version also comes with an IWC-proprietary quick-release mechanism, allowing you to switch, in seconds, between the supplied strap and separately available straps from IWC boutiques.
The new version is not only smaller in diameter. The case has also been slimmed vertically by a good 2mm, and the chunky conical crown is a tad smaller in proportion, too. All of which makes for a very different wearing experience than its predecessor. It’s still big for sure, but the 3mm reduction is critical. Arguably, a 43mm watch brings the Big Pilot for the first time into the ballpark of many other popular IWC watches.
In 2002, and ever since, 46.2mm of watch was not something you strapped on by accident. Since its launch, the Big Pilot also came with multiple bells and whistles—extra doohickeys that were squarely aimed at seducing collectors, like power-reserve indicators, date windows, and more. Many of the special editions indeed have played extensively with complications, even including perpetual calendars and chronographs. In the new edition, all that is stripped away, leaving only hours, minutes, and seconds.
Watch case sizes wax and wane according to unknown stimuli on the whole, but right now the trend is definitely downward, with many new editions of classic watches dropping this year as low as 36mm and finding in the process an appreciative audience. Not that this gradual decline in sizes suggests we may end up with a 36mm Big Pilot somewhere down the line, because that wouldn’t make a lot of sense. “Small Pilot” just doesn’t quite have the same heroic ring to it. And 43mm is still certainly big enough to call itself Big.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.