There’s rarely a consensus on anything in the increasingly tribal world of watch connoisseurship — bracelet vs. strap, date vs. no-date, and manual-wind vs. automatic being just a few of the eternal debates among opinionated aficionados. But one of the few things that at least most of us can agree upon is that Zenith — aside from its historical importance in the development of self-winding, ultra-precise chronograph movements — has also in recent years excelled at producing crowd-pleasing vintage-style pilots’ watches. Exhibit A is the watch that’s been on my wrist for the past few weeks: the Zenith Pilot Cronometro Tipo CP-2 Flyback in the new-but-looks-old “aged stainless steel” case.
First, a bit of history on how this watch came to be. In the 1960s, Zenith produced 2,500 pieces of a chronograph watch called the TIPO CP-2 for the Italian air force, equipped with one of Zenith’s most reliable and popular chronograph movements of the time, Caliber 146 DP. As these rare and collectible pilots’ watches started fetching large sums on the increasingly heated vintage-watch market, Zenith launched a contemporary version, faithful to the look and spirit of the original and equipped with the 146 DP’s modern successor, the El Primero chronograph movement. The original Zenith Heritage Cronometro TIPO CP-2, launched in 2016, was a limited edition of 1,000 pieces that took its major design cues specifically from the watches delivered to Italian Navy and Air Force pilots by Roman distributor A. Cairelli throughout the 1960s and ’70s. The model, referred to by collectors as the “Cairelli,” was also renowned in military aviation circles as the standard-issue wrist wear of American Lockheed F104 Starfighter pilots. In 2018, on the heels of the limited edition’s success, Zenith launched a second version, not limited, with new case materials and a flyback function added to the chronograph: one came housed in an increasingly trendy bronze case; the other, my review watch, in so-called “aged steel,” which Zenith had used previously on watches in its Pilot Type 20 collection.
Zenith’s aged steel receives its faux patina from a DLC treatment, and the result is a look perfectly suited to this retro-look aviator’s watch. Not polished or brush-finished in the traditional sense, the case offers an appealing gunmetal-gray gloss that harmonizes very well with the pebbled, slate-gray dial, whose colors radiate subtly to a darker tone at the edges. The bezel, made of the same material as the case, rotates with a series of little clicks in both directions, a navigation-friendly feature for pilots, and features the inverted triangle at 12 o’clock (technically, at the 60-minute mark, since it’s movable) that is also a hallmark of historical pilots’ watches. The case measures 43 mm in diameter — not small by any means but substantially downsized from the 48-mm girth of Zenith’s mainline Pilot Type 20 watches. I have always thought that this more accessible size, coupled with the unmistakably vintage-inspired details, was a major factor in the original model’s almost-instant popularity.
The crown, which does not screw down but simply pulls out to its single, hand-setting position, is grooved for easy gripping (though I suspect one of those historical pilots might have had trouble winding it with gloves on, due to its relatively small size) and adorned with Zenith’s “star” symbol in raised relief. The pushers are very easy to use, snapping stoutly at the press of a fingertip to start, stop, and reset the chronograph and to use its flyback function, which for the unitiated means that the wearer can instantly return the running chronograph hand back to zero to immediately begin timing a new interval. The user-friendliness should come as no surprise, since both the bezel and chronograph pushers on this model’s historical predecessors were engineered for easy handling and to meet a strict set of technical specifications imposed by Zenith’s military customers.
The grained texture on the dial gives it a very attractive yet suitably rugged look, while the Arabic hour numerals (sans a 3 or a 9, whose positions are overlapped by the subdials) are easily legible against the dark background. The bicompax dial arrangement is appealing in its symmetry: Zenith logo directly under a centered Zenith star at 12 o’clock, 30-minute chronograph subdial at 3 o’clock, small-seconds subdial at 9 o’clock, the printed word “FLYBACK” centered at the bottom of the two subdials, directly above 6 o’clock. The use of the same rough grained texture in the recessed subdials — rather than a contrasting one, as many other watches of this style opt for — adds to the harmonious, monochromatic look.
The pentagon-shaped hour and minute hands are coated with Super-LumiNova, so the legibility for night piloting, or any other nocturnal missions for which one might choose to assign this watch, is also superb. The curved arrow at the tip of the central chronograph seconds hand, also dabbed with the luminous substance in its center, reminds one of the shape of an airplane, which one would guess is not purely coincidental.
Unlike many of the previously mentioned Zenith Type 20 Pilot watches, which are distinguished by solid casebacks with vintage-aviation-inspired engraved motifs, the Tipo CP-2 has a decidedly non-historically accurate, albeit crowd-pleasing, element: a sapphire window in its screwed caseback, allowing a view of the movement, an El Primero chronograph caliber — with one of the base movement’s complications, the date display, stripped out and another element, the stopwatch’s flyback functionality, added — which Zenith has dubbed the El Primero Caliber 405 B. As anyone who’s read my previous review of the Zenith Chronomaster El Primero Full Open knows, I find the El Primero’s micromechanical landscape to be a feast for the eyes, and of course its column-wheel controlled, ultra-high-frequency chronograph function is beyond reproach. Thanks to the openworked winding rotor, decorated with côtes de Genève and balanced in its center by the Zenith star, one can peer almost unhindered into the movement’s vista of gears, bridges, levers, springs, and wheels. The 50-hour power reserve is also a big plus, especially in the unlikely event that its owner chooses to leave this watch on a dresser all weekend without wearing it.
The watch’s retro-military retro look is completed by the dark gray, somewhat green-tinted calf leather strap, suitably rough and gritty on its outer side (reflecting the pebbled texture of the dial) and soft on its black underside, making for an instantly comfortable wrist feel. It closes with a simple pronged buckle with a relief Zenith star. Though the watch is definitely more casual sport than button-down luxury, its metallic color scheme matches up nicely with a variety of wardrobe choices, looking especially sharp with a gray suit and light blue dress shirt. In the world of luxury watches, it seems everything old (or “aged”) is indeed new again, and this timepiece’s vintage style will almost certainly make a positive contemporary impression, even if you’re more likely to wear it in a cocktail lounge than a cockpit.
Best of all, the Zenith Cronometro Tipo CP-2 Flyback, in both the aged steel iteration reviewed here and the very handsome bronze-cased, chocolate-brown-dialed alternative, are both offered at roughly the same price ($7,600) as the original, steel-cased, non-flyback-equipped limited edition from 2016. So what you’re losing in exclusivity you’re gaining back in chronograph complexity and exotic case material.