After a stretch of El Primero and Defy releases, Zenith gave us not just a refresh of their famous Pilot watch collection but one that is, save for the name, entirely new altogether. For Watches & Wonders 2023, the only brand with the rights to use the word “Pilot” for its pilot watches came in strong with four new pieces.
The Zenith Pilot Automatic and Pilot Big Date Flyback are fresh new designs that take cues from historic styles but avoid tired rehashing. In rounded cases with flat bezels and nice grippable crowns, the highly legible new Pilot watches have large Arabic numerals on the dial as well as date windows at 6 o’clock (albeit two different styles of date windows). Of course, the sizes are different, with the Pilot Automatic measuring 40mm wide and the Pilot Big Date Flyback measuring 42.5mm with either steel or ceramic case iterations for both. While simple in design, the steel cases have an excellent contrast of brushed and polished finishing with chamfering throughout. The ceramic cases are fully micro blasted to create that nice matte finish, which I think was certainly the way to go as a glossy finish just wouldn’t work here. All are also water resistant to 100 m which certainly boosts its everyday wear bona fides.
The Pilot Automatic is a classic pilot’s watch that emphasizes legibility above all else. Rarely are hour numerals (applied and done in a sans-serif font here) as properly large and lumed as the hour and minutes hands but here we are. It almost seems trite to point out legibility after one glance at a photo of this collection, doesn’t it? The black dial has thick horizontal grooves that keep things from being too flat while resisting being a distraction. I really appreciate the detail of the horizontal line right above the date window as it flows with the striping on the dial while standing out as its own in white. This is apparently a nod to artificial horizon instruments on a plane’s dashboard, which is very cool but, more importantly, it looks great.
Turning the Pilot Automatic over reveals the automatic El Primero 3620 movement, which was debuted with the first Defy Skyline, though we get a standard seconds hand here rather than the 1/10th second counter. Done with a 3/4 plate and opened rotor, the 3620 operates at 5 Hz and has a 60-hour power reserve.
The Pilot Big Date Flyback Automatic is a bit larger at 42.5mm wide and largely shares the same design language as its three-handed sibling. Of course, there is the 30-minute chronograph counter at 3 o’clock and running seconds sub-dial at 9 o’clock. If the name of this version didn’t give it away already, there is also the addition of that eye-catching big date window at 6 o’clock. There is a substantial and satisfying *click* when the date window changes and Zenith has a patent on the system which they claim advances and stabilizes both date wheels in under .03 seconds. This is part of the new El Primero 3652 movement which also operates at 5 Hz with a power reserve of 60 hours.
I recall that Zenith did release the Pilot Big Date Special about a decade ago and, wow, what a difference a few years can make. While I’m sure it was a perfectly cromulent watch, this new Big Date Flyback outshines the previous iteration in every conceivable way, but most especially in design. Of course, taste is relative, and my inbox is open to hear the case for why the Pilot Big Date Special was a superior iteration.
While the black ceramic version keeps things simple with the monochromatic layout, the steel model has a design that hearkens back to the old El Primero Rainbow from the late 1990s. I actually wish Zenith took things a little further but the green, yellow, and blue accents on the chronograph sub-dial and splashy orange chronograph hand really do lend so much personality with a relatively conservative use of color.
Both the Pilot Automatic and the Pilot Flyback Chronograph feature Zenith’s fantastic and easy to operate quick change strap system and each watch comes with two straps. The Zenith Pilot Automatic in black ceramic (ref. 49.4000.3620/21.I001) comes with a black cordura effect rubber strap as well as a khaki cordura effect strap and is priced at $9,600 while the Pilot Automatic in steel (ref. 03.4000.3620/21.I001) comes with a black cordura effect rubber strap and a brown calfskin leather strap with a price of $7,500. The Zenith Pilot Big Date Flyback in black ceramic (ref. 49.4000.3652/21.I001) comes with a black and khaki cordura effect rubber strap and is priced at $13,500 while the Pilot Big Date Flyback in steel (Ref. 03.4000.3652/21.I001) comes with a black cordura effect rubber strap and a brown calfskin leather strap with a price of $11,500.
To learn more, visit Zenith here.