Vintage Eye for the Modern Guy: IWC Big Pilot’s Heritage Watch

With SIHH 2017 only a few short days away, and with many brands almost assured to release at least a few historically inspired new watches, I have been gearing up by reviewing some of the most significant releases we have seen since last year’s show. Of these, I want to bring us back to IWC’s revamped Pilot’s Watch collection and, more specifically, the IWC Big Pilot’s Heritage Watch.

As has become customary of IWC at SIHH, the brand each year revamps one of its six broad collections, with last year’s focus being the Pilot’s Watch series. The revisit to the series saw a host of updates and new watches, from the new Mark XVIII, to a new world-timer chronograph, to a 36-mm time-only piece, to 48-mm and 55-mm versions of the historically inspired Big Pilot Heritage Watch. This year, IWC will revisit its Da Vinci series; more details on that will surely be forthcoming.

IWC Pilot Heritage - vintage model

The Big Pilot series is based upon the B-Uhr (Beobachtungs-Uhren, or observation watch)style aviation watch developed during World War II for the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe. After their initial development, undertaken by a number of Swiss and German manufacturers, these watches began to heavily influence military and aviation timepieces —encouraging larger case sizes, a more intense focus on legibility, and the use of soft iron inner cases to resist the effects of magnetic fields. Years after the fall of the Axis Powers, this style of watch (pictured above) has remained a very popular design, especially the ones in IWC’s lineup, and as such the brand has once again returned to the original piece to develop a more historically-oriented timekeeper.

IWC Pilot Watch Heritage 55 - front

The IWC Big Pilot’s Heritage Watch is available in both 48-mm and 55-mm titanium-cased variations, with very little aesthetic distinctions between the two other than size. Using a B-Uhr-style case with long lugs and a large diamond crown, the watch features a matte black dial with faux-patina numerals and accents. Within the outer minute ring is the iconic triangle at the 12 o’clock mark, printed Roman numerals for most of the hour marks, and a smaller subdial for the running seconds towards the 6 o’clock position. Note here that the 48-mm variation (below) also hosts a date indicator within this subdial, while the 55-mm variant (above) does not. The hands of the watch are typical of pilots’ watches, but IWC works to add a bit more historical flair to them by using a vintage-style blue steel for their coloring. Powering the 48-mm watch is the manually-wound, IWC-manufactured Caliber 59215, which stores an eight-day power reserve and can be observed through a small window on the solid caseback. The 55-mm piece uses the IWC-manufactured Caliber 98300, with a 46-hour power reserve. The larger of the two (Ref. IW510401) is priced at $14,800 and was produced in a limited edition of 100 pieces; the 48-mm piece (Ref. IW510301) is priced at $13,400 in a limited edition of 1,000 pieces.

IWC Pilot Watch Heritage 48 - front

The two watches, similar to many other IWC Big Pilots of the past few years, pay an honorable tribute to the original design codes of their vintage predecessors. In particular, the 55-mm piece, with its historically accurate case size, lack of a date window, simple dial configuration, and completely solid caseback, succeeds admirably as a collector’s piece inspired by the past.

One issue I’d  take with this watch, however, involves its price in relation to the complexity of its movement. In comparison with the cheaper, 48-mm variation, it has about a fourth of the total power reserve and a lacks a date window. The reason behind this could be for historical accuracy: such a piece from the 1930s or ‘40s would have had neither a long power reserve or date indicator. Perhaps IWC understands the piece is more likely to spend more time as art in a case than as a timekeeper on the wrist, and chose its movement accordingly.

IWC Pilot Watch Heritage 55 - back

The 48-mm variation, while less of a direct homage, still maintains many “heritage” design elements. Like the 55-mm version, and the vintage pieces, it uses a similar case shape, dial configuration, and crown, but it strays into the modern realm with its contemporary movement, power reserve, and date indicator.

Both pieces, in comparison to their vintage predecessors, also show some pretty distinct changes. Most notable are the finishing practices not seen in the past, but less obvious changes involve the case material and seconds subdial. While seconds subdials were a popular design element on vintage pieces as a whole during this period, the feature (as far as I am aware) did not appear on the B-Uhr style watch, making this design element “vintage-reminiscent,” but not necessarily “vintage-derived.” Even more subtly, the choice to use titanium instead of steel is a major change from the Big Pilots of the past. Whether this was done to reduce the massive weight the vintage pieces tended to have, or just to add an extra layer of modern luxury, it is a significant deviation from the heritage of the series.

IWC Pilot Watch Heritage 48 - back

Overall, IWC’s work in creating vintage-inspired pieces — even with a few changes and relatively higher prices compared to other B-Uhr style watches — is for the best. The brand is a leader in horology, and has often been a trend-setter with its designs. Perhaps other brands with an aviation history will be inspired to follow suit once again in their historically inspired modern pieces. Until then, we will have IWC’s new Da Vinci collection to look forward to at SIHH.

IWC Big Pilot's Heritage Watch 48 - side

For our most recent article, in which I look at the historical inspiration behind the Omega Constellation collection, click here.

Caleb Anderson is a freelance writer with a primary focus on vintage watches. Since first learning about horology, he has garnered extensive knowledge in the field, and spends much of his time sharing his opinions among other writers, collectors, and dealers. Currently located near New York City, he is a persistent student in all things historical, a writer on many topics, and a casual runner.



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