There are some watches available today that are so distinctive in appearance, it is somewhat hard to believe that they played such a critical role in the development of all pilot watches as a category, and thus an important role in the broader world of horology. The modern Zenith Pilot watch, with its historical heritage, is one such series, holding a significant place in early aviation and influencing early designs for pilots’ wristwatches — but also in maintaining popularity among haute horology fans in the modern era.
The history of the Zenith Pilot begins back in 1909, when Louis Blériot became the first man to fly across the English Channel from Calais, France to Dover, England, with simply an early, somewhat generic Zenith wristwatch strapped to his wrist. This achievement, while today quite routine, was monumental in the development of early aviation, proving both the possibility of long-distance air travel, and the success of monoplanes over the previously popular bi-planes in completing it. The success inevitably made Blériot’s name legendary in aviation history, and solidified Zenith’s brand in its association with in-flight, tested performance. Zenith quickly capitalized on this association with the production of an array of onboard timekeeping instruments, specifically the Type 20 montre d’aéronef of 1939 (or “aircraft clock,” below), upon which the modern Zenith Pilot wristwatch is partly based.
The particular Pilot watch we’ll be focusing on today is the Type 20 Extra Special (Ref. 03.2430.3000/21.C738, below). This 45-mm steel- or bronze-cased piece is, as its name declares, extra special. With its relatively large case, intricately engraved caseback, large onion crown, and straight, utilitarian lugs — the piece shares many details with other pilot watches available today, while simultaneously presenting a unique, vintage-inspired take on the category.
On the matte black dial are bold, luminous white Arabic numerals; Zenith’s corporate logo and “Montre D’Aéronef, Type 20” near the 12 o’clock mark; and the words “Pilot” and “Extra Special” above 6 o’clock. It has early-20th-century-inspired cathedral hands on a black ruthenium-plated and satin finished dial, and is powered by Zenith’s automatic Caliber 3000, one of the brand’s many in-house movements, this one offering a power reserve around 42 hours. This particular steel reference can be found at various dealers starting around $3,000.
This watch, although having a variety of historically inspired features, is a piece set out by Zenith to honor its past — and particularly its association with Bleriot, seen above — but not to re-create it. In turn, the piece boasts vintage-inspired hands and Arabic numerals, but also places the onion crown closer to the case than on the historical model — a more practical design choice than the protruding crowns on those early watches. Also, this piece uses an automatic caliber hidden under an engraved, homage caseback; this is a shift from Pilot watches made by Zenith in years past, which used the historical, 50-mm, manual-wound Caliber 5011 k, often under a display back.
Other differences to note are in the vintage piece’s relatively fluted bezel and rounded case, while the “Extra Special” focuses more on a comparatively flat, Spartan case and bezel. Lastly, notice the name: the “Extra Special.” On the original piece fashioned by Blériot, the dial only read “Special;” the “Extra” implies once more that this is a piece both honoring and separate from its past—that it has a bit of something extra not previously offered (such as the bronze case option, pictured below).
Overall, I find the entire Zenith Pilot watch series rather interesting. While the design elements the series emphasizes were very common in the early 20th century, the brand is today one of the few luxury watch manufacturers still offering them to consumers. Comparatively, while many other brands’ pilot watches have similar classical “pilot” elements — such as rugged steel cases, large numerals, onion crowns, and a large diameter — few offer the antique font, the interesting vintage hands, and the historical inspiration. These are features that have become so synonymous with the Zenith Pilot Watch that when Patek Philippe released its Calatrava Pilot Travel Time, picture below — a piece similarly inspired by early wristwatches — many pointed out its similarities with Zenith’s watch, especially in the numerals and hands. And that is a comparison I am sure few brands would be disappointed with.
For our most recent article, in which I compare modern and vintage examples of the Oris Diver Sixty-Five, click here.
Caleb Anderson is the Director of Outreach at the online vintage watch boutique and blog theoandharris.com. Since starting at Theo & Harris, he has garnered extensive knowledge on vintage watches, and spends much of his time sharing his opinions within the field. Currently located near New York City, he is a persistent student in all things historical, a writer on watches, and a casual runner.