THE JOURNAL

The IWC Big Pilot’s Watch: The Start of Something Big

What began as a functional military watch has become one of the most well-known models in the industry. The IWC Big Pilot’s Watch is a legend in its own time.

 

It started in 1940 when IWC produced 1,000 military navigators’ watches. These oversized “B-Uhr” watches had distinctive dials and pocket watch movements converted to central seconds.

 

In 2002, IWC took its new automatic movement, changed it to central seconds, and revealed a modern B-Uhr. Called the “Grosse Fliegeruhr” or Big Pilot’s Watch, the model (5002) was special. An extra-large watch with a diameter of 46.2 mm, the dial design was like its 1940 ancestor with an added eight-day power reserve. This original Big Pilot’s Watch was produced in a few variations, in steel and two limited editions in platinum, plus a “transitional” model in 2006 with a new, faster beat movement.

 

Reference 5002 was bold but still wearable. It was cutting-edge: a modern watch with a special new movement. It still was simple in design and easily readable. It evoked history and the entire flight watch tradition. It was both traditional and contemporary.

Special editions take the stage

That model then was subtly redesigned in 2006 as reference IW5004xx. The numeral 9 on the dial disappeared and now numerals at 2 and 4 o’clock on the dial were partially shown. The strap was upgraded from buffalo to alligator. The movement was improved to a faster beat, first calibre 51110 in 2006 and then calibre 51111 in 2007. The redesigned watch looked slightly dressier and was more versatile.

 

This versatility, and the increased demand for the new model, in turn caused the launch of several special editions. In 2007, there were seven limited editions. All were made for specific retailers plus one for a boutique, with limited edition sizes from 15 to 50.  Similarly, in 2008 there were another six limited editions introduced, one for Japan and the others for retailers. There was also a special limited edition of 12, from a watchmaker’s project that didn’t incorporate an IWC base movement.

 

All other Big Pilot’s watches used an IWC in-house movement and a few special editions used one with subsidiary seconds at 9 o’clock. Mostly, the differences in the limited editions involved dial color or details. The size, the iconic crown, and the characteristic dial design remained the same. 

New features for the Big Pilot’s Watch

In 2006, IWC introduced a perpetual calendar Big Pilot’s Watch, reference IW5026xx, initially as small limited editions for two retail partners. While not as pure as the flight-watch original Big Pilot’s Watch, the large dial lent itself especially well to this complication. It too became a great success and an impressive 22 different perpetual calendar Big Pilot special editions have followed.

 

The basic Big Pilot’s Watch, IW5004xx, was enhanced in 2012 with a new crown and stem sealing system and became reference IW5009xx. The model was further improved in 2016 when it was given a new movement, calibre 52110 (IW5010xx).

 

In 2012, the perpetual calendar Top Gun edition Big Pilot’s Watch had a 48 mm diameter. That size was a record until 2016, when a 55mm Heritage limited edition was introduced with a titanium case (IW510301). A second 2016 Heritage model was more wearable at a “mere” 48mm. Both Heritage models dispensed with the power reserve indicator and look strikingly like the original 1940 B-Uhr except they had subsidiary seconds. 

A Big Pilot’s Watch for every style

In 2016, another new model was introduced, with an annual calendar (IW5027xx) that has proven especially popular. In 2018, IWC celebrated its 150th anniversary. Its Big Pilot’s Watch Jubilee model was a new “Big Date” model (IW5105xx). Both the Annual Calendar and Big Date watches have unique in-house movements produced by IWC.

 

2018 also witnessed a special edition of 100 pieces as a tribute to the original reference 5002. This watch, nicknamed “Safari”, had the original 5002 dial design but a titanium case.

 

From 2002 to 2018, there have been an astounding 97 different IWC Big Pilot’s Watch models introduced. They have been produced both for markets and retailers, as special editions, and in various metals. There have been both “time only” watches and ones with sophisticated complications.

 

Few IWC watches appeal to so many watch fans and in so many variations. The Big Pilot’s Watch is emblematic of IWC. In every way, the watch is huge.

 

Michael Friedberg has been collecting watches, especially IWCs, for more than three decades. From 2001 through 2015 he was moderator of the IWC Collectors' Forum and has written extensively about IWC's history and technical features.


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