In 2002, IWC unveiled the Big Pilot’s Watch Ref. 5002: it measured 46.2 millimetres in diameter, 15.2 millimetres in height, and weighs in at 150 grams. Product manager at the time Pius Brida. He looks back at the birth of the Big Pilot’s Watch and the challenges faced during its development in a conversation with IWC Museum curator David Seyffer.
Pius Brida, back then you were IWC’s product manager and the man who brought it all together. How did the idea for the Big Pilot’s Watch arise?
PB: We were already thinking about a Big Pilot’s watch back in the mid-1990s. Hanno Burtscher made the initial sketches, and IWC director Günter Blümlein threw himself entirely behind the project. The deciding factor was the development of the 5000 calibre, our first in-house movement since the quartz crisis. Equipped with Pellaton winding, it was the first model from IWC to feature a 168-hour power reserve. It celebrated its premiere in 2000 in the Portugieser Automatic. The intention was to then use the 5011-calibre version with its central seconds and date in the Pilot’s Watch family.
Where did you get your inspiration for the design?
PB: The movement alone was 38 millimetres in diameter, so it obviously needed an unusually large case. That’s how we came to resurrect the Big Pilot’s Watch Calibre 52 T.S.C. from the 1940s. At 55 millimetres in diameter, this highly functional observer’s watch was still the largest wristwatch IWC has ever built. It supplied the technical specifications for the Big Pilot’s Watch and was the inspiration for the size, dial, and distinctive, oversized crown.
David, what can you tell us about the prevailing mood around the time of the watch’s launch?
DS: At the start of the new millennium, there was a universal sense of optimism in the Swiss watch industry. The mass market had suddenly rediscovered a liking for mechanical timepieces. IWC began to make more use of high-level engineering expertise and pushed ahead to develop in-house movements and complications. The success of the Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Chronograph with Kurt Klaus’s mechanical calendar had shown that the company could only successfully set itself apart with specialities and big, bold ideas.
What kind of watches were people wearing back then?
DS: At that time, the wristwatches that dominated the market were relatively small. To take one example, the IWC collection included a Da Vinci that measured just 29 millimetres in diameter. At 42 millimetres, even the Portugieser was a giant by contemporary standards. So, you can imagine what a huge step it was when we launched the Big Pilot’s Watch with a case measuring 46.2 millimetres in 2002
What were the greatest challenges that faced you on this project?
PB: Basically, we were wondering if we could get away with such a big watch. I still remember the lively ongoing discussions we had on the team. Finally, we decided that the watch should not only be big but that there should be a reference to its size in the name. The second challenge was to optimize the 5000 calibre for use in this model. Up to that point, we had only ever used the movement in limited special editions. Now we were planning to integrate it into a Pilot’s Watch – a timepiece that, by definition, has to be extremely robust and suitable for everyday use. Our movement engineers had a few sleepless nights until the 5011 calibre met their demanding standards.
Did you expect it to be such a huge success, or were you surprised?
PB: I’m pretty sure none of us would have bet on the Big Pilot’s Watch still having a permanent place in IWC’s collection almost 20 years later. Naturally, you’re hoping that every project will be a resounding success, but you can’t count on it. It was clear that combining a historic pilot watch design with contemporary technology was an exciting approach. But we weren’t expecting such an incredible result.
Big Pilot's Watch Calibre 52 T.S.C. (1940)
The Big Pilot's Watch Ref. IW5002 (2002)
Big Pilot's Watch Ref. IW500901 (2012)
Big Pilot's Watch Big Date Edition "150 Years" Ref. IW510503 (2018)
Back of Big Pilot's Watch Big Date Edition "150 Years" Ref. IW510503 (2018)
Big Pilot's Watch 43 Ref. IW329301 (2021)
Back of Big Pilot's Watch 43 Ref. IW329301 (2021)
How did the Big Pilot’s Watch become a cultural icon?
DS: Initially, the Big Pilot’s Watch was an insider tip. You really had to know your stuff to be even aware that it existed. But from 2007 onwards, when we started producing more and more limited special editions – some in unusual designs and colour combinations – for retailers and boutiques, the Big Pilot’s Watch increasingly found its way onto famous wrists. On top of that, over the years, the design has remained virtually unchanged. This kind of consistency has helped make the Big Pilot’s Watch one of the best-known watch designs in the world today.
Why is the watch historically significant?
DS: When it was launched, the Big Pilot’s Watch was new and modern but at the same time embodied IWC’s long-standing tradition of manufacturing pilot’s watches. This combination was unique. In retrospect, you could say that the Big Pilot’s played a significant role in anchoring the Pilot’s Watches in the luxury segment. And of course, it embodies the fascination of Pilot’s Watches from Schaffhausen like no other model.
Learn more about the Pilot’s Watch Collection 2021 here, and try on the new Big Pilot’s Watch 43 in augmented reality on the IWC App, available on the App Store and Google Play.
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