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Feature: The IWC Big Pilot’s Watch 43

We’ll say out loud what everyone was thinking when IWC first announced the new Big Pilot’s 43: it looks like they just took the larger Big Pilot’s 46, put it in a photocopier and scaled it down to about 90%. We aren’t just saying that to you now; we said it to IWC as well. So, IWC arranged a call with the designer of the Big Pilot’s 43, Gerd Plange, so we could, well—say it to his face. Which we did. Here’s what happened.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had the opportunity to meet a watch designer before, but Gerd Plange was not what I was expecting. If I were to hazard a guess at what Mr Plange did for a living by looks alone, I’d wager somewhere in the region of, say, a Product Manager for a firm that manufactures cutlery and cookware—and funnily enough, before he was a watch designer, that’s what he did.

Quiet and unassuming, Mr Plange is exactly the opposite of what I’ve come to expect of a person in the creative industry. Nathan Barley he was not. Right off the bat, Mr Plange was keen to insist that, at IWC, the product is the star, not the designer. Even a forensic scientist would be unable to find any trace of the designer in the watchmaker’s products.

I asked Mr Plange how he got the job, one he’s had for two decades now. He laughed. He told me when he’d been working in pots and pans that he’d found himself idly sketching up new ideas, and realised that industrial design was where his heart really lay. Having somehow secured himself an interview at IWC, he was asked what he’d designed before, and he told them. “Frying pans,” he said. “At least you designed something round,” was the reply.

And that’s how he got started. During his tenure so far he’s worked on the Pilot’s, Portugieser and Aquatimer collections, and you can tell that every single one has left a lasting impression on him. Later, as we discuss the Big Pilot’s 43 in a bit more detail, it became clearer why. But for now he describes the DNA of the brand and indeed each model, the core tenets of which he has at his disposal when he reimagines a watch.

With a grimace he recalls an old idea of opening up the date window on the Pilot’s watch to expose the dates before and after, like an aircraft altimeter. He explains that it seemed like such an inspired choice at the time, and that only after the design was copied over ten times within just a year, did he realise that it had fallen shy of the brand’s usual regimented standards. It was a rare moment when the spotlight had deviated from the brand to the designer. “Never again,” he told me.

Given these limitations, I probed into what an IWC watch designer like Mr Plange could do to make the role fulfilling. “If you want to express yourself, don’t work for IWC!” he told me, not as a jab at IWC, but with sincerity. And it kind of makes sense. IWC watches are known for a form-follows-function approach, and to fiddle with that century-and-a-half–old tradition would be foolish.

To demonstrate the point, Mr Plange reminisced about a previous task to redesign the DaVinci’s classic round case into a tonneau shape. It took a very long time, he explains, was a compromise of many, many ideas and ultimately didn’t achieve what they’d hoped. With a chuckle and a shake of the head he admits to being pleased not to have been involved in that particular project at all.

Ultimately, Mr Plange explains, the satisfaction in the job is in thinking about what will best please the customer and making that happen. For the Big Pilot’s 46, already a reduced version of the original, customers were asking for a smaller version—and in October of 2018, Gerd Plange received the email—the first of over 500 that would be exchanged over the course of the watch’s development—to tell him he was the man for the job.

So, how do you take the Big Pilot’s 46 and make it the Big Pilot’s 43? Do you just scale it down in the photocopier? Far from insulted, Mr Plange takes the question with his characteristic soft chuckle. “Evolution, not innovation,” he reminds me. And he’s not wrong. Whilst the end result may seem like about five seconds’ work from Xerox’s finest, the team finds plenty to do in the details. On average, a watch like the Big Pilot’s 43 can take a year of work. Something more spectacular like the Siderale Scafusia can take over a decade.

It all starts with a brief: build a smaller Big Pilot. Keep the proportions. Keep the dial design. Keep the presence. But smaller. So, for the case, Mr Plange happily admits that, yes, they quite simply scaled it down. Cases from 42 to 44mm were 3d printed and tested before a final size was agreed upon. And so,46mm became 43, the 15.5mm height became 13.6, and the crown shrank accordingly. So that’s the case done—what about the rest?

When Mr Plange first joined IWC, it was just after the development of the updated Big Pilot’s 5004, which superseded the original 5002. I don’t know how much you recall of that period, but IWC received a lot of criticism for the changes that were made to that design. To most people, you’d show them both watches and they’d say they look the same; to an IWC aficionado, they were leagues apart. The 43 was Mr Plange’s opportunity to right that wrong and please the customer after 20 years of waiting.

Most obviously, you’ll notice the date has gone, and so has the power reserve indicator, decisions much more in keeping with the watch that inspired the Big Pilot in the first place. The 43 gets the calibre 82100, which drops the 7 days’ power reserve of the larger calibre 52110 for just 60 hours in order to fit it inside the reduced case.

For the other changes, it’s into the pixel-peeping that you’ll spot them. The Boeing 707 instrument-inspired font is a little thicker, the markers around the perimeter spaced out a little closer to the edge, the word “Automatic” given a little more space from the bottom. The font size on the case back alone was changed three times! Many of the 500-odd emails exchanged over that year were all in aid of fine tuning the kinds of details that, when they’re right, most people won’t notice. When they’re wrong, however, they most certainly will.

But the 43 also presented an opportunity to make the Big Pilot’s Watch relevant to the people wearing it today, and so you’ll find some decisions taken that, whilst seemingly minor, have a surprising impact. Quick change straps, 100m of water-resistance—up from 60—a plush blue sunburst dial option and the hour and minute hands finished in polished metal—instead of matte black—are little doses of practical luxury to remind us that this is, after all, a premium product. Although, not as premium as the 46 when it comes to the all-important price: at $8,400, it’s $4,500 dollars cheaper.

By far the most controversial decision put forward by Mr Plange, however, is the inclusion of a sapphire case back. There’s still a soft iron ring around the edge so the anti-magnetism isn’t reduced by much, but he tells me this is what customers want: to see the movement they’re paying for. I don’t blame them; with the updated Pellaton winding system now with ceramic components, the calibre 82100 is well worth a look.

Collectively, all these changes are what Mr Plange and IWC believe will make the Big Pilot’s 43 successful, considerations you probably didn’t realise had taken place to elevate the watch above being just a smaller version of its bigger brother. With the launch behind him and the orders rolling in, it’s with a sense of relief that Mr Plange ends this chapter of his career and moves on to the next.

I think you have to be a certain kind of person to be a watch designer for a company like IWC. On the one hand you need to be relaxed, willing to let go of your ego and let the brand do the talking, but on the other incredibly focussed, able to translate what came before into what comes next without colouring the language with your own interpretation. It’s one of those jobs that seems so simple from the outside, just the press of a button on a photocopier, that turns out to be so much more nuanced. I ask Mr Plange before we finished what advice he had for budding watch designers. He laughed in his quiet way and said, “Never be satisfied. And never send a drawing out on the same day!”

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