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Feature: What You Didn’t Know About The IWC Big Pilot’s Watch

A watch so big it’s got the word “Big” in the title, the IWC Big Pilot’s Watch is one of the brand’s best loved and most popular watches. But it’s origins as a commercially available timekeeper aren’t quite as clear cut as you’d expect: here’s five things you didn’t know about the IWC Big Pilot’s Watch.

IWC Thought It Might Fail

Commanding a very impressive stature at 55mm across, the original 1940s IWC pilot’s watch has long been a collector favourite. And so, since the mid-1990s, as watch collecting really started to pick up steam, IWC Director Günter Blümlein had a quiet thought in the back of his mind that a reissue of such a classic could strike a chord with diehard fans.

But the allegiance of a few enthusiasts wasn’t a convincing enough business proposition to make that watch. Even at a reduced size, at some 46mm based on the initial sketches by designer Hanno Burtscher, it was far greater in dimension than anything else at the time. The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore had just hit the market, and that was considered an absolute monster at just 42mm. Even the Rolex Sea-Dweller, at a chunky 40mm, was considered on the larger side.

The Big Pilot’s Watch is a bold one, and its creation a bold move, so much so that it couldn’t really be a development of its own, per se—more an addendum tacked on to something else. As a pet project of Blümlein’s, the expectation wasn’t that it would become a fan favourite for the next two decades—there really weren’t any expectations at all. It was so big and so utilitarian that, really, the main worry was that it would be a 46mm flop.

It Was Made For Its Movement

That project the Big Pilot’s Watch was tagged on to was a true flagship for the brand, 2000’s Portuguese Automatic. Featuring the calibre 5000, a technical powerhouse that spanned the 42mm Portuguese’s case edge-to-edge, it was a release that capitalised on the previous success IWC had found with the handwound Portuguese of 1993.

From its origins in 1938, the Portuguese, sized to fit a chronometer-grade pocket watch movement, had always been a large watch, and thanks to Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak Offshore, by the time 2000 came about, customers were more than willing to wear 42mm. And to really underpin IWC’s reputation as the engineers of watchmaking, the calibre 5000 inside it had to be masterpiece.

With a seven-day power reserve—virtually unheard of at the time—a striking twin sub-dial layout, not to mention the reintroduction of IWC’s patented Pellaton winding system and a diameter spanning a whopping 37.8mm, the calibre 5000 and the Portuguese it was in marked a milestone moment for the Schaffhausen brand—the reestablishment of in-house watchmaking, which had been absent since the quartz crisis had taken hold.

This was Blümlein’s opportunity to sneak in the Big Pilot’s Watch. The calibre 5000, with a little bit of fiddling to make it the 5011, was just about big enough and powerful enough to drive the enormous—and enormously heavy—hands of the Big Pilot’s Watch, and so all that remained was to construct the starkly utilitarian case and dial—a much cheaper proposition than starting from scratch.

The Power Reserve Is A Lie

One of the most impressive aspects of the calibre 5000 and its compatriots is its enormous power reserve. It’s the long-haul trucker of the watch movement game, capable of a lasting from bursting to empty for a full seven days. Except … that’s a lie.

Hooke’s law tells us that the force exerted to deform a spring scales linearly with the amount of deformation; that is to say that the more a spring is stretched or contracted, the harder it becomes to continue. This means a fully wound spring produces much more torque than an almost empty one. But where Hooke’s law is a little oversimplified when it comes to watchmaking is at the very extremes of wind.

For a small part of the maximum wind and for a surprisingly large part of the minimum wind, a watch’s mainspring can significantly reduce accuracy. For a few hours from full, and for the last day and even longer near empty, the mainspring can deviate so far from optimal torque that the watch becomes almost unusable. Not only that, but a movement as large as this—with a rotor weight so big it needs its own shock absorber—equipped with a bigger than average balance wheel, needs a fair bit of juice to get going.

So, in actual fact, this is an eight-and-a-half-day movement, but with the last day-and-a-half blocked off. That way accuracy doesn’t nosedive in the last day or so, and when the movement finally does breathe its last, getting it going again doesn’t require the same amount of winding effort as it would to brim a split-second Patek Philippe.

Big Pilot Isn’t The Original Name

IWC’s pilot’s watches weren’t originally meant for public consumption. They were military instruments, supplied across the world for pilots of many different air forces. For a very long time, these watches had been designated a distinct numerical code, with the first model available to the public to receive such a code being 1994’s Mark XII, a homage to the Mark 11 supplied to the RAF from 1948. It’s interesting to note that the use of roman numerals defines the civilian watches from the military ones.

So, of course it was only natural to give the Big Pilot’s Watch a similar designation—and indeed that’s exactly what happened. The project was christened Mark XXI, given a boost up the rankings to accommodate for its larger size—but there was a problem. Breguet already had the twenties cornered with its Type XX pilot’s watch, and so the name never really stuck for IWC.

Instead, the watchmaker reverted back to the project’s nickname, Grosse Fliegeruhr—or “Big Pilot’s Watch”. It was a case of say it how you see it, and for IWC and the Big Pilot’s Watch, that was pretty easy. And so the name stuck, and has done ever since.

Its Creator Never Got To See It

Perhaps the saddest thing about the Big Pilot’s Watch came about towards the very end of its development. A dream of Blümlein’s for over half a decade, the release of the Portuguese Automatic and the calibre 5000 finally gave him the chance to make his dream a reality. But the project was delayed as others took priority, and as the watchmakers figured out how to get enough power to drive the hands.

This year, 2021, should have been the watch’s 20th birthday, but the release at 2001’s Baselworld watch fair was ultimately postponed as the problems were resolved. The original watch from the 40s had been powered by a pocket watch movement capable of providing the necessary torque, and so it wasn’t until 2002, a year later, that IWC was finally able to reveal the Big Pilot’s Watch IW5002.

But just a few months before the 2002 fair in October of 2001, Günter Blümlein passed away. The watch he had dreamed of would go on to be one of the most successful IWC had ever made, selling out consistently and becoming a posterchild for the brand even two decades on—but he would never get to see it, to enjoy the reception and be proud of what his team had accomplished.

There aren’t many watches that have as much pedigree and popularity as the IWC Big Pilot’s Watch. Its enormous size and equally enormous movement have earned fans the world over, despite the expectation for it to fail. And despite changing trends over the years, thanks to that enormous size and austere design, there’s one thing it will always be: big.

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