Zenith have announced the release of a new Zenith Pilot Extra Special. This is their latest collaboration with UK retailer The Watch Gallery, hit the shelves just earlier this week, December 1st, 2015. Whenever I see a blue-dialed Zenith, I get a little excited. Blue was the favourite dial colour of the late Charles Vermot, who worked for Zenith during the quartz revolution. As head of tooling, he was ordered to destroy all the equipment for and technical drawings of the world-famous El Primero (and other calibres) to make way for their electronic successors. Unable to wipe such an invention from existence, he secretly devised a plan that would spare the classic calibre from extinction: He concealed the tools and documents needed to produce Zenith’s mechanical catalogue in a remote attic of one of Zenith’s buildings and, provided false receipts for the scrap metal he’d been told to trade it all in for. There Zenith’s finest work remained until the time was right for Swiss watchmaking to rise from the ashes and be reborn.
Okay, so blue is just blue, but when a colour meant so much to such an integral part of the Zenith machine, I can’t help but feel a little more care and attention goes into its application than it might in the design process of a less storied brand. Weirdly, I don’t normally go crazy for blue dials myself, but I do think it looks excellent on this watch. We’re so used to seeing vintage-inspired pilots’ watches with high-contrast black and white dials, it’s nice to see a splash of personality ripple the mould.
The Zenith Pilot Extra Special is the second collaboration the brand have explored with The Watch Gallery (the first was back in 2013). The Watch Gallery likes to get their trademark blue onto these collaborative projects, so this turned out to be a match made in heaven. The vintage Arabic numerals – shaped entirely from Super-LumiNova® – are huge, incredibly legible, and far more satisfying for their boldness than the gracile fonts designers sometimes lean on to evoke the past. It’s pleasing too to see Arabic numerals as opposed to graphical markers. It gives the watch a much more innocent and personable feel that detaches it somewhat from its functional DNA.
It’s worth pointing out that, unlike a lot of brands who have produced pilots’ watches in the recent past, Zenith actually does have some history in the field of aviation. Zenith was producing timepieces for pilots in the early days of heavier-than-air flight, and is (quite remarkably) the only Swiss watch manufacturer officially licensed to print the word “pilot” on their dials – an honour of which they’ve taken full advantage here.
We need only glance at the crown (be careful – it could take your eye out) to identify this as a pilot’s watch that sees itself as a serious successor to the timepieces worn by those in the aviation industry. The reasoning behind onion crowns of this size is that they were still usable while the pilot was wearing their thick gloves. That’s a cute excuse – and no doubt the genuine origin of this polarising principle – but I’ve always wondered whether a pilot who was too busy to remove his gloves would have been concerned with winding his watch, but then I suppose it gave him or her the option should it be necessary.
The Zenith Pilot Extra Special is powered by the in-house Elite Calibre 679. This is an automatic movement with a 50-hour power reserve. It’s regrettable that the movement has been concealed behind a solid case back, but at least that case back features a nice design of a fixed-wing aircraft in flight. The brown leather strap is set-off by coordinating blue stitching and fastened by stainless steel buckle. The stainless steel case measures 45mm, excluding the crown. The sides of the case are grained and the left-hand flank features a polished plaque attached by two blued screws. This looks like it has been installed to facilitate engraving, which I’d normally baulk at for resale reasons, but if you treat yourself to this watch and intend on keeping it, I must say I can’t think of a watch that would better suit a nice, scrolled monogram!
The hour and minute hand are silver in colour and have a really retro style with heaps of lume to make this watch usable in low-light conditions. The seconds hand is blue and has a triangular, lumed head. The proportions of the second hand are very much to my liking: The luminous element of the hand is positioned so it never encroaches on the Arabic numerals, which are also glow-in-the-dark. In order to maintain accuracy and balance, however, a spindly finger extends from the tip of the luminous arrow to ensure the hand fills the case appropriately.
This simple colour scheme, the omission of any superfluous design, the size, overall authenticity of the design, and the fact that just 35 pieces of this collaborative project will be produced gives this pilot’s watch an unusual level of appeal. I feel that Zenith and The Watch Gallery have been quite clever with the price: Considering this is a three-hander with a simple, though imposing, case design, the £4,950 price tag might seem a bit steep when compared to the brand’s more complicated watches. But it is the limited nature of this piece that all but guarantees it will fly off the shelves. Getting a piece of the brand’s history – however basic the overall product may be – for less than five grand, is probably enough of a lure to part consumers from their cash. I wish it were half that price, but doubt it will be around long enough for me to get too attached to the idea of owning one. The Zenith Pilot Extra Special will be available online and throughout The Watch Gallery’s special Zenith outlets. Zenith-watches.com