It’s impossible to say if Oris’ iconoclastic approach to watches is caused by, or is an effect of, its independence within Swiss watchmaking. Is a collaboration with Kermit the Frog a risk that other brands would take? What about forgoing celebrity endorsements oozing name recognition to instead partner with Yusra Mardini, a heretofore widely unknown Syrian refugee athlete and Olympian? What about designing a watch with a built-in altimeter? Oris pioneered the latter territory nearly a decade ago, first introducing the Big Crown ProPilot Altimeter watch in steel. In 2023, the piece made its return at the Watches & Wonders exhibition, with a few surprising updates that visually impress up close.
When we first met the Oris Big Crown ProPilot Altimeter in 2014, aBlogtoWatch’s Ariel Adams took it for a spin and wondered if the watch would become a useful tool for actual pilots or a neat piece of kit desired by collectors. The answer appears to be a mixed bag, but seeing as most pilots aren’t spotted with altimeters strapped to their wrists, the latter hypothesis seems to have prevailed. Despite this, the watch world was certainly made more interesting thanks to this relatively low-priced timepiece that was unlike anything else.
It helps to understand how the watch’s signature complication actually works. Using the same aneroid technology employed by the original, what appears to be an almost magical operation is actually relatively simple. Thanks to a valve in the watch case that operates a “controlled leak” of air, pressure inside the case seeks to equalize with that of the atmosphere outside. This causes an inner “wafer” to expand or compress, moving the altimeter indication visible on the watch’s oversized fixed inner bezel. Of course, this relies on proper calibration at the surface using the second crown. Knowing your present altitude and setting it correctly from time to time will help ensure accurate readings. Useful too are the secondary markers that can be set to a reference altitude, say, the top of the chairlift so you can measure your vertical distance skied.
Having encountered both the original and 2023’s updated version of the ProPilot Altimeter, a few differences are readily apparent to me. First, the new version is much lighter, weighing 98 grams versus the original steel’s 168 grams. This is attributable to the watch’s second-most interesting aspect: the carbon-fiber composite case. Taking on the same texture found in Oris’ earlier Coulson Limited-Edition ProPilot, this dark material lends itself well to the tool-watch nature of the collection. The new version is also thinner, measuring 16mm thick. That’s still chunky, but all that tech has to go somewhere. To that end, the watch now maxes out at an altitude of 19,700 feet (6,000 meters) — a full 33% percent improvement on the previous version.
On the wrist, the watch is definitely big. With a lug-to-lug measurement of 47mm, it isn’t obscenely large, but its thickness won’t exactly slip under any cuffs. Versus the original, the weight is mercifully light and the woven fabric strap — familiar to fans of the ProPilot series — is reasonably pliable while remaining rugged in appearance. Finished with a titanium PVD-plated folding clasp that’s also a signature to the collection, the watch truly feels like an extension of an aircraft.
Ironically, the thing that actually makes this a watch is arguably the least interesting. There’s enough innovation in the case itself, as well as the associated tech, to make the Oris 793 caliber movement (based on Sellita’s 300-1) an almost ho-hum affair. But in a tool watch, reliability is an asset, and with 56 hours of power reserve for the three-hand timing, that’s just fine. Taken together, the Oris Big Crown ProPilot Altimeter is a watch with an admittedly limited audience, yet it perfectly captures what makes Oris so special. Almost 10 years on from the original, we’re excited to see what the future holds for this piece. The Oris Big Crown ProPilot Altimeter is available in two versions with altimeter scales in either meters or feet, and is priced at $6,500 USD. For more information, please visit the brand’s website.