April 6, 2021
by Ariel Adams
A long-time fan of IWC’s more entry-level luxury aviator-style chronograph watches, I was happy to get a chance to review this new Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41 right before its official debut. You wouldn’t be blamed for missing that this model is new if you haven’t been hawkish about the latest IWC watches. The company has made a watch called the “Pilot’s Watch Chronograph” for some time, and plenty of them look a lot like this. That said, the new-for-2021 IWC reference IWC388101 (also as the IWC388102 in blue on bracelet, the IWC388103 in green with a strap, and the IWC388104 in green on a bracelet) Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41 is an excellent formula of a concoction that has been enduringly popular with collectors and mainstream luxury seekers, alike, for years now.
In a recent interview with IWC CEO Chris Grainger, I played a little game with him where I asked him to assign a personality type to each of the major sport watch areas (all of which IWC makes timepieces within). When we got to pilot’s watches (you’ll have to hear the SUPERLATIVE podcast episode with the IWC CEO to hear the rest), Grainger considered it and then we finally agreed that more so than other sports watches, aviator-style timepieces are preferred by risk-takers. Or at the least, people who are in a risk-taking mood. Think of someone like Indiana Jones — certainly a guy who needs good tools but is also apparently motivated by jumping dangerously close to harm’s way. There is probably a reason out of all the vehicles Indiana Jones operates (and destroys), it is his inability to land planes (despite his repeated attempts) that the stories point out more than once.
I think if Indiana Jones were a watch guy, he’d probably wear something like an IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph. There are three primary reasons why collectors will be interested in this new Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41 product line. They are relatively fair pricing, watch case size, and the blend of component quality and the exclusive in-house mechanical movement. Let’s talk about the latter point first.
The 2021 IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41 at first appears to be merely a smaller version of the also recent Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Edition “Le Petit Prince” 43mm (part of the IWC Spitfire collection), especially with this blue dial treatment. The two watches differ in price a bit and are physically distinctive in two important areas. First is the movement, which in this Chronograph 41 watch is the in-house made IWC caliber 69385. In the Chronograph 43, IWC uses its caliber 79320, which is a Swiss Made Valjoux 7750 sourced from ETA. Both of these movements perform the same functions and have similar layouts. The way to tell the difference between these two watches more easily is to look at the position of the subsidiary seconds dial. The Valjoux 7750 puts the sub-seconds dial at 9 o’clock, while the caliber 69385 puts the sub-seconds at the 6 o’clock position.
The caliber 69385 operates at 4Hz with about 46 hours of power reserve. It has a column wheel to control the chronograph and has a slightly more modern design than the 7750. The automatic rotor winds the movement when it spins in either direction. Functions include a 12-hour chronograph, time, and day/date indicator window. IWC doesn’t offer open casebacks for watches it makes that are equipped with a 7750, but that isn’t true for the 69385 movements that the company is more proud to show off. It is nice to turn the Pilot’s Watch Chronograph over on its back and view the automatic mechanism through the sapphire crystal window.
Most people will not really be able tell the different between the in-house IWC 69385 and the 79320 (the Valjoux 7750). Those who do know the difference will care, and it will certainly help sell more IWC watches. More so, there doesn’t appear to be any real price premium for the in-house made movement, which I think is very important in ensuring long-term success with even the pickiest of collectors.
If you haven’t checked out an IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph in a while, things have changed for the better. Overall product quality, along with fit and finishing, is really good. The 41mm-wide steel case is carefully polished in the classic flieger watch shape that IWC renders so well. The case also has a lug-to-lug distance of 50mm and is 14.5mm-thick. While not always the case, today the Pilot’s Watch Chronograph case is water-resistant to 100 meters, and it has a screw-down crown.
The dial quality is likewise very good, with a supreme focus on legibility and perfection of dial proportions. Note, for example, how the elements on the dial all fit together perfectly with no overlapping or cut-off elements. The hands, markers, and scales all take up enough room without too much room on the dial being wasted. Traditionally, this style of watch would have more or less only been available with a black dial. Today, blue is just as popular as black, and luxury brands are experimenting with even more colors, such as making green a regular. Accordingly, the IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41 is available (right now) with either a blue or green dial.
The polished, metallic blue dial is elegant and eye-catching, but by no means overly glossy. The same thing goes for the polished hour and minute hands. Despite the slight volume of sheen on the dial, this remains thoroughly utilitarian. It’s really a great watch to live with or have in your collection if your tastes are a bit more conservative but you want something that isn’t at all boring.
Making things more interesting is integration of IWC’s own easy-changing system for the straps or bracelet. The Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41 in blue comes either as the reference IW388101 (strap) or IW388102 (bracelet), but that doesn’t really matter since you can easily swap the straps between the two. The easy-change system makes it possible to add more wearing versatility to the watch. Dinner might demand the bracelet, while a sporting activity might demand a rubber strap. I want to point out something related to the rubber strap that I am unclear is something that consumers would experience. IWC sent me both the leather strap and the rubber strap to try on the watch. Only the rubber strap did not include a steel buckle… I’ve seen this before on luxury watches, where included extra straps force the wearer to actually remove the buckle and put it on the other strap (time-consuming and likely to cause scratches), as opposed to just including two buckles (very low cost). Like I said, I can’t say for sure if IWC is doing this since we media sometimes don’t get full retail kits, but the rubber strap I got didn’t include an extra buckle (which raised the flag). If startup brands whose timepieces cost a few hundred dollars can include extra straps with complete hardware, I think luxury brands have zero excuses not to do so, as well.
The blue calfskin strap is the excellent middle option that offers a matching color to the dial and timeless angle to this modern product that sees itself as having the heart of a mid-20th century military pilot’s chronograph watch. Let me finally note that IWC’s strap-changing system is not incompatible with traditional straight-bar spring bars. This means you can still swap out IWC straps with any third-party 20mm-wide strap and be able to use it. This is rather uncommon and a selling point for IWC right now since many watches at this price level with easy-change strap systems, require you to purchase only proprietary straps. That isn’t the case here.
There certainly are less expensive watches that appear to have a similar design than some of IWC’s pilot watches. Indeed, IWC is presenting a theme here as opposed to a truly original design language. But that isn’t to say that IWC doesn’t do this theme very well. Start to travel down the price ladder and opt for a less expensive flieger-style chronograph watch, and you’ll start to miss out of some of IWC’s more appreciated details, such as the dial quality, the hands, the case finishing, the gently curved AR-coated sapphire crystal, the movement, and the strap quality. IWC has a superlative product in this category, and it is still priced at near the entry point of the brand. So, in that regard, I’d say these are a very fine value.
The available matching steel bracelet is a great option here. The design feels original to IWC, and for the money these are nicely rendered multi-link steel bracelets. Don’t miss the micro-adjust system in the deployant clasp. This is a feature mostly found on diver’s style watches, and it is nice to see IWC making micro-adjust deployments increasingly standard on many of its bracelets.
When traditional watch collectors think of IWC, they tend to think of the “Big Pilot’s” watch. The 46-48mm wide aviation-style timepieces are certainly cool and fun on the right wrist, but the reality is that such watch sizes alienate a lot of would-be wearers. By having a full-featured pilot-style chronograph watch in a 41mm-wide case, IWC is opening up this product range to a new demographic for the brand. The grandeur of the bigger pilot’s watches still have their appeal, but the practical proportions of the Chronograph 41 make it more relevant for a lot of today’s watch consumers.
The Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41 is an excellent direction for the brand and a fine watch, at that. Again, IWC needs consumers to delve pretty deep to the brand to understand why this particular reference IW3881 has so much charm. But once people take that trip, it becomes easy to appreciate what IWC has done here. Price for the IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41 is $6,500 USD on a strap and $7,200 USD on the matching steel bracelet. Learn more at the IWC website here.
>Model: Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41 (Chrono 41) reference IW388101 / IW388102.
>Price: $6,500 – $7,200 USD
>Size: 41mm-wide, 14.5mm-thick, and 50mm lug-to-lug distance.
>When reviewer would personally wear it: Highly suitable as a daily wear sports luxury watch anytime you want a blended style that says “risk-taking adventurer” with “reliable banker.”
>Friend we’d recommend it to first: IWC pilot’s watch lover who has been wanting the right blend of design, features, and price for a while now.
>Best characteristic of watch: Timeless design, nice dial color, excellent case and component construction, and good value. Strap-changing system is elegant and fair. Watch feels high-end but is also very comfortable to live with.
>Worst characteristic of watch: Many will not realize the watch is new or what is special about it. IWC’s in-house movement more or less functions the same way at the Valjoux 7750, which is a missed opportunity for IWC to explain why its caliber is better/more desirable. Lume doesn’t cover more elements on the dial.