May 17, 2023
For much of its recent history, the Zenith Pilot line has been a decidedly offbeat collection. Although the brand holds the exclusive right to use the term “Pilot” on its dials thanks to an early trademark, most modern fans’ conception of this long-running series is centered around an oversized World War One-era design philosophy with its ornately stylized numerals, attached lugs, cathedral hands, and massive crowns. As of Watches and Wonders 2023, however, the Zenith Pilot series has shed this deliberately quirky image in favor of a smoother, more modern look that should carry greater mass-market appeal. The stainless steel three-hand Zenith Pilot sits at the base of this new collection, providing the purest and simplest expression of the new design, and will likely be the strongest sales performer in the lineup. Although it’s certainly a less original platform than its predecessor, the new stainless steel three-hand Zenith Pilot is no less compelling on the wrist, combining a classic flieger look with exquisite finishing throughout, an excellent in-house movement, and unique technical and visual touches that indelibly mark it as a Zenith design.
Before digging too deeply into the minutiae of the watch itself, it’s important to give the new Zenith Pilot some context, especially in terms of Zenith’s overall brand strategy. One side of the brand continues to be dedicated to producing ultra-faithful reinterpretations of classic vintage Zenith models such as the El Primero Chronomaster Revival and Defy Revival lines, while another side pushes the aesthetic and technical envelope with ultra-modern models like the Defy Extreme and the trendy Defy Skyline. In the past few years, however, Zenith has begun to build a third facet of its brand strategy, with a far more mass-market approach. Take, for example, the Chronomaster Sport collection launched in 2021. This modern, sporty chronograph design has been described by enthusiasts and industry insiders alike as Zenith’s answer to the Rolex Daytona. That line carries more than a passing resemblance to the contemporary Daytona platform but is fully equipped with Zenith’s technical innovations and subtle visual cues. In addition, the Chronomaster Sport is immensely successful for Zenith, with models continuing to fly off retailer shelves years after its initial release. The Zenith Pilot is clearly intended to expand this successful, mass-market wing of the brand as well. In its styling, sizing, and overall aesthetic, the Pilot (especially this stainless steel variant) is aimed squarely at the IWC Pilot’s Watch Mark XX, a natural benchmark for a modern luxury pilot design. Like the Chronomaster Sport before it, however, the Zenith Pilot elevates beyond this overall similarity with a focus on fine detailing, subdued-yet-unique visual touches, and a movement that plays to Zenith’s strengths as a watchmaker. If past trends are any indication, it’s a formula that should make this Pilot a far more successful watch in the marketplace than its predecessor.
Measuring in at 40mm-wide, the stainless steel case of the Zenith Pilot offers an attractive, contemporary take on the classic flieger template. Designs of this type have a tendency to become ruthlessly simple and tool-oriented, but Zenith takes pains to maintain a sense of refinement and luxury here. There’s more polishing on this case than one might expect, particularly on the flowing lug chamfers and the steeply sloping edge of the bezel, and the finishing on these elements is genuinely brilliant and without a hint of distortion. In addition to giving the Pilot a more upscale feel than some of its more utilitarian competitors, this also adds a touch of complexity to the classic sports watch profile. The lugs, in particular, take on a more rounded, organic feel without softening the overall impression. The crown is similarly complex here, with a chunky, gear-toothed edge, a tapering profile, and a sharply engraved Zenith star signature. Zenith caps off the Pilot’s case with a sapphire display caseback and reinforces the design’s sporting credentials with a solid 100 meters of water resistance.
Like the case, the dial of the Zenith Pilot gives wearers all the familiar pilot watch design cues but elevates these familiar elements with an eye towards refinement and flash. The philosophy behind Zenith’s new approach to the Pilot can be understood through its hour markers. Previous Zenith Pilot models used ornate, squarish turn-of-the-century-style numerals with elaborate serifs, while this new Pilot instead opts for clean, bold, ultra-legible sans serif Arabic numerals. Rather than simply printing these, however, Zenith applies them with mirror-polished surrounds, giving this familiar dial style a set of brilliant highlights when viewed from certain angles. The dial surface itself adds a similar sort of disappearing detail. From oblique angles or in soft light, the dial appears as a simple, high-contrast matte black, but in more direct lighting, the unique horizontally ridged texturing appears. This is not engraved into the dial like so many other dial patterns, but is an actually raised surface, calling to mind both the iconic ribbed aluminum luggage of Rimowa and the corrugated fuselages of early aircraft like the Junkers Ju 52. It’s an intriguing effect on the wrist and a suitably unique visual base for the Pilot line as a whole. Most of the remaining dial design is well-executed but straightforward, such as the glossy flieger-style hands, a sharply legible Speedmaster-style spear-tipped seconds hand, and a simple applied Zenith star emblem at 12 o’clock. At 6 o’clock, however, the design takes a more distinctive visual turn. The brand includes a date window here, and while it is smoothly integrated into the dial with a handsome beveled trapezoidal window, there is a certain subset of enthusiasts who will always decry a date display on a watch of this kind. More interestingly, Zenith avoids disrupting the hours scale, not by using a cutoff numeral at 6 o’clock but by applying a horizontal lozenge marker. If done in an unbalanced way, this shift from numerals to a single index would be jarring, but thanks to some deft proportioning, it comes off more as an idiosyncratic signature for the line. Lastly, there’s the literal “Pilot” signature itself, which is an enduring series staple — after all, if you’re the only brand allowed to use the term on your dials, why wouldn’t you make it a centerpiece?
Zenith powers the Pilot with its in-house El Primero 3620 automatic movement. Although this powerplant first appeared in the Defy Skyline series with a unique running 10-second subdial, the movement is substantially modified here to accommodate a more conventional central seconds layout. Naturally, the El Primero 3620 continues the El Primero line’s signature buttery smooth 36,000 bph beat rate, while also offering a sturdy 60-hour power reserve. Zenith opts for a starkly modern approach to the movement’s finishing, with a sharply brushed three-quarter plate, matte-blasted accents, and a blacked-out skeleton rotor featuring a graphic artificial horizon motif.
To complete the watch, Zenith pars the Pilot with a Cordura-effect rubber butterfly deployant strap in simple black. It’s a natural fit for this sharply modern take on the pilot’s watch formula, offering a light and flexible feel right out of the box. However, the signed deployant clasp may raise some eyebrows. The 12 o’clock end of the strap has a tendency to disengage with a light touch, and during strenuous activity, this might become a liability.
Although some longtime fans may bemoan the loss of the more “unique” Zenith Pilot designs of the past, the line’s new mass-market approach is thoughtful and refined, with truly compelling details and enough distinctive touches to set it apart from its competitors. The new Zenith Pilot is available now through authorized dealers. MSRP for the three-hand Zenith Pilot in stainless steel stands at $7,500 USD as of press time. For more information, please visit the brand’s website.
>Price: $7,500 USD
>When reviewer would personally wear it: As a daily-wear sports watch, or when searching for an under-the-radar luxury pilot.
>Friend we’d recommend it to first: Seasoned enthusiasts looking for a truly well-made, versatile pilot’s design with a unique technical twist.
>Best characteristic of watch: Stunning dial, high-beat movement, stellar finishing throughout.
>Worst characteristic of watch: The clasp feels lighter and less secure than some other designs at this price point; some fans of the brand may decry the more mainstream styling compared to previous Zenith Pilots.