Launched at Baselworld 2012, the Zenith Pilot Big Date Special 2012 contains the legendary El-Primero movement. Angus Davies extols the virtues of this smart pilot’s watch from Le Locle.
A cold morning at Geneva Airport and I joined fellow journalists on the mini-bus, destined for a location in the Jura mountains. A regular occurrence, several of the usual suspects were present. We often visit ateliers en-masse to view the craftsmanship in the land of chocolate, cheese, banking and of course, haute horology.
It’s a small band of journalists who dedicate their life to writing about wristwatches. We all gossip animatedly about things we have heard on the grape vine, scandals in the publishing world and talk about where we are going to reside during Baselworld. The latter subject normally focusses on the ridiculously high cost of shoe-box sized bedrooms and the extortionately high price of taxis which clearly are fuelled with liquid gold based on the elevated pricing.
After the initial school-boy excitement has died down, wrists are compared. Some journalists will be wearing loan-watches which they are test driving for a feature. This is the best way to learn what it is like to live with a watch. No five minute fondle at an industry fair can match the extended scrutiny of a watch joining your family and participating in your everyday life.
The crescendo of my wristwear envy was not a loan watch but a judicious selection by a respected watch journalist. He had parted with his own hard earned folding promissory notes and purchased a new watch launched earlier in the year at Baselworld. He clearly must have caught more trams than me.
This was no ordinary watch but a Zenith, fitted with the illustrious El-Primero movement. A sense of melancholy overwhelmed me, I once had a beautiful Zenith with an El-Primero movement, why did I ever sell it?
Like many avid collectors of watches, I often see a shapely horological filly walking in the opposite direction and swear undying love. I have to assemble the funds to facilitate the union of wrist and watch and begin to employ great ingenuity to facilitate purchase. It was one such lapse in logic, which led to the part-exchange of my black dial Port-Royal El Primero. A handsome watch with rectangular case it provided a different aesthetic from the usual round timepieces which form my modest collection.
The Zenith El-Primero is highly regarded by those in the know. It was a pioneer with a frequency of 36,000 vph (5 Hz) when other watches ticked at a more sedate rate. Moreover, this was a high frequency movement that stood close scrutiny and proved extremely reliable. Indeed a genuine Rolex Daytona with an El-Primero movement is highly sought after by connoisseurs.
A few years ago, Zenith lost their way. Their oversized Defy range was not well received. The pricing was unduly ambitious, alienating many fans of the brand. This was a shame, because Zenith have huge pedigree and provenance. Their history dates back to 1865, founder Georges Favre-Jacot and its origins in Le Locle.
In recent years, they have found their mojo and got back to basics, producing elegant watches, mechanically magnificent with their manufacture movements and priced attractively.
However, for me their renaissance took place at Baselworld in 2012. Their range of pilot’s watches, launched at the fair, were stunning. There were many horological delights to titillate the senses and it would be hard to single one model out for lone praise. That was until I saw the watch on my learned colleagues wrist, the Zenith Pilot Big Date Special 2012.
The round dial is presented in the widow’s favourite colour. It dutifully doffs its hat to the hand wound military issue watches supplied by Zenith to the Italian air force back in the 1960’s.
Hand-wound Zenith chronograph watch, 146 DP calibre, 1960. A. Cairelli.
Dauphine shaped hour and minute hands are treated with black ruthenium and lined with SuperLuminova. They succinctly convey time with superb legibility during midday sun or nocturnal manoeuvres.
Arabic numerals eloquently convey the hours. They are clean, unfussy and bestow brevity with their simple form.
The dial has symmetry. A 30 minute chrono counter is featured on a subdial at 3 o’clock, whilst the subdial opposite at 9 o’clock is used for small seconds.
A central chrono seconds hand provides the perfect tool for timing flying sorties.
Yet, it is the date which draws the eye. No simple aperture at 4 o’clock but a big date located above 6 o’clock. Two apertures frame the date, enhancing the symmetry further, conferring balance and proportion.
A telemeter scale circumnavigates the dial, providing a useful tool for aviators with a mathematical bent.
Zenith have been restrained with the scale of this watch. It measures 42 mm in diameter and should suit the majority of prospective wearers. I love some larger pilot’s watches but confess the crown can sometimes dig into the wrist. This does not diminish my affection for them but not everyone will share my acceptance of pain for an enhanced aesthetic. There is no pain endurance required with the Pilot Big Date Special 2012. This is a comfortable watch to wear.
Zenith pleasingly play with polished and brushed surfaces and the outcome is a handsome appearance which works in alluring accord.
The knurled crown is highly polished and features the brand’s star logo on its vertical flank. This is a horological star and I confess already to being head over heels in love.
Zenith knows that purchasers who buy their products are knowledgable about horology and buy into their engineering prowess. They have indulged the wearer with a sapphire caseback to view the beautiful movement. They certainly know how to press my buttons with this timepiece.
The El Primero 4010 is self-winding and has the historically fast frequency admired by the cognoscenti of 36,000 vph (5 Hz). A recent trend with some companies is to offer movements with dizzyingly fast frequencies which only a few years ago would have been impossible to create. But, Zenith was a pioneer with the El Primero and it has provided faithful and reliable service for decades. Only time will tell whether the new up-starts will ever match the El Primero legend.
Zenith are a manufacture. They make their own movements and have supplied many other brands with their esteemed calibres. Yet, there is a part of me which wants my El Primero movement in a Zenith watch. I want the real deal.
Those readers, myself included, who obsess about finissage need not worry. Zenith have expertly finished this movement. Côtes de Genève motif features on the rotor, circular graining is visible on the mainplate and blued screws offer pleasing contrast with the visible rubies.
The movement is simply stunning to behold.
Life is too short to waste time writing about things you do not love. The opportunity cost is too great. I often wax-lyrical about a watch and occasionally point out small details I would change. Yet, on balance I seek merit in those timepieces I write about.
The Zenith Pilot Big Date Special 2012 was an easy article to write. Why? Because the watch is marvellous. I have feverishly tapped the keys on my computer keyboard trying to capture every aspect that engages with my soul. Yet, despite my best efforts no words could ever adequately convey the joy of wearing this watch.
I am not alone in my adoration for this timepeice. When fellow watch journalists start parting with their money, you know it has to be good.
My covetous stare has motivated me to use public transport at Baselworld in 2013.
Model: Zenith Pilot Big Date Special 2012
Case: stainless steel; diameter 42.00 mm; height 13.50 mm ; water resistant to 5 bar (50 metres); sapphire crystal to front and caseback.
Functions: Hours; minutes; subsidiary seconds; big date; chronograph.
Movement: El-Primero 4010, self-winding; frequency 36,000 vph (5 Hz); 31 jewels; power reserve 50 hours.
Strap: Brown calfskin leather strap on steel pin buckle.
Note: Model also available on steel Milanese mesh bracelet with folding clasp (03.2410.4010/21.M2410)