One of the very first watches that I reviewed for Worn & Wound was the Archimede Pilot Chronograph Trikompax, a big, burly pilot’s watch made from German steel. In that review I commented on how the pilot’s watch is such a no-nonsense and simple tool watch idea, that it’s almost absurd to spend significant money on a watch in this genre that lands in the luxury segment. From the review:
This is a style of watch that is so straightforward, I’ve always found it difficult to justify paying IWC prices for a design that is shared by so many small brands who happen to do it quite well. If you just want the look there are many, many options at almost any price point.
You know what? I stand by that. At least to an extent. If what you’re after is a proper tool, there are a lot of watches made by the likes of Archimede, Hamilton, Laco and others that do a great job of getting into that shearling bomber jacket with Ray-Bans kind of aesthetic. What I realize now after spending quite a bit of time wearing the new IWC Big Pilot 43 Spitfire is that this isn’t really a tool watch. I mean, it is in the sense that it’s built like a tank and seems conceived to do a very specific job, but what it really is is a statement watch, more similar to the Rolex Submariner or Cartier Tank in its overarching philosophy than the Archimede I reviewed all those months, and watches, ago. What surprised me about the BP 43 wasn’t its quality, though. I knew it would be a well made, nice thing. The thing that continues to surprise me is just how much I liked the brashness of it. Because, when it comes down to it, I’m not really a very brash guy.
By now you’re probably well aware of what the IWC Big Pilot 43 Spitfire actually is: it’s a (slightly) smaller version of the iconic (yes, it really is an icon at this point, please excuse the cliche) Big Pilot. That watch, which has adorned the wrists of many notable celebrities, and was championed by one in particular who has apparently joined the Grateful Dead and just released an album of 80s inspired synth rock (what?), typically comes in at 46mm. If you haven’t worn a full size Big Pilot, let me tell you, straight up, it’s clownishly big. It was a product of a very particular time, one that makes you wonder whether it was big watches that gave birth to hypermasculinity throughout the hobby’s culture, or the other way around. Regardless, restraint was never part of the design process.
The new IWC Big Pilot 43 Spitfire takes the radical step of downsizing the Biggest Pilot by three millimeters. You can imagine the pitch to IWC brass when this watch was taking shape: the Big Pilot – just not as big. One wonders what kind of crisis this might have caused at IWC. Their signature watch, with its defining characteristic in the name of the silly thing, would now barely measure larger than a Speedmaster Professional, which nobody really thinks is that big at all. It turns out, though, that in 2021, in this period of time when smaller watches are slowly but surely coming back into favor, a 43mm pilot’s watch can still be a fairly imposing object, with or without “big” in the name, and with or without all the baggage that comes with the Big Pilot’s history.
To be perfectly clear, this is still a big watch. Not just in terms of measurements, but in its overall presence and place within the IWC ecosystem of pilot’s watches. Let’s take a minute to review the pilot’s watch landscape at IWC, which as ever is broad, varied, and sometimes even a bit confusing. At the top of the range, you have the Big Pilot’s line, which consists of no fewer than eight models, including the BP 43 seen here, several basic variants of the OG Big Pilot with its date display and power reserve indicator, plus a selection of perpetual calendars, tourbillons, and a completely wild Big Pilot meant to survive any impact imaginable.
Then there’s the Pilot’s Watch Chronograph, recently reintroduced and reviewed here by Blake Buettner. These watches are a sibling to the Pilot’s Watch “Mark” series, currently on iteration XVIII. But it doesn’t stop at the Pilot’s Watch line – IWC also has the Top Gun, Spitfire, Le Petit Prince, and Antoine de Saint Exupéry ranges, which all essentially mimic the “Classic” line of pilot’s watches to a certain extent, but with their own hook (the Petit Prince watches have blue dials, the Top Guns make use of ceramic, and so forth). The notable exception is the Spitfire collection, which has its own distinct look and feel, and is very much a vintage inspired pilot’s watch, frequently with tan lume and more modest proportions.
The point, if it hasn’t already been made, and if your eyes haven’t glazed over, is that IWC makes a lot of pilot’s watches. Strangely, though, even with all those references within so many unique collections, there was a real gap in size options prior to the introduction of the Big Pilot 43. For a time only (or time and date) watch in the larger IWC pilot collection, you essentially go straight from the modest 41mm Mark XVIII to the aforementioned clown sized 46mm Big Pilot.
The IWC Big Pilot 43 Spitfire fills that gap, and because it’s a Big Pilot, it’s also something of a flagship for the brand, and has some fun bells and whistles in the movement that set it apart from other pilot’s watches in the collection (more on the movement soon). This, I think, is one of those products where there’s a certain genius in the simplicity of it all. Ever wanted a Big Pilot but didn’t want to feel like you were wearing Flava Flav’s necklace on your wrist? Now you’ve got it, and it’s still mostly worthy of the “Big” in the title.
This watch fully worked on me. I enjoyed every minute of my time with it, except for the very last one, when the separation anxiety began to kick in. I’m now back to wearing and enjoying my own watches, but they don’t have the bombastic appeal of the Big Pilot 43. As I finish up this evaluation of the watch, I’m not entirely sure if that’s a good or bad thing.
Part of any watch review, whether it’s intentional or not, involves asking yourself if you could live with this watch in your own collection, and what that would look like. The prospect of owning and living with a watch that you’ve spent real money on is obviously inherently different from sampling a watch that requires no investment whatsoever, so the best you can ever do is a thought experiment. Here’s what I’ve come up with, after quite a bit of thought: for me personally, I don’t know that the BP 43 would ever find a place in my watch box, because I don’t know that the experience of owning it forever could beat the hot flash of lightning that is the short sample period, where you can wear it exuberantly for a short period and then give it back.
The IWC Big Pilot 43 Spitfire , on a bracelet, but with all the other straps that you really want because the quick change aspect is really quite cool, creeps pretty close to $10,000 (although retail price on the watch with just the leather strap sits at $8,400, on a bracelet it’s $9,350). Now, that’s a big number. It’s nearly a five digit number. But it’s not a number that’s crazy. It’s a number that, with some planning, saving, consolidating, zero-interest credit card promotions, and luck (we really need BTC to break out soon, here) many enthusiasts could potentially afford if they really wanted it. For me though, a five figure watch is a watch I’d have to be pretty sure I’d want to wear every day, until I’m extremely old, and I don’t know that the Big Pilot 43 is that watch. For a few weeks it’s a lot of fun to wear something that’s brash and flashy – but for years? Day in and day out? As I said at the top, I’m not that guy.
Of course, this is, as I said, a thought experiment. No watch has to be worn day in and day out. Maybe it would be fun to be flashy for a few weeks at a time and then put it away for a, oh I don’t know, a Grand Seiko under 40mm? And maybe you are that guy who wants something that’s a bit loud and aggressive, but also undeniably well crafted and held together by a coherent design proven over the course of decades. If that’s you, and you’ve got the wrist for it, the Big Pilot 43 is more than worth a look. And if it’s not you, that’s ok too. I hear IWC makes their pilot’s watch in a few different flavors.