The watershed 2002 Big Pilot’s Watch celebrates its twentieth anniversary next year. Although 2019 was IWC’s latest canonical “Year of The Pilot’s Watch,” the “Big Pilot” is a brand-defining series that commands its own sense of occasion. Lest watch collectors lose perspective amid 2022’s likely press galas and new model onslaught, it’s worth recalling just how daring and fresh the original Big Pilot’s Watch was in 2002.
More than its purely descriptive name implies, the Big Pilot launched IWC in a direction un-probed by the hitherto conservative brand, and it transformed the industry’s conception of what was possible in a consumer product. Bigger, bolder, and more ambitious than any mass-market watch to date, the Big Pilot nevertheless stayed true to real IWC history in a way that its innumerable imitators never have matched. And that was the key to its success: authenticity paired with audacity.
IWC’s modern Pilot’s Watch family is built on two pillars, but they’re as different as Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding. The Mark family – led by today’s Mark XVIII – is accomplished, historically significant, and revered like Redding. But the Big Pilot is Franklin belting out her personalized rendition of Redding’s “Respect”: a superstar. And just as Franklin started with Redding’s basic song, the Big Pilot borrowed the “language” of the IWC aviation watch history, added its own outsize personality, and coined an icon’s legacy from a combination of the two.
A focus group would not have approved the 2002 Big Pilot’s Watch.
At face value, the 5002 was too large to look natural on any wrist and too big outright for many potential customers’ forearms. The oversized Big Pilot failed to target the proven customer base in high-volume 40-44mm sports watch segments established by Rolex, Omega, and Breitling.
Unlike pilot-style products such as the Omega Speedmaster Professional, Breitling Navitimer, and Rolex GMT-Master II, the Big Pilot couldn’t pull double-duty in casual and formal attire; it confronted cuffs like Godzilla charging through Tokyo. For those with the money and inclination to buy just a single fine watch, the debut reference 5002 was too imposing to act as one’s only timepiece and too bombastic to wear in a conservative office environment.
In the all-important East Asian sales region – then as now, the largest consumer of Swiss timepieces – tastes and wrists were downright hostile to the notion of a 46.2mm watch with a 57mm lug-to-lug span. IWC prepared the 5002 knowing that its sheer size would yield a watch strictly for extroverts with a command of history and a high horology budget; that sliver of the population makes for a skinny Venn overlap.
The IWC Big Pilot’s Watch 5002 could have gone wrong in so many ways that it’s safe to say no doctrinaire planning process could have birthed it. The size question was a given, but history posed its own challenge. IWC’s 5002 was a loving and fairly faithful tribute to the 1940 IWC reference 431/Type 52 T.S.C., IWC’s version of the widely produced “beobachtungsuhr.” The wartime German Luftwaffe was the customer.
Panerai’s success proved that Axis associations weren’t necessarily incompatible with sales. But as of 2021, even the PAM folks’ limitless historical tribute series has yet to – officially – reissue the WWII German navy’s bootleg Panerai “Kampfschwimmer” model. IWC wagered that the underlying integrity of the engineering and instrumental purity of its new Big Pilot’s Watch would transcend politics, and IWC bet right. Collectors of all nations and backgrounds warmly embraced IWC’s reborn giant. That was an act of pure faith; there’s no actuarial table for that kind of business calculation.
Finally, IWC’s product planners had the integrity to equip the 2002 Big Pilot’s Watch with a manufacture movement of considerable sophistication and considerable cost. The new millennium witnessed the launch of IWC’s caliber 5000 oversized automatic in-house movement. This monster machine combined features of the previous caliber 85 (automatic) and 95 (pocket watch) families into a single power plant that launched as the world’s largest automatic movement.
With an expensive architecture, considerable up-front investment in tooling, and deluxe features like a Breguet overcoil, IWC Pellaton winding system, and a 7-day power reserve, the caliber 5000 wasn’t the obvious choice for a giant watch with already long odds of market success. In those days, IWC maintained a good relationship with movement mass-supplier ETA, and a Unitas 6497 pocket watch caliber would have been the natural fit for a huge watch with a solid caseback. If automatic winding was required, the same Valjoux 7750-P1 sans chronograph as used by Panerai in its oversized Luminor series was waiting in the wings.
No matter; IWC forged ahead with its low-percentage play for the style extrovert with a penchant for high horology substance. And because the massive steel 5002 wasn’t hulking enough, IWC also prepared a platinum version.
The first IWC Big Pilot’s Watch 5002 was a trailblazer. Not only does it continue to belt its rock star rhythm as the current catalog’s reference 5010-01, but it has become an influence to the other IWC Pilot’s Watch models and an aspirational target for IWC collectors. Since 2006, the entire IWC Pilot’s Watch line – conservative Mark models aside – has been reformed in the image of the plus-sized flagship.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that the luxury watch landscape of the last nineteen years would look dramatically different if the fall of 2001 had put a chill in the step of IWC’s design team.
Cold feet in Schauffhausen that season could have had a domino’s impact on the events of the next two decades. Subsequent 48mm Hublot King Powers, 47-60mm Panerais, 44-48mm Audemars Piguet Royal Oaks, the 44mm Rolex Deepsea Sea-Dweller, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Master Compressor Extreme series, and Breitling’s legion of 46mm+ offerings owe the IWC 5002 a nod of gratitude for their existence. Without the dead reckoning by IWC’s 2002 Große Fliegeruhr, each of its rival model lines may never have been released much less known commercial succes.