Like many luxury watchmakers these days, the goal of IWC Pilot’s Watch Spitfire Chronograph Spitfire Mr. Porter isn’t so much about novelty as it is about refinement. Many of the classic watch models and themes we like are evolving slowly in the “Rolex Way,” meaning slight improvements over time as opposed to major shifts and spurts of design creativity. This is a good framework for understanding the current generation IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph reference 3777 family of watches refreshed back in 2016. At SIHH 2016 IWC offered some light but highly appreciated revisions for the IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph collection here. If you are interested in this watch and the various versions available, I recommend you check out that link. For now, I’ll proceed to review a timepiece that I think should have a place in a lot of people’s collections as a regular wear option.
Sports watches are typically segmented into a few major categories based on the overall theme they are based on. While blending occurs often enough, purists tend to appreciate watches designed for rather specific purposes. To that end, we have the dive watch, the driving watch, and of course the pilot watch. Each of these core types of “activity timepieces” has an incredible variety, but tend to share more things in common with each other than differences. By this, I mean that if you put a lot of pilot watches together on a table, you’ll probably see a lot of things in common. In some ways, the IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph attempts to be an “elegant average” of what the brand feels you might expect to see in a pilot watch with a chronograph. It’s a blend of design themes and styles done together in a way that is balanced, logical, and steeped in actual history. In other words, it is what some people consider to be the formula for a perfect Swiss timepiece.
IWC based out of Schaffhausen, Switzerland near the German border is no stranger to pilot watches. I believe that the brand produced them during both world wars, and moved from being a maker of good watches to luxury watches when the industry underwent major change mostly in the 1980s. Today IWC likes to play off of its history as much as it can, and compared to all of the sports watches it makes today (Aquatimer, Ingenieur, etc.) its pilot watches have the most “historic legitimacy.”
That doesn’t tend to matter to me as I am a fan of anyone who makes quality products regardless of their history, but it has benefited IWC in a major way because when compared to their other watches, they seem to be the most comfortable when making pilot watches. It is as though the brand seems to really possess a strong grasp of what goes into a decent pilot watch, which makes their timepieces feel authentic from a design perspective, and comfortable when on the wrist. In other words, out of the many brands that make aviator watches, IWC aviator watches are among the few that really seem to feel comfortable in their own skin.
You can spend a lot of money on an IWC pilot watch as well. Opt for fancy in-house movements and precious case materials and you’ll be spending very big bucks quickly. With that said, my own personal appreciation of their pilot watches is actually a lot more on the entry-level side where I think you get a good deal along with a good design. The most entry-level of IWC’s pilot watches (for men) is actually just called the Pilot’s Watch, and in its current Pilot’s Watch Mark XVIII form (hands-on here) you get a very sensible 40mm wide watch that will serve you well for a long time. Its a great watch, but its just a bit too small and simple to pull at many Western men’s heartstrings when it comes to being a “man’s sports watch.” For $1,000 more you get into Pilot’s Watch Chronograph territory that maintains a simple and functional demeanor, but in a slightly larger case with a more intricate dial that “tool watch guys” have voted with their wallets to love time and time again.
Let’s also distinguish between the IWC Pilot’s Watch collection and the Big Pilot’s Watch collection. In addition to the latter being larger and containing an in-house IWC movement, it is also much more expensive. The IWC Big Pilot’s Watch on a strap costs more than two and half times the price of the Pilot’s Watch Chronograph. I’m not here to talk about the relative value of the two watches, but it is obvious that a watch priced at about $13,000 isn’t going to be open to the same people who buy watches priced at about $5,000. The bottom line is that the Big Pilot’s Watch collection and the Pilot’s Watch collection essentially serve two very different consumer demographics.
At 43mm wide and 15mm thick in steel, the IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph wears large, but very comfortably. It is no doubt masculine in proportions, but fails to look overly-sized, which is a good thing. IWC did a good job to emphasize the size of the dial by keeping the bezel thin, and making sure that the primary function of the device (to tell the time) is effortless thanks to the correct choice of textures on the dial and the high contrast between the face and the markers/hands.
In a way I could probably recommend the dial of the IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph to students wanting to understand effective watch dial design because there is so much being done properly here. IWC pulls from decades of history and design culture just among pilot watches to come up with something classic (even if it looks a bit generic at times). Whatever IWC lacks in pure brand DNA character in a watch like this, they make up for in emulating a desirable look in a way that, in most instances, bests the competition. I say this with love, but right now IWC makes one of the best generic pilot watch dials around – and that is saying a lot because so many are seemingly trying.
While IWC is a luxury product company, items like the Pilot’s Watch Chronograph captures the non-pretentious factor of a serious tool item made with love and care without being showy. The steel case is brushed everywhere with no polishing save for some light (but effective) polished angle beveling and the slight polish of the very thin bezel. The screw-down crown and large chronograph pushers feel purposeful, but lend to the overall case design. In all, the watch is beautifully un-showy.
One of the best things IWC did with this current generation Pilot’s Watch Chronograph is to finally remove the often criticized “open” date window that along with the day of the week indicator formed a strange little sideways “T” on the dial. With this element gone, the timelessness of the overall look is vastly upgraded. The dial features all matte finishes (which is a good idea) with slightly recessed sub-dials. It gives just a hint of depth without going overboard. Another “textbook” design practice that IWC does well is add in a hint of red color which comes in the form of the running seconds hand. A very minor touch but done so very well in my opinion.
Over the dial is a slightly domed sapphire crystal with AR-coating on the bottom. IWC could have gone with a totally flat crystal that would have eliminated glare, but it would have given the watch too serious of a look. Despite the glare (that is hard to avoid in photography) the way the watch plays with the light in person is as welcome as it is subtle. These are all very minor touches that required a lot of design refinement, even if they seem small and relatively trivial. Though they aren’t because all good watch design often points down to very little details and small choices.
Inside the watch is what IWC calls the caliber 79320 movement, which is a base Swiss ETA Valjoux 7750 (or perhaps equivalent Sellita SW500 clone) automatic chronograph. This is a common movement that doesn’t exactly scream exclusivity, but it is reliable and effective. There is a good reason why you find the 7750 in so many watches out there, and you should never shy away from one (especially at these prices). The movement offers the time, 12 hour chronograph, date, and day of the week. It operates at 4Hz (28,800 bph) and has a power reserve of 44 hours.
While this is no diving watch with its water resistance of 60 meters, the IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph does actually have a soft iron core which is important because that means it can protect against magnetic fields which can really screw up the movement. IWC further claims the sapphire crystal is applied in such a way as to prevent itself from popping out should your timepiece experience a sudden and dramatic change in cabin pressure. Last note on the dial, while IWC does use luminant for the hands, only four of the hour markers get luminant, and I would have preferred a fully-lumed dial.
A simple engraving of a three-engine prop plane is placed on the rear of the case as a sort of loose reminder of what types of eras IWC wants to evoke with the design of the Pilot’s Watch Chronograph. No doubt the watch dial is directly inspired by cockpit instruments, but you will also find very similar designs on today’s aircraft. So even though the true inspiration of the design is historic, I would argue that such a look is for the most part, timeless and just as relevant today as it was yesterday.
I think that ability to be a serious instrument, masculine without being showy, and timeless, is the real allure of a design such as this. You look like a man of action wearing one, but you don’t also look like someone who likes to yell a lot. Perhaps the IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph is the timepiece for highly active people with manners. That’s actually not a bad way of looking at it.
Even if you like the watch, you still have some choices to make because in addition to black and now metallic blue dial colors, IWC will force you to make some tough strap decisions. The most classic look (and a good one) for the Pilot’s Watch Chronograph is the black calfskin leather Santoni strap. Sadly gone are the “rivets” you sometimes see in pilot watches near the end of the strap, but you do have that cool little sharp taper that gives the watch more personality. IWC now also offers textile straps which are their version of a high-end NATO-style strap. Last of course is a five-link steel metal bracelet.
You need to spend an extra $1,000 for the bracelet over the strap, and I hope at least some people do so. While the bracelet oddly gives the watch a less dressy appearance (important for people who want as much stylistic diversity in the watch as possible) it does actually make it feel a bit sportier. The classic five-link brushed design works well and is handsome. What I really want to mention though are some of the little details in the bracelet that you should not miss.
Notice that on the edges of the bracelet you see no holes for pins or screw bars. Pretty cool right? To adjust the bracelet the links use a special “almost no tools” necessary approach where you press down on small pushers on the inside of the bracelet to release the links. It’s a pretty decent system, and OCD people like myself will appreciate how it helps clean up the look of the bracelet from the sides. I also like the small amounts of perlage polishing on the folding elements of the deployant clasp.
Most important for daily wear is the micro-adjust system. While this isn’t new, IWC adopts the technique of putting a small micro-adjust system in the folding deployant clasp. To operate it and extend or shorten the bracelet by a few millimeters you press down on the IWC logo. This makes wearing a bracelet much more comfortable as your wrist sometimes wants it to be more snug, and other times wants it to be a bit looser.
I don’t believe you need to spend terribly high amounts of money to get a good classic sports watch from a Swiss brand – and that is one of the primary reasons this watch is a good idea. IWC is getting a bit more sensible with its prices and the 2016 3777 Pilot’s Watch Chronograph timepieces are an excellent illustration of that.