The IWC Big Pilot has earned its cult status, as the oversized 46mm pilot’s watch is, without a doubt, one of the most emblematic and striking watches of its kind. With over 20 years of history (and close to 85 years if you look back at the ancestor, the 1940 B-Uhr by IWC), there have been countless editions, some truly collectable. Yet, probably no other timepiece from IWC’s pilot collection has achieved the status of the 2008 Big Pilot Markus Bühler (ref. IW5003) – an ultra-limited edition inspired by a unique piece Markus Bühler created for a competition in the final year of his watchmaker apprenticeship at IWC Schaffhausen. Its most striking feature, an aircraft turbine on the small seconds and over its barrel, has captivated collectors over the years… As a gift for the fans, the turbine-equipped IWC Big Pilot’s Watch 43 Tourbillon Markus Bühler is back in 2023, now in platinum and linked to a complex flying tourbillon architecture. And we have its creator, Mr Bühler himself, presenting his new interpretation (ref. IW329901) in front of our camera.
Before we look at the new IWC Big Pilot’s Watch 43 Tourbillon Markus Bühler (ref. IW329901) and what makes it special, we need to go back in history a bit and understand what’s behind these turbine-inspired Big Pilot watches. The 2008 Turbine Big Pilot is arguably one of the most distinctive, rarest and most collectable BP watches ever produced by IWC. It might also be one of the least known, at least outside of a small circle of seasoned enthusiasts. The story behind this watch starts with Markus Bühler. Born in Uzwil, Switzerland, Markus didn’t start out as a watchmaker. He actually was a trained carpenter at the family-owned business, Bühler & Co. At the age of 28, Markus decided to change career and has since dedicated his work to IWC Schaffhausen, where he started as an apprentice and today is the Associate Director of Watch & Movement Assembly. As an apprentice, he entered the Prix IFHH de l’Horlogerie (held by the Institut de Formation à la Haute Horlogerie, owned by IWC’s parent company Richemont) and won the first prize. The topic of the 2003 competition was to open the barrel and show the mainspring, all of that in a 30-hour timeframe over the course of two weeks. With this limited time frame, the idea had to be simple, clever, and straightforward. The result was a prototype with a hand-wound Unitas movement modified with turbine-shaped wheels over the barrel and another turbine disc on the front to replace the traditional small seconds – even though this latter feature wasn’t part of the competition’s requirements. Impressed by the result of the competition but also by the whole look of the watch – these turbines couldn’t make more sense into the overall concept of a BP watch – IWC decided to follow up, and the following year, Markus Bühler started working on what would become the 2008 Big Pilot’s Watch Edition Markus Bühler (ref. IW5003). Roles were also reversed, and Bühler became the project manager of his own limited edition and was assigned a team of apprentices. The watch itself, which was released in an ultra-exclusive run of only 12 pieces (one being owned by Markus himself), is essentially a Big Pilot with a 46.2mm case and a dial that is a classic BP. However, not only did it retain the two turbines, but it also came with a modified hand-wound Unitas movement, something no other BP can claim. The front relies on a 12-blade turbine with a red dot to indicate the seconds. This element, for obvious weight-saving reasons, was cast in aluminium. The back also features its own turbine, which takes place as the prototype, over the barrel and reveals the mainspring. This combination of unique features resulted in a watch with a significantly higher caseback to accommodate the modifications but a watch with an unusual artisanal approach. The movement, if classic Unitas, was finished pleasantly with circular stripes radiating from the centre of the back turbine combined with hand-bevelled bridges. The rest is standard Big Pilot, with a case and dial identical to a first-generation IW5002, save for the applied markers and the removal of the power reserve indicator and date. Fifteen years after the release of the 12-piece Big Pilot Markus Bühler IW5003, it is now time for IWC and its Associate Director to come up with a successor. And there are a few changes, both in and out. The new Big Pilot Markus Bühler is a departure from the old model. Gone are the days of the artisanal, almost prototype-like watch powered by an outsourced movement: enter complications and luxury. Of course, it is still fitted with the turbine on the dial but not on the back. The initial model, as we’ve seen, was a bit gimmicky – and I’m saying this in the best possible way, as these turbines, which were mostly decorative, added a ton of charm to the watch. The new one is a mature, far more serious take on the concept. First and most importantly, the new Big Pilot Markus Bühler isn’t a classic Big Pilot anymore. It isn’t 46mm in diameter, and it’s not made from steel. Instead, it is built around the more recent, more reasonable, less purist-oriented Big Pilot’s Watch 43. As you’ve guessed from its name, it measures 43mm in diameter with a thickness of 14.6mm and a lug-to-lug measurement of about 52mm. In this regard, it’s just a bit thicker than a classic 3-hand version. The main difference with other BP43 and with the classic Markus Bühler BP is the material. The IWC Big Pilot’s Watch 43 Tourbillon Markus Bühler 2023 edition is made of platinum, and its case is entirely polished, while most BP watches are mostly brushed. Other than that, the classic features of the collection have been respected, such as the oversized diamond-shaped crown, the pressure-resistant sapphire crystal or the see-through caseback. And the water-resistance has been maintained at a comfortable 100m. Moving on to the dial, this Big Pilot’ Markus Bühler looks remarkably familiar at first sight… But there are a few twists to discover. The layout is traditional BP, with oversized Arabic numerals and a highly legible minute track. Just like its ancestor, this new edition has a glossy black dial and applied markers, which are now located every 5 minutes. Just like the hands, they are rhodium-plated and lumed. The main feature on the dial is, of course, the turbine at 6 o’clock, which still acts as a small seconds indicator, thanks to a red dot on one of the 12 blades. However, there are some major updates here. First of all, under the turbine lies a tourbillon. Indeed, since IWC has moved from an outsourced Unitas to an automatic in-house movement, they’ve decided to up the game drastically. But fitting a 12-blade turbine on top of a tourbillon regulator comes with its own problems, the main one being weight – the higher its mass and inertia, the more energy it takes to keep the mechanism in motion (basic physics). Weight reduction is, therefore, the primary focus in any tourbillon construction. But now imagine having a turbine on top… With such constraints in mind, Markus Bühler went for a clever solution. The turbine is the upper part of the flying tourbillon cage, replacing the traditional regulator. This, however, requires a technical change; the hairspring attaches to the underside of one of its blades, and the watchmaker can adjust the zero crossing of the balance by turning the turbine. Also, in order to reduce friction and improve the flow of energy, the pallet lever and the escape wheel are treated with a special coating named Diamond Shell technology. Still on the topic of weight, the turbine, which was cast in aluminium in the past, is now machined from a lightweight titanium alloy. Considering its complex geometry and small size, the milling process alone takes several hours, on top of which some more time is necessary to hand-polish each of the 12 blades (which have a twisted shape…) Once completed, the tourbillon consists of 56 parts and weighs only 0.663 grams, despite its large (by tourbillon standards) turbine/cage on top. Moving to the other side of the case, the back is a rather different take on the concept than the original watch and reveals an in-house automatic movement, yet no more turbine like in the old watch. The spectacle is now on the front, offered to the wearer. The calibre 82905 is a development over the 82000 family of movement, which is IWC Big Pilot’s Watch 43 Tourbillon Markus Bühler, for example, found in the 3-hand Big Pilot’s Watch 43. Wound by a Pellaton system with wear-free ceramic components, it runs at a 4Hz frequency and stores a comfortable power reserve of 80 hours – all the more impressive than the classic time-only version, which has a lightweight traditional regulator and only boasts 60 hours of power reserve. What makes it unique is its finish, with plates, bridges and the rotor blackened with a PVD coating, then laser-engraved and finally rhodium-plated in the engraved areas. The strap also shows some nice tributes to the creator of both the original watch and this IWC Big Pilot’s Watch 43 Tourbillon Markus Bühler 2023 edition. Made of black Cordovan leather and closed by a platinum folding clasp, the back of the strap is printed with a turbine logo and Markus Bühler’s signature.