When the Frenchman Louis Blériot flew his monoplane across the English Channel in 1909, the first aviator to make the trip, the Zenith watch strapped to his wrist was a tool he relied on to measure the time it took to fly over the channel.
Its luminous dial and hands, large visible numerals and oversize crown (designed to be manipulated by gloved fingers) helped the pioneering pilot to complete the 36-minute crossing over some 22 miles of open water between Calais, France, and Dover, England, tying the Zenith brand to aviation.
Computerized instruments have since replaced aviator watches, but Zenith has continued to produce Pilot models, less as what the industry calls tool watches and more to tap into the thrill and romance of flying. Two next-generation pilot watches — the Pilot Automatic and the Pilot Big Date Flyback — are the main highlights of the aviation-themed Zenith booth at the Watches and Wonders trade show, opening March 27 in Geneva.
“This is very big news for Zenith,” Julien Tornare, the brand’s president and chief executive, said in a phone interview from its factory in Le Locle, Switzerland. “We are drawing on Zenith’s aviation heritage to bring the Pilot watch into the 21st century.”
The brand’s designers had tinkered with the Pilot’s design over the years, trying to achieve what Mr. Tornare called a “balance between heritage and modernity.” But until now they had never replaced vintage features of the brand’s oldest and most historic model: cases in bronze, aged steel or sterling silver, and the large crown and numerals.
“This face-lift has been radical,” said Romain Marietta, Zenith’s director of product development and heritage. Both of the new watches come in cases of stainless steel with a satin-brushed finish and black ceramic microblasted to a matte surface.
The dials, in black opaline, now have horizontal grooves, inspired by the corrugated metal sheets on the fuselages of aircraft from what Mr. Marietta called “the golden age of aviation, in the 1960s and 1970s.” He noted that “these horizontal grooves are the new signature of Zenith’s Pilot watches,” adding that the Defy, Elite and Chronomaster lines all now have distinctive dial patterns.
They still bear the label “Pilot.” Zenith is the only watch brand in Switzerland that can use that word as its founder, Georges Favre-Jacot, trademarked the French spelling (pilote) in 1888 and the English spelling in 1904.
The Arabic numerals now appear in a more modern font, the name of which Zenith declined to share, and a white Super-LumiNova treatment makes them stand out against the black dial. At 6 o’clock, just above or below the date window, depending on the model, is a luminescent white line that recalls a plane’s artificial horizon instrument. “This flat line allows the wearer to instantly recognize the orientation of the watch and read the time,” Mr. Marietta said.
And the crown, he said, “has been reduced into a more modern, angular shape that is still large enough for gloved manipulation” and features Zenith’s star logo.
The Pilot Automatic comes in 40-millimeter versions, and visible through the sapphire display case back is the El Primero 3620 high-frequency movement with a power reserve of 60 hours, an in-house movement introduced last year in the brand’s Defy Skyline models.
“This is a three-hands model with a reliable movement that stands out among others models for its high frequency,” Mr. Marietta said, referring to the seconds hand, which increases the timepiece’s accuracy.
The Pilot Big Date Flyback comes in two 42.5 millimeter versions. (A flyback refers to a feature that allows the wearer to reset the chronograph to return, or “fly back,” to the zero position by pushing the reset button while the chronograph hand is running.)
“We couldn’t introduce a new Pilot line without a chronograph reference,” Mr. Marietta said. “For this model, we designed a new movement, the El Primero 3652 automatic high-frequency chronograph.”
Each watch comes with two straps, which can be attached with a quick-release mechanism that does not require tools.
The redesign is part of a strategy Mr. Tornare initiated in 2017 when he became Zenith’s chief executive: Streamline the brand’s offerings into four lines, then rejuvenate each one, a process he described as “waking the sleeping beauty.”
“We started in 2017 with the Defy collection, the strategic pillar of our global lineup, then we moved to the Elite collection in 2020, and we did the same with Chronomaster in 2021,” Mr. Tornare said. “The logical next step was to refresh the Pilot.”
“Not everyone is wearing an Apple Watch,” he said. “Some people prefer legacy, history, and a mechanical, manufactured product.”