In early 1990s, IWC released a watch that’s now considered a classic from the company’s post-Quartz Crisis period: the Pilot’s Watch Double Chronograph, which was a rattrapante chronograph built on a Valjoux 7750 movement, heavily modified by IWC’s Richard Habring (who has since gone on to found a brand of his own). The Double Chronograph was the essence of unadorned, functional watchmaking – in a substantial, 42mm x 17mm steel case, with a soft iron antimagnetic inner case and a dial strictly oriented towards legibility, it epitomized the no-frills, form-follows-function philosophy that had characterized IWC’s approach to instrument watches for many years.
The non-rattrapante model that followed – the reference 3706 Fliegerchronograph, which was 39mm in diameter – was an identical design, and, with its clean look (and hand design, which goes all the way back to the original Mark XI) it was an instant classic. Walt Odets once slyly haracterized the Mark XII as “every non-pilot’s favorite pilot’s watch,” and you could probably say the same about the original Fliegerchronograph – but the key to the success of the originals was that, irrespective of their adoption by professionals, they seemed to really be pilot’s watches, rather than to be illustrations of pilot’s watches. Over the years, as with many of the classic IWC models from this period in the company’s history, though the basic design has undergone a plethora of changes and variations on the essential theme, the spare design of the original still stands out as the ur-pilot’s chronograph from IWC.
For instrument watch enthusiasts, the Pilot’s Watch Double Chronograph and Pilot’s Chronograph/Fliegerchronograph were a very big deal indeed, and they represented, along with the Mark XII, a kind of high water mark for functionally driven watch design – not just from IWC, but for the 1990s in general. (The Mark XI style hands recently made a reappearance in the “Tribute To Mark XI” limited edition). Then, last week, IWC announced that an online-only re-issue of the original design – in a larger case, and with ecru lume – was out.
The watch looked very promising (albeit the 43mm case diameter seemed a little daunting) and indeed, in the metal, it’s an impressive watch, as well as being, for those of us who remember the debut of the originals in the ’90s, a pretty powerful reminder of a time when so many milestones in watchmaking were yet to come and when the hobby was still very small scale (if you wanted to argue about watches on the internet you were largely stuck with Usenet newsgroups, and the watch magazines – such as they were – were buried at the bottom of the newsstands along with the model railroading, stamp collecting, and doll enthusiast magazines).
In many respects, it certainly feels very much like the original as well. There’s the same take-it-or-leave-it chunky steel case, a virtually identical dial, the same date display as in the original, and the same distribution of lume. The basic design remains as strong as ever – time and elapsed time information are delivered with all the unambiguous bluntness and lack of ceremony of a process server handing you a court summons, which for an instrument watch is exactly as it should be.
The similarities between the two watches are so strong that the differences are all the more noticeable. Obviously IWC could have done a straight re-issue of the original Fliegerchronograph and I suspect that would have found a ready audience, but the Tribute To Mark XI seemed an early signal that an exact copy-paste of past classics, for all that many long-time IWC enthusiasts (among which I count myself) would have welcomed such a thing enthusiastically, is not in the cards. Thus, we have a larger case, the use of lume with the hue of aged tritium, and the presence of circular snailing in the chronograph subdials. Interestingly enough the new Pilot’s Watch Chronograph (the name is as pared back as the design) is actually thinner than the original Double Chronograph, at 15.3mm. It does, however, wear similarly in terms of thickness, thanks to the NATO style strap. The latter’s quite well made, of sturdy-feeling heavy gauge nylon, with a strip of leather reinforcing the holes – that detail should give the strap noticeably better longevity than the average NATO.
In a lot of respects the wearing experience for the new model’s more similar to the original than different – the thickness of each is close enough to somewhat cancel out the (significant) difference in diameter. The lume may look aged but of course it works just fine and in the dark, as you’d expect, the dial glows like Marie Curie’s teeth.
As happy as I was to see this design return, there is an unexpected element of sadness to seeing it and having it on the wrist, and that’s because it is a powerful exercise in nostalgia (as Don Draper famously explained in an episode of Mad Men, nostalgia is a word with Greek roots, and means, more or less, the pain of being away from home). The original version appeared at a time when not just the world of watches, but the world in general, was a very different place; being part of a watch enthusiast community meant being part of something much smaller and altogether more intimate, and watch brands in general still made changes in products in careful, incremental ways, rather than attempting to produce significantly new designs in relatively short periods of time. There was, overall, a sense of durability of design, and stability in identity, that seems to have been a bit lost nowadays. While I welcome this watch in the specific, I feel blue in general about what it reminds me of, which is a world with a smaller scale and more personal level of discourse.
There have been significant benefits to the global explosion of interest in both vintage and modern watches as well – Golden Ages after all tend to look less and less golden the longer you look at them, and there’s an awful lot about the last 20 years of developments in watches, communication about them, and research into them that I wouldn’t roll back for all the spuds in Idaho. (If nothing else, we’re having a second Golden Age in terms of technology; watch movements in general are functionally, at least in some respects, the best they’ve ever been.)
I actually don’t have a very clear sense of what it would be like to have a straight re-issue of the original back (and of course if that’s what you want, you can always hunt for an original). The identity of a watch is very context dependent and who knows if how I felt about the watch in 1995 would necessarily be what I’d feel in 2018; both horologically and otherwise, it’s been a great deal of water under the bridge. And being a little too backwards-looking has, historically, been occasionally problematic and sometimes nearly fatal for the European watch industry. Maybe it’s better to see this watch for what it is: a sign of the times that has appeared at a moment when the mechanical watch is once again straddling the divide between what it once was and can never be again, and what it’s going to become.