The Low-Key Debut of the Coolest Recent IWC Big Pilot

Carbon composite case and "fish" crown.

Last month IWC premiered a limited edition that has all the qualities of a hit: a bestselling classic in an exotic material, made in a very small run – and also incorporating nerdy, collector-oriented details. Instead, the IWC Big Pilot’s Watch Edition Black Carbon was debuted quietly, delivered to clients, and pretty much went unnoticed around the world.

The first ever Big Pilot with a carbon fibre composite case, the Big Pilot Black Carbon has a black dial with grey hands and markings, replicating the colour of the composite case. It’s livened up by red accents on the power reserve indicator and seconds hand (and also the date disc, for a small number of special watches, more on that below).

The famous “fish”

More unusually, the Big Pilot Black Carbon has a “fish” crown – the oversized, onion-shaped winding crown has a stylised fish logo on its top. Despite being a seemingly trivial detail, the “fish” crown is dear to IWC enthusiasts, being a memorable element from IWC’s 20th century history – one many collectors regard as a golden age.

From the 1950s until the mid-2000s, most water-resistant IWC watches featured a “fish” crown. The very first generation of the Big Pilot, the ref. 5002 introduced in 2002, featured a “fish” crown. Not long after, the “fish” crown was dispensed with in favour of a crown featuring the IWC “Probus Scafusia” emblem.

This happened sometime in 2006, first with a “transitional” ref. 5002 that was equipped with the new cal. 51110 and “Probus Scafusia” crown, and soon after with the all-new ref. 5004 with both new movement and crown.

As a result, the “fish” crown also takes pride of place on the case back, which bears large “fish” crown emblem cast in relief.

In the vast library of Big Pilot editions – and there are many – the Big Pilot Black Carbon ranks up there as one of the coolest. So what explains the under-the-radar launch?

In short, coronavirus.

The former “Hong Kong Edition”

Firstly, it has to be noted that IWC itself has absolutely nothing to say officially about the creation and launch of the Big Pilot Black Carbon. But the backstory is well known amongst those who were involved, and some of it has already been detailed on social media.

The genesis of the watch was formed at an IWC “design workshop” that took place in October 2018. It was attended by many of the city’s leading IWC collectors – including a gentleman who is reputedly the biggest collector of Big Pilot’s Watches in the world – who got the ball rolling for limited edition exclusively for Hong Kong.

Over the course of the following year, the group of enthusiasts refined the idea, which was eventually given the go-ahead by IWC. But as that was happening, protests and civil unrest engulfed Hong Kong, followed by the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in early 2020.

Launching a luxury wristwatch dedicated to a city that undergoing near-constant turmoil became untenable, so the Hong Kong aspect of the edition was shelved and the 100-piece run was renamed.

Despite the name change, the origins of the limited edition were not forgotten and live on in a small number of watches. Fourteen watches were reserved for the participants of the design workshop that gave birth to the idea. Delivered in a commemorative box with a NATO-style strap only for the 14, these watches are identical to the standard versions save for one special detail: the “10” on the date wheel is in bright red, a reference to the 10th anniversary of the IWC flagship boutique in Hong Kong that opened in 2009.

Key facts and price

IWC Big Pilot’s Watch Edition Black Carbon
Ref. IW506101

Case diameter: 46.5 mm
Case height: 14.8 mm
Material: Carbon-fibre composite
Water resistance: 60 m

Movement: Cal. 52110
Features: Hours, minutes, seconds, date, and power reserve display
Frequency: 28,800 beats per hour (4 Hz)
Winding: Automatic
Power reserve: 168 hours (7 days)

Strap: Calfskin

Limited edition: 100 pieces
Availability: Upon request, at IWC boutiques only
Price: 136,000 Hong Kong dollars (equivalent to US$17,500)

For more, visit


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Breitling Introduces the Top Time “Zorro” Dial

A remake of an exotic reference.

Following the faithful and well-received Navitimer 806 and AVI Ref. 765 1953 re-editions – both very much instruments for pilots back in the day – Breitling has now recreated a distinctly different watch from the archives – the Top Time “Zorro”. And while the new Top Time takes its cues from the past, it will be sold entirely online via Breitling’s website, at least initially.

Produced from the 1960s to the 1970s, the Top Time was Breitling’s simpler and more affordable line of chronographs designed to appeal to younger buyers – which is also the rationale behind the new remake. Unlike the Chronomat or Navitimer, which were mostly no-nonsense tools equipped with slide-rule bezels for pilots to do in-flight navigation, the Top Time did away with the slide-rule bezel and relied on a more generic style emblematic of the era.

The Top Time limited edition

Despite being an entry-level mode, the original Top Time had a starring appearance on the big screen: a Top Time ref. 2002, with a “reverse panda” dial and a fictional Geiger counter, was worn by Sean Connery in Thunderball. The very watch worn in the movie sold for £103,875 at Christie’s in 2013, not long after surfacing at a car boot sale where it was purchased for £25.

While the “panda” or “reverse panda” variants are arguably the iconic versions of the Top Time, the new remake is modelled on the more unusual Top Time ref. 2003 equipped with a gold-plated case and “Zorro” dial (or the ref. 2001 with the same dial and a solid 18k gold case).

The Top Time ref. 2003 pictured in a 1960s catalogue


Unlike the Navitimer 806 and the AVI Ref. 765 re-editions that were straight-up reproductions down to the smallest detail, the new Top Time is a mix-and-match of various vintage Top Time references, combined with a few tweaks.

The most distinctive aspect of the new watch is the unusual “Zorro” dial, which embodies the experimental spirit of watch design in the decade before the Quartz Crisis.

With luminous hands and lume plots

Named after the black bands framing the chronograph registers that bring to mind Zorro’s half-face mask, the dial is found only on the gold-plated or solid-gold versions of the vintage Top Time. In fact, the “Zorro” dial is more commonly found on the Breitling Sprint, another line of entry-level chronographs the brand produced in the 1960s.

The remake adopts the “Zorro” dial, but with a few changes. One is the decimal scale, instead of a tachymeter scale. And the other are the bright red central hands.

Though the dial is derived from the gold-plated vintage model, the case of the remake is in steel. As a result, it reproduces the look of the vintage model in steel and remains true to the original, with the same polished finish, slim bezel, and angular lugs.

And like most remakes, it is larger, being 41 mm instead of the original’s 35 mm.

The vintage Top Time was powered by a hand-wound Valjoux 7733, but the remake naturally relies on a newer calibre, though produced by the same company (or more specifically, its successor). It’s equipped with the COSC-certified automatic Calibre 23, which is actually the cost-effective and robust ETA Valjoux 7753 (basically an Valjoux 7750 sans hour counter and date).

Lastly, the Top Time remake is also distinguished its digital “passport”. It’s the first Breitling wristwatch that utilises blockchain technology (the same thing that underpins cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin) to verify and guarantee its authenticity as well as track ownership and servicing. All of that information is secured in its “passport”, which was built together with Parisian tech start-up Arianee.

Fittingly, the watch will be available only on Breitling’s website for now, and then at its boutiques upon request later in the year.

Key facts and price

Breitling Top Time
Ref. A23310121G1X1

Diameter: 41 mm
Height: 14.27 mm
Material: Steel
Water resistance: 30 m

Movement: Caliber 23
Functions: Time and chronograph
Winding: Automatic
Frequency: 28,800 beats per hour (4 Hz)
Power reserve: 48 hours

Strap: Brown nubuck with pin buckle

Limited edition: 2000 pieces
Availability: Already available on
Price: US$4,990, or 4,950 Swiss francs

For more, visit

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Up Close: Sartory Billard SB04 Blue Titanium Dial

Hand-made details and eminently affordable.

An industrial designer who once worked for French telecoms giant Alcatel, Armand Billard designed phones, petrol pumps, and diving goggles before starting Sartory Billard in 2015. He soon had a line-up of three different models, but nothing that stood out. Last year Mr Billard finally conceived the watch that would make the brand, the Sartory Billard SB04.

The SB04 is built around a familiar but potent formula: devoting most of the effort and investment into into the external parts of the watch. So the SB04 has an elaborate dial and well-finished case containing a cost-effective movement, resulting in a good-looking watch that’s affordable and highly customisable.

The SB04 with a blued titanium dial

The STP3-13 inside

Brilliant blue titanium

Unusually for a watch in this price range – a bit under US$3,000 – the SB04 incorporates several hand-made parts, most notably the hands, chapter ring for the hours, and the decorative ring around the rotor. As a result, the watch punches above its price class in terms of looks, particularly in the details of the dial and case.

Though moderately sized at 40 mm in diameter – its 11 mm height is a bit thick however – the SB04 has good presence on the wrist, mainly because of its design features like the wide and richly-coloured dial, narrow bezel, and domed crystal. And because of its short, curved lugs and lightness, the SB04 wears easily and well.

While the case is available in steel or titanium (with other materials to come), the dial is the primary aspect of the watch that can be customised. The dial material, finish, chapter ring, as well as hands can be tweaked for each customer.

The SB04 is available with a variety of dials, ranging from Damascus patterned steel to carbon fibre composite, but the signature finish is highly-polished, heat-treated titanium that’s available in a variety of colours including burgundy and purple. The most popular colour, however, is a familiar one: a metallic blue created by heating titanium to create an oxide layer on its surface.

Made by a supplier in Switzerland, the titanium dial is an incredible, brilliant blue that is heavily reminiscent of De Bethune’s trademark heat-blued titanium that it uses for both dials and cases. Greubel Forsey also offers something similar, but achieved with a blue-coated, solid-gold disc instead of heated titanium.

The similarity to what other brands are doing is a good thing, because Sartory Billard is the only brand offering such a dial in an affordable watch, especially since the dial in the SB04 is heat treated to create the blue finish, a more tedious process than coating or painting.

It’s worth pointing out that while the heat-treated dials are now being made by a specialist, Mr Billard is working on producing them himself. Having bought a small oven and other tools, Mr Billard is refining the technique and hopes to be able to perfect the heating method within a few months. At the same time, Mr Billard is also experimenting with another process that relies on a chemical bath and electric current to create the same blue oxide layer.

The dial is wide and simple but avoids looking flat thanks to the applied chapter ring for the hours. Made by Mr Billard himself, the chapter ring is first cut with laser from a thin sheet of steel.

More importantly, the chapter ring is then refined manually, with the deburring, polishing, and brushing all done by hand. The hands are made with the same process – laser cutting followed by hand finishing. It’s because the chapter ring and hands are hand made that Armand is able to customise them extensively without increasing the price.

The chapter ring sits a hair’s width above the dial, casting a narrow shadow on the dial surface, which gives it more depth

The minute markings and logo on the chapter ring are especially intricate

Both the chapter ring and hands represent an impressive amount of hand finishing in a relatively inexpensive watch, though the manual finishing inevitably means slightly inconsistencies that are visible at high magnification.

But these inconsistencies, like the uneven finish on the chapter ring, are part of the hand-finished appealing, which is uncommon in this price segment. Most similarly priced watches, in contrast, rely on elementary but consistent parts produced by specialists.

Something else visible at high magnification – but invisible at arm’s length – is a slight “orange peel” texture on the mirror-polished dial surface.

Almost always found on highly-polished titanium (and sometimes platinum), the “orange peel” surface is common even on extremely expensive watches, with only a tiny number of brands – notably Seiko and Citizen – having perfected the art of polishing titanium to a perfect micro finish. As a result, it’s not so much a flaw as it is a fact of life.

The case

Pictured here in steel, but also available in titanium, the SB04 case is produced in Switzerland. It’s construed in an unconventional manner, being a two-part case held together by four screws.

The bezel and case middle are a single piece and form the upper half of the case, with the lugs and case back being the other half. The upper half sits in the lower half, and four screws on the back join the two parts together.

The advantage of this construction is the increased complexity of finishing, since the separate pieces can be finished differently before being put together, allowing for lots of contrasting surfaces.

As a result, the level of finishing that exceeds most comparably-priced watches. The bezel, for instance, is mirror polished while the case band is frosted. At the same time, the lugs and back are brushed, which creates a pleasing contrast of finishes, especially on the case profile.

Because the lugs are one piece with the case back, finishing them is easier than if they were joined to the case middle as is convention. So the lugs sport a sharply executed finish with brushed surfaces on the top and side separated by a wide, polished bevel with neatly-defined edges.

But the construction also has its downside – the visible seams between the lugs and case middle, and to a lesser degree, the joint between the case middle and back. That could be solved with reducing the tolerances for the case parts, but such a solution would likely be impractical for a watch that costs this much.

Fine but not flat

The case is a good size that’s large enough for modern taste without being too big. But it is pretty thick at 11 mm. In comparison, most sports watches, like the Rolex Submariner for instance, are only 12-13 mm high, while elegant chronographs like the Patek Philippe ref. 5170G are a bit under 11 mm.

And the construction of the case also makes the SB04 look thicker than it actually is, in part due to the high bezel and domed crystal. The watch would be a lot more appealing in terms of proportions if the case were only a little bit thinner, say just below 10 mm. But for now, that is not possible given the movement inside.

STP inside

The movement is a low-cost but reliable workhorse, albeit one that has been dressed up more than usual. It’s the STP3-13 produced by Swiss Technology Production (STP), a Swiss movement maker owned by Fossil Group, the American watch conglomerate that owns brands like Fossil and Zodiac while also making fashion-brand watches under license, including Armani and DKNY.

The STP3-13 is essentially a slightly improved clone of the ETA 2824, with the key improvement being a slightly longer power reserve (44 hours versus 38 hours) as well as a swan’s neck regulator index (which is arguably an aesthetic upgrade rather than truly functional addition).

Here the movement has been finished extensively, with Geneve stripes on the rotor, perlage on the bridges, as well as the several screws and the swan’s neck regulator index in blued steel. The decoration is doubtlessly done by machine, but it is visually attractive, and definitely a step up from most watches in the same price range.

Most notable is the deeply fluted ring attached to the rotor, which catches the light as the rotor spins. Even though it is only decorative, the ring is a major visual upgrade, giving the movement a distinctly different feel from the standard 2824 clone, especially when combined with the swan’s neck regulator.

The blued steel swan’s neck regulator

The watch pictured is a prototype, so the movement isn’t perfectly clean

By all account STP’s movements perform well when they are regulated properly, and are as reliable as the equivalent ETA movement. The only downside of the STP3-13 (and any other ETA 2824 substitute) is its height, hence the fairly thick case.

Concluding thoughts

Priced a bit below US$3,000, the SB04 is strong value for money. While it costs more than the average “micro-brand” wristwatch that’s often below US$1,000, the SB04 offers a lot more in terms of dial and case quality.

More importantly, the effort put into building and finishing both the dial and case are visible, which translate into a tangible, visual appeal. And a thinner, manual-wind version would be perfect.

Key facts and price

Sartory Billard SB04

Case diameter: 40 mm
Case height: 11 mm
Material: Steel
Water resistance: 30 m

Movement: STP 3-13
Features: Hours, minutes, and seconds
Frequency: 28,800 beats per hour (4 Hz)
Winding: Automatic
Power reserve: 44 hours

Strap: Calfskin

Availability: Made to order, with customisation options offered
Price: €2,700 excluding taxes (equivalent to US$2,900)

For more information and online purchase, visit


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