: The IWC Big Pilot Edition Black Carbon
Text & Watch Photos Sean Li

Beyond the technical content or aesthetic appeal of a watch, there are stories that surround them, either related to the brand that created it, the collection it represents, or simply the occasion that it’s meant to commemorate. Having had a unique opportunity to participate in the genesis of such a watch, allow me to take you through the story of the IWC Big Pilot’s Watch “Black Carbon” Edition.

My personal history with IWC Schaffhausen started in the late 1990’s, when I first encountered the Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Chronograph. The sheer mechanical complexity, combining so many different frames of temporal reference into a timepiece that you could wear on your wrist, drew me in and has stayed with me ever since. The brand’s understated style and technical nature appealed to me, and as my IWC collection grew, I also visited the manufacture in Schaffhausen, both on a personal basis, and professionally through my media role.

Photo courtesy of IWC

In October 2018, the brand invited me as part of a group of 14 Hong Kong collectors to participate in a unique workshop, to design a watch that would be produced in a very limited quantity. Whilst other small editions have been produced by other brands for different collectors’ groups, they are generally only presented with a specific design and  few options, if any, for customisation. IWC’s approach was very different, because we were to be involved from the very beginning; we had, more or less, a blank slate on which we could come up with a design that was most representative of what collectors may want from a special edition, the only proviso being that it would have to be based on a Big Pilot, a condition that did not present any issue given that it’s one of IWC’s most popular and iconic collections.

During the course of an afternoon, we were divided into two groups, led by IWC’s Creative Director, Christian Knoop, and Senior Designer Special Projects, Gerd Plange, and given free rein to discuss possible materials for the case, dial designs, specific complications, colours, in short, just about anything we could imagine around a Big Pilot. Each group was then tasked to present its ideas, after which we distilled the essential components into what ultimately became the watch that IWC would produce, a non-trivial task as you can imagine the variety of details that a group of long-time collectors could have requested. Based on those presentations and further discussions with IWC, a prototype was produced and sent to Hong Kong so we could give our final feedback prior to sign off by IWC’s management.

Photo courtesy of IWC

The resulting IWC Big Pilot Black Carbon edition is now a reality, with deliveries having started in March this year. The watch features IWC’s first carbon fibre reinforced polymer (CFRP) case. This is a similar material that forms the basis for a variety of components on the new generation of aircraft such as the Airbus A350 and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, as it provides considerable strength whilst being lightweight. IWC’s particular CFRP uses a high-performance thermoplastic polymer, which the brand says is more temperature and scratch resistant. The weight saving is around 40% compared with aluminium, which makes the Black Carbon watch quite comfortable on the wrist, even with its 46.5mm case. The dial design is well-matched with the carbon aesthetics, taking its cues from last year’s Pilot’s Watch Double Chronograph in ceratanium, with grey dial markings and Superluminova, giving the entire watch a very stealthy outlook, save for two tiny red details: the tip of the seconds hand, and the last day’s markings on the power reserve display.

The long-time IWC collector’s cues are evident when you consider that the Black Carbon has a so-called “fish” crown, rather than the usual “Probus Scafusia” engraving that has been in use for the past 15 years or so. The origin of the fish crown was to denote that the watch was water resistant, but it disappeared from the modern IWC collections after the brand started transitioning to new calibres in the signature watches, such as the Big Pilot. Numerous collectors have sought to retain their fish crowns, as IWC would replace them with Probus Scafusia crowns, should that part need to be exchanged during a service. This design aspect is further emphasised by the fish crown design being reproduced as an engraving on the titanium case back. The seven-day power reserve is provided by the IWC manufacture calibre 52110, and a date window is present at 6 o’clock.

On the wrist, the weight savings is noticeable; the watch’s total weight with the fabric strap and titanium folding buckle is 110g, while a similar steel-cased Big Pilot with a leather strap and steel folding buckle comes in at 146g, so the Black Carbon is roughly 25% less (the 40% weight reduction mentioned above refers to the case alone; the Black Carbon still features a soft iron anti-magnetic inner case). Also, it’s marginally thinner, coming in at 14.8mm rather than the 15.5mm of the other current Big Pilot watches, so while the case is incrementally larger on the Black Carbon at 46.5mm vs 46.2mm on the metal cases, the combination of the dark material and design, lighter weight and lower profile make it feel smaller and better balanced when worn.

The Big Pilot Black Carbon edition is a limited run of 100 pieces, available worldwide but in selected IWC boutiques only. For the 14 collectors who participated in its design, we were given first dibs on the edition number, and IWC also included a special commemorative plaque in the presentation box. It was certainly a memorable experience, for which I’d like to thank IWC’s teams in Schaffhausen and Hong Kong, who enabled the project and juggled the numerous requests that were made by the collectors, a sometimes unenviable task that they handled with diplomacy and candour.