True Blue: Uncovering the Zenith Pilot Extra Special

The Watch Gallery collaborates again with Zenith, making over the Type 20 Extra Special in its signature blue.

It was impossible to escape navy dials in 2015 – and 2016 is no different. The shade sprouted at Baselword like a troop of inky mushrooms, with Tudor’s revamped Pelagos, a pair of Vacheron Constantin’s Overseas models, and a quintet of Pateks, all feeling a case of the blues. But it’s a colour that has particular resonance on a Zenith.

Blue was the favourite dial colour of Charles Vermot, a chronograph specialist who single-handedly saved the El Primero in the 1970s. When the Quartz Crisis bit, Zenith’s American owners decided to junk a century of engineering expertise to embrace what they saw as a more profitable technology. The edict came down that Zenith was to switch its focus solely to quartz watches, and Vermot was the man tasked with selling off the brand’s technical drawings and machinery to the highest bidder.

Horrified at the prospect of scrapping so much horological innovation, Vermot instead secreted it in a disused attic, painstakingly shifting the presses, plans and cutting tools each night, then forging receipts to appease the philistines in charge. When they eventually sold up, Vermot revealed his secret stash, and the El Primero went back into production. A legend was forged on the back of that incomprehensibly accurate chronograph, which could have been lost forever if not for Vermot’s stubbornness.

Such was his contribution to saving Zenith that the company dedicated a shade of blue in his honour, for special editions of the El Primero he helped save. And though the tone chosen by The Watch Gallery for their take on the Pilot Extra Special differs subtly from Vermot’s, it still feels more like a nod to the brand’s heritage than exploit a trend. But then, Zenith has always been a brand that’s embraced its history, rather than chased fashion. And the Pilot in particular drips with heritage.

Even if you scrubbed off the logo and star, the word ‘Pilot’ on the dial would still reveal its manufacturer. Zenith is the only brand allowed that honour, in recognition of the fact it was on the wrist of aviator Louis Bleriot back in 1909, when he became the first man to cross the Channel in a machine heavier than air.

The DNA of that original Pilot watch survives in the modern Extra Special, from its oversized Arabic numerals – the better for reading at the controls of a juddering aircraft – to the onion crown, originally designed to be big enough to operate with flight gloves. But because no one wants to wear a history lesson on their wrist, Zenith and The Watch Gallery have given this ageing beauty a 21st century makeover.

First, that dial. The original Type 20 Extra Special, released in 2014, stuck to the original script with a black face, a colour scheme that increases the contrast to make white numbers more legible. Handy if you’re piloting a century-old plane, but needlessly authentic if you’re after something to wear with a navy suit. The new shade demonstrates The Watch Gallery’s branding smarts; as their signature hue, it stamps the TWG mark (as does the navy stitching on the strap) without literally stamping a mark, to avoid busying the dial with extra logos.

But flip the watch and even horological naifs will get that this isn’t your usual Pilot. The caseback is engraved with an image of Mssr Bleriot’s fixed-wing plane, as well as the production number (only 35 are being made). It’s a nice nod to the series’ heritage, although it’s shame not to get a glimpse of what’s inside. Especially since it seems Zenith’s learned a lesson there.

The original Type 20 Extra Special rubbed some horologists the wrong way when it emerged that under the hood lay a bought-in movement from Sellita. Wisely, Zenith’s bosses have now remembered that they own a world-leading manufacture, and this iteration is powered by an in-house Elite-679 movement with a 50-hour power reserve; the same guts as in the non-collaborative Type 20 Extra Special.

The main difference between this take and the mainline version, beyond the TWG blue, is the case. The black-faced version is built from brass, rather than steel, a metal that oxidises and so develops a unique patina over time. It’s a nice touch, a signature specific to you, but one that does make the watch rather less versatile.

Not an issue the collaborative version has to deal with. Unlike most pilot’s watches, awash as they are in subdials and tachymeters that don’t sit pretty with tailoring, the Type 20 Extra Special’s pairing of clean face and chunky case means it dresses up or down. At 45mm it’s not a small watch, by any means, although it makes its statement subtly. Which is fitting. Because in an era where collaborations clamour for attention, The Watch Gallery proves that – when offered a classic to adapt – light fingers make the biggest impression.