There are some Best cheap watch today that are so unique in appearance, it’s a little hard to believe that they played such a pivotal role in the development of all pilot watches as a category, and therefore in the wider world of watchmaking. The historic modern Zenith Pilot’s Watch is one such collection, which played an important role in early aviation and influenced the early design of pilot’s watches – while remaining popular among modern Haute Horlogerie enthusiasts.
The Zenith Pilot dates back to 1909, when Louis Blériot became the first person to fly across the Channel from Calais, France to Dover, England, wearing an early, somewhat generic Zenith watch on his wrist. This achievement, while fairly routine today, was a milestone in the development of early aviation, proving both the possibility of long-distance air travel and the fact that the monoplane was more successful in accomplishing it than the previously popular biplane. This success inevitably made the Blériot name legendary in aviation history and cemented the Zenith brand associated with in-flight, tested performance. Zenith was quick to capitalize on this association, producing a range of on-board timekeeping instruments, notably the Type 20 montre d’aéronef 1939 (or “airplane clock” hereafter), on which the modern Zenith Pilot watch is based in part.
The specific pilot’s watch we’ll be focusing on today is the Type 20 Extra Special (ref 03.2430.3000/21.C738, see below). As the name suggests, this 45mm steel or bronze case piece is very special. With its relatively large case, intricately engraved caseback, large onion-shaped crown and straight, functional lugs – this watch shares many details with other pilot’s watches today, while presenting a distinctive vintage look style.
Matte black dial with striking luminous white Arabic numerals; Zenith corporate logo and “Montre D’Aéronef, Type 20” near 12 o’clock; and “Pilot” and “Extra Special” above 6 o’clock typeface. It features early 20th century-style cathedral hands on a black ruthenium-plated and satin-finished dial, and is powered by Zenith’s automatic Calibre 3000, one of the brand’s many in-house movements that offer approximately 42 hours of movement. Hours of power reserve.
While this top cheap watch has a variety of historically-inspired features, it was designed by Zenith to honor its past—especially its connection to the Bleriot pictured above—but not to recreate it. This piece, in turn, has vintage-style hands and Arabic numerals, and the onion crown is closer to the case than the historical models—a more practical design choice than the crowns that protruded from earlier watches. In addition, this piece uses an automatic movement hidden under the case back with an engraved tribute; this is a shift from the pilot’s watches made by Zenith over the past few years, which used the historic 50mm hand-wound Calibre 5011 k, usually found in Show back.
Other differences to note are the relatively fluted bezel and round case of the retro version, while the “Extra Special” focuses more on the relatively flat Spartan case and bezel. Finally, note the name: “Extra Special”. On the original made by Blériot, the dial just says “Special”; “extra” again implies that this is a work that is both respectful and separate from the past – it has something extra that was not offered before.
Overall, I find the entire Zenith Pilot cheap watch collection quite interesting. While the collection’s emphasised design elements were very common in the early 20th century, the brand is one of the few luxury watch makers still offering watches to consumers today. By contrast, while many other brands of pilot’s watches feature similar classic “aviator” elements—such as sturdy steel cases, large numerals, onion crowns, and large diameters—few offer antique fonts, fun vintage Pointers and historical inspiration. These features have become synonymous with Zenith pilot watches, so much so that when Patek Philippe released its Calatrava Pilot Travel Time, the image below—also inspired by earlier watches—many pointed to its similarity to the Zenith watch. especially when it comes to numbers and hands. It’s a comparison and I’m sure few brands will be disappointed.