Introducing the IWC Big Pilot’s Watch Shock Absorber XPL

One of the truly fun things about Watches & Wonders (and Baselworld and SIHH in previous years) is that it allows brands to present watches that act as a pure flex. For some brands it’s wild gem setting and diamond applications that you simply can’t believe, and for others it’s mind bending super complicated watches that cram an enormous amount of vital (and not so vital) information into a single display (or, you know, four displays – but we’ll get to the new Reverso later). For IWC, it’s a chance to show off a next generation shock absorption technology that takes impact resistance to another level, and they’re doing it under the banner of a watch that’s a veritable modern classic. 

The Big Pilot’s Watch Shock Absorber XPL is the first watch to come out of IWC’s new engineering division, IWC Experimental. “New” is a relative term here, as the brand tells us that it took 8 years of research and development to produce the final product. At a high level, this is a very tech-forward version of the classic Big Pilot, rendered in Ceratanium and measuring a healthy 44mm across. But it’s a lot more than that – this watch is all about protecting the movement from impact. Shock absorption is a problem that watchmakers have grappled with for years. From Incabloc systems designed to protect the fragile balance wheel, to space age materials developed for their lightness and rigidity used by the likes of Richard Mille, creating a robust watch that can stand up to impacts has been a pursuit that has driven brands for decades. IWC’s stab at a new shock absorbing system comes from the perspective of a maker of pilot’s watches, which when used for their intended purpose are subject to g-forces that are not frequently seen when restricted to land. 

The crux of the Shock Absorber XPL is IWC’s SPRIN-g PROTECT system. This patented system uses a cantilever spring to protect movement from g-forces generated as the result of an impact. Like other shock absorbing systems (not just on watches, but on cars and other vehicles) it allows the object it’s protecting (the movement in this case) to keep moving for a split second after an impact, and then come to a controlled stop in a more gentle way inside the watch’s case. 

Unlike other shock absorbing systems (at least as they’re applied to watches) some trick engineering has been applied to the spring that allows it to sustain an impact that’s far beyond what any pilot is likely to experience. IWC claims they’ve achieved “perfect form” in designing the spring, allowing for an even distribution of strength across its entire length and width. This process, according to IWC, simply took a great deal of time and engineering to get right. 

The other major innovation within the SPRIN-g PROTECT system is the use of Bulk Metallic Glass (BMG) to make the spring. According to IWC, BMG has an “amorphous microstructure” that gives it an elasticity that makes it ideal for an application like this. The movement is surrounded by a lightweight titanium ring that reduces the mass carried by the anti-shock system, and indeed the movement itself (caliber 32115) has been customized to be lightweight through the use of high tech aluminum alloys. The principle here is clear: get the most out of the shock absorbing system by making the movement and the rest of the watch as light as possible. 

The end result is a shock absorbing system that in testing was capable of protecting movements from g-forces in excess of 30,000. That’s a staggering number, and to me is reminiscent of something like the Ultra Deep Seamster that Omega created a few years ago in that it exceeds what’s practical by an order of magnitude. Put another way, this is IWC showing off, but that doesn’t make the technical achievement any less impressive. This watch differs from the Omega in an important way, however. The Shock Absorber XPL is actually in production. You can buy it. Price is upon request, of course, and they’re only making ten per year. But if you want the best of the best in terms of shock protection, there’s a next gen Big Pilot out there with your name on it. IWC

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Zach is a native of New Hampshire, and he has been interested in watches since the age of 13, when he walked into Macy’s and bought a gaudy, quartz, two-tone Citizen chronograph with his hard earned Bar Mitzvah money. It was lost in a move years ago, but he continues to hunt for a similar piece on eBay. Zach loves a wide variety of watches, but leans toward classic designs and proportions that have stood the test of time. He is currently obsessed with Grand Seiko.