Brands like Hamilton are very lucky. Throughout their lifetime, they have manufactured watches of every different type, many of which have earned an iconic status. Now, when they design a new watch, they have a massive archive to draw inspiration from, or recreate directly from. The last time we took a look at a Hamilton, we reviewed the Intra-Matic, which is an elegant dress watch based on a classic 60’s design. Not only did that watch successfully resurrect a beautiful vintage timepiece, it proved how relevant 60’s design is to today’s style.
Staying true to the theme of reviving classic designs, Hamilton released the Khaki Pilot Pioneer Automatic Chronograph at BaselWorld 2013, one of our favorite pieces from the show. The Pilot Pioneer is based on a RAF issued watch from the 70’s, which is highly collectible. Powered by a Valjoux 7733 and sporting a unique and subtly asymmetrical case, the original watch is unlike any other. For a thorough history of this watch, its design and significance, please read our article Time Spec: 1970’s British Military Asymmetrical Chronographs.
The Pilot Pioneer is not a 1:1 copy of the watch from the past, but rather a modern interpretation that stays true where needed for an authentic look. It’s a bit larger and has some subtle design changes, but perhaps the most significant differences are the H-31 automatic chronograph movement and the addition of a silver dialed version. Though a hand-winding chrono might have added to the feel of the watch, the modern automatic was a logical choice for today’s market. The Pilot Pioneer also features a domed sapphire crystal, display case back and is available with either NATO or leather straps or a steel bracelet. With a starting price of $1,845.00 the Pilot Pioneer is well priced for a new Swiss made automatic chronograph, albeit certainly not inexpensive and priced higher than its vintage counterpart.
Case: Matte / Mixed Finish Steel
Movement: H-31 (Valjoux 7753 base)
Dial: Silver or Black
Strap: Nylon or Leather
Water Res.: 100M
Dimensions: 41 x 47mm
Thickness: 16 mm
Lug Width: 22 mm
Crown: 7.5 x 3.5 mm
The asymetrical case design of the Pilot Pioneer is as intriguing and clever today as it must’ve been 40 years ago. With a slightly extended contour, the design manages to keep the sleek classic profile of a pilot’s watch while adding protection for the chrono pushers and crown. It’s such a subtle enlargment that it’s easy to not notice at first, and though sort of odd, it doesn’t make the watch strange looking, rather it adds character.
Measuring 41 x 47 x 16mm (to the top of the crystal) with 22mm lugs, the Pilot Pioneer has a solid, chunky design that speaks to its military heritage. The 41mm diameter is actually a bit misleading, as that doesn’t include the case extension, which measures 43mm. Since it’s so integrated, it really adds to the overall feeling of the watch’s size, which is definitely on the large side. From overhead, the watch has a simple design that is made interesting by the asymmetry. The lugs are fairly short in proportion to the diameter, so the watch has a very stout posture. Adding to this, the bezel is decently thick and tall.
From the side, the watch has a fairly normal profile, with a thick central case and tall bezels and case back. The domed sapphire crystal also stands out when viewed from the side, and is a great detail of the watch. On the right side of the case are the two pushers and crown, as is expected, but on the left side by 10, there is a sunken pusher which is used to progress the date. The crown at 3 has a wide, low shape measuring 7.5 x 3.5mm. It features large grooves for easy grasping, and a large “H” on its side. The asymmetrical case includes a slot that the crown is sunken into, adding protection. The wide diameter of the crown makes it protrude out of the side, allowing for easy hand-winding. Though the watch is an automatic, it can still be hand wound like the original Valjoux 7733 model.
The case back has a simple design that is held in place by five small screws. In the center of the back is a fairly large display showing off the H-31 movement inside, which contains the brand’s logo on its rotor. Around the window are various details about the watch.
The two versions of the Pilot Pioneer we had on hand had different case finishes. The silver dialed modeled featured a totally matte, blasted finish, while the black dialed version had a mix of brushed and polished surfaces. Though the case shape remained the same, the different finishes had dramatically different effects on the look of the watch as a whole. The matte finish is more typical for a military design. The surface reflects less light and is more resistant to corrosion. That said, the blasting mutes the geometry of the watch and gives it an overall paler color.
The brushed and polished mix emphasizes the interesting geometry of the watch and gives it a darker color. They cleverly mixed and matched finishes on the case, with the bezel and chrono pushers in polished, the central case in vertically brushed and the crown in matte steel. The brushing on the case gives the edges a sharper look that adds to the aggressive design and shows off the shape a bit more. Which one is nicer really comes down to personal preference, but I found myself more drawn to the mixed finish case. It’s a bit less tough looking, but a bit more sophisticated. Also, on a watch that costs $1,845, I want some level of finishing that speaks to the price. Oddly, the matte finish is only available with the NATO option.
Dial + Hands
In most respects, the dial of the Pilot Pioneer stays true to the original. Naturally, the military symbols are gone, but the general layout is close, the font is very similar and the functionality is the same. When you take a close side-by-side look, however, you will notice a fair amount of details that have been altered, giving the Pilot Pioneer a somewhat different, perhaps more dressed up, appearance.
To start, the larger dial creates more space around the sub-dials and perimeter of the watch. To eat up this area, they added a 1/5th second track to coordinate with the chronograph. This does a nice job of preventing the watch from feeling too open. The sub-dials on the Pilot Pioneer are pretty similar, but have slightly different proportions to their indexes, as well as circular graining and a reflective ring border. More than any other detail, this added texture gives the dial a more aestheticized look. The subtle reflections add a nice dimension to the design that might not speak to the original watch, but is very enjoyable. The minute and hour hands have been completely changed from their original, straight “index” design to Roman swords with elongated tips. Though the original hands had a functional simplicity to them, the new design still feels appropriate to the watch, possibly due to the larger dial proportions.
The last and only unfortunate change is the addition of a date window between 4 and 5. Oddly placed and oddly sized, the window is less an aperture and more a wound. The dial has a wonderful symmetry to it that speaks to the purposeful, functional design of a mil-watch that is thrown off by this detail. The window itself is almost as large as the numerals around it, making it very distracting, and the black on white date clashes with both dial colors, worst on the black. Perhaps they could have tempered it a bit by matching the disks to the dial, making the window and numerals within smaller and correcting the angle of the date to be upright, like on a Sinn 556 A. But ultimately, it just would have been better to have left it out.
Moving on… The dial features a primary index of numerals for each hour, 12 and 6 being much larger and 3 and 9 being absent due to the sub-dial placement. The larger 12 and 6 numerals balance out the sub-dials, creating a very harmonious dial. On the outside of each hour is a thick line with a dot of lume that gives that watch a bit of a vintage look.
The bi-compax sub-dials at 3 and 9 correspond to the 30-minute counter and active seconds. Both feature indexes of lines and numerals, and at a glance seem like reflections of each other. I quite like that the design went with a 20, 40, 60 layout on the active seconds rather than a typical 15 second interval, as this give both sub-dials a triangular arrangement. Functionally, they are the same as on the original RAF Valjoux 7733 models.
Once again, the two different dial colors have very different effects on the overall aesthetic and feeling of the watch. The silver dial has a sunburst surface and a slightly beige tone that adds some warmth. The indexes are all in black with contrasting cream Super LumiNova dots, 12 and 6 numerals. The hands are also in black with cream lume. The look of this version is very intriguing and a bit unique. The warmth in the dial as well as lume add a faux patina to the watch, as though it had seen a lot of sun. Overall, the legibility of the silver dial is very good, as there is plenty of contrast, except for on the tip of the chronograph seconds hand, which can get lost in the dial. Though this color is very different from the original, it still has a military feel, while simultaneously being a bit fun.
The other dial option features a matte black face with white indexes and white Super LumiNova. The hands are in polished steel with white lume as well. This dial is much more true to the original, and therefore much less stylized. The white on black is austere, but clear and legible. Upon first receiving both watches, as well as in Basel, I was more drawn to the silver dial (which also seems to get a stronger response on social media). The palette is interesting and the sunburst dial, along with the matte case is surprisingly elegant. In contrast, the black and white dial is a bit severe and perhaps cold, albeit more authentic.
But as I wore both, I found the black and white dial grew on me, eventually becoming my preferred model. The simplicity and lack of stylized elements made it feel more mature and meaningful. Though less exciting at a glance, it’s more versatile in the long run. That said, the date really stands out on this dial, and is all the more disruptive.
The Hamilton caliber H-31 is based on the ETA Valjoux 7753, but has a 60-hour power reserve as well as other improvements. As part of the Swatch group, Hamilton has access to ETA’s goodies, as well as the occasional unique caliber like the H-31. The 60-hour power reserve is very appreciated as that gives you 2.5 days of off wrist time, making for easy rotation.
The H-31 is features 27-jewels, chronograph function, hacking seconds, hand winding, date, the aforementioned 60hr reserve and a frequency of 28,800 bph. On the Pilot Pioneer, it’s implemented as a bi-compax design, counting only to 30-minutes. Though accurate to the RAF watch, 30 minutes isn’t much, making the chronograph a bit less practical than one with hours. The movement functions as expected; the top pusher starts and stops the chronograph while the bottom pusher resets. The crown is pulled out one stop to set the time, but the date is actually set by pressing the pusher located at 10. The watch comes with a molded plastic “H” with a pointer on it that one can use for setting the date, which is a nice touch.
Straps and Wearability
The Pilot Pioneer comes with one of three straps; a NATO, a leathers pilot’s style or a steel bracelet. The two models, silver and black, we had for review had the NATO and leather straps respectively. The drab olive NATO that comes with the watch is pretty unique, with a few details that other NATOs don’t have. First, an olive leather strip, adding strength as well as an aesthetic detail, reinforces the holes. Second, the buckle is a more standard shape, adding to the ruggedness of the design. Lastly, the strap terminates with a metal tab that features the Hamilton logo.
I was really glad to see that Hamilton made their own strap, rather than went with something off-the-shelf, like so many other brands. The NATO looks killer on the watch, playing up the obviously aggressive and masculine design. The olive color works very well with the silver dial, emphasizing the warmer tones within. My only issue was that it was a bit short. On my 7″ wrist, the end of the strap just passes through the second metal ring and certainly can’t double back. On a larger wrist, it might not even get that far, which would look awkward.
As nice as the NATO is, I have to say that a watch this price should have a leather strap or metal bracelet and include the NATO as an extra. We all know what nylon NATOs cost, and though stylish and aesthetically appropriate, they don’t speak to value. As an extra, even if it became the preferred strap, the overall package would make more sense.
The black model came on a leather pilot’s strap that also aesthetically matched the watch. This thick, black leather strap is accented by off white stitching and double rivets by the lugs. Though I am not personally a big fan of rivets, they do emphasize the case nicely. The strap also features double hole sizing that corresponds to the “H” prong of the buckle. The holes look a bit strange, but the subtle branding is amusing.
On the wrist, the Pilot Pioneer wears large. The 43 x 47mm (including the asymmetrical area) size feels like a metal stone. That said, the proportions makes sense for the design, being strong and bold, while the short lug-to-lug length makes the watch fit even smaller wrists. The 16mm height is also quite large, which is emphasized by the NATO strap option. That said, it’s a very enjoyable watch to wear. It’s quite masculine and though the design isn’t ostentatious, it will get a look or two.
The asymmetrical case has a unique presence that is both sleek and stylish, especially in the brushed/polished version. Both dial varieties look great on the wrist and are fairly versatile. The silver dial, especially with the blasted case, is fun and youthful. The lighter tones speak to jeans, sneakers, boots, plaid etc. This is the version you wear on the weekend or out at night with friends. Perhaps switch up the strap for brown leather before wearing to the office.
The black dial with mixed finish case can pull off the more conservative venues, while not being so severe as to be boring. The play of light off the case is elegant, while the dial is no-fuss. Though the height of the watch might make wearing it with a dress shirt difficult, I could see this watch holding its own in a formal setting. Of course, put it on a NATO or more rugged leather strap and it will fit in anywhere. The versatility of these watches is definitely a bonus.
The Hamilton Khaki Pilot Pioneer Automatic Chronograph is a great new offering from the brand. The fact that it brings an old design back to life makes it all the more cool. Especially since the original version was a military issue and somewhat obscure. Overall the design is very successful, fun and seemingly one that would age well. That is to say, it’s clean and classic in a way that you wont get sick of, while being unique and interesting enough to keep your attention.
Of course, I wonder a bit why Hamilton would bring back a cult watch, which is going to attract collectors and watch-nerd types who are obsessed with details, only to change something like adding a date. I get that as a feature, the date makes the watch more full and therefore viable at retail to a general consumer, but it undermines the idea of reviving an old design. Perhaps if it had been subtler, like the addition of an automatic movement, it wouldn’t matter, but since it’s on the dial, it can’t help but be noticed.
As far as the price goes, $1,845 certainly isn’t inexpensive, but for a new Swiss made chronograph, is on the low-moderate end. Most retail brands with similar movements start at 3-4k, so in that context this a very good price. The fact that it has a 60-hr power reserve adds to the value quite a bit.
So, to wrap up the wrap-up, the Pilot Pioneer is a successful watch, with great build quality and styling. Despite my issues, I would wear this watch if it were in my collection, no problem. It’s a versatile design that can be dressed up or down and has an interesting history behind it. So, if you’re in the market for a Swiss Chronograph with genuine military heritage, this is likely a great watch for you.
by Zach Weiss
Review watches supplied by Hamilton Watch