Review: The IWC Big Pilot 43

One of the very first watches that I reviewed for Worn & Wound was the Archimede Pilot Chronograph Trikompax, a big, burly pilot’s watch made from German steel. In that review I commented on how the pilot’s watch is such a no-nonsense and simple tool watch idea, that it’s almost absurd to spend significant money on a watch in this genre that lands in the luxury segment. From the review: 

This is a style of watch that is so straightforward, I’ve always found it difficult to justify paying IWC prices for a design that is shared by so many small brands who happen to do it quite well. If you just want the look there are many, many options at almost any price point.

You know what? I stand by that. At least to an extent. If what you’re after is a proper tool, there are a lot of watches made by the likes of Archimede, Hamilton, Laco and others that do a great job of getting into that shearling bomber jacket with Ray-Bans kind of aesthetic. What I realize now after spending quite a bit of time wearing the new IWC Big Pilot 43 is that this isn’t really a tool watch. I mean, it is in the sense that it’s built like a tank and seems conceived to do a very specific job, but what it really is is a statement watch, more similar to the Rolex Submariner or Cartier Tank in its overarching philosophy than the Archimede I reviewed all those months, and watches, ago. What surprised me about the BP 43 wasn’t its quality, though. I knew it would be a well made, nice thing. The thing that continues to surprise me is just how much I liked the brashness of it. Because, when it comes down to it, I’m not really a very brash guy.

Anyway, it’s a little complicated. Let me try to explain. 


Review: The IWC Big Pilot 43

Stainless steel
82100 Calibre
Stainless steel, leather
Water Resistance
10 bar
43 x 52.5mm
Lug Width
Screw down

The Not So Big Pilot (And Other Size Jokes) 

By now you’re probably well aware of what the Big Pilot 43 actually is: it’s a (slightly) smaller version of the iconic (yes, it really is an icon at this point, please excuse the cliche) Big Pilot. That watch, which has adorned the wrists of many notable celebrities, and was championed by one in particular who has apparently joined the Grateful Dead and just released an album of 80s inspired synth rock (what?), typically comes in at 46mm. If you haven’t worn a full size Big Pilot, let me tell you, straight up, it’s clownishly big. It was a product of a very particular time, one that makes you wonder whether it was big watches that gave birth to hypermasculinity throughout the hobby’s culture, or the other way around. Regardless, restraint was never part of the design process.

The new Big Pilot 43 takes the radical step of downsizing the Biggest Pilot by three millimeters. You can imagine the pitch to IWC brass when this watch was taking shape: the Big Pilot – just not as big. One wonders what kind of crisis this might have caused at IWC. Their signature watch, with its defining characteristic in the name of the silly thing, would now barely measure larger than a Speedmaster Professional, which nobody really thinks is that big at all. It turns out, though, that in 2021, in this period of time when smaller watches are slowly but surely coming back into favor, a 43mm pilot’s watch can still be a fairly imposing object, with or without “big” in the name, and with or without all the baggage that comes with the Big Pilot’s history. 

To be perfectly clear, this is still a big watch. Not just in terms of measurements, but in its overall presence and place within the IWC ecosystem of pilot’s watches. Let’s take a minute to review the pilot’s watch landscape at IWC, which as ever is broad, varied, and sometimes even a bit confusing. At the top of the range, you have the Big Pilot’s line, which consists of no fewer than eight models, including the BP 43 seen here, several basic variants of the OG Big Pilot with its date display and power reserve indicator, plus a selection of perpetual calendars, tourbillons, and a completely wild Big Pilot meant to survive any impact imaginable

Then there’s the Pilot’s Watch Chronograph, recently reintroduced and reviewed here by Blake Buettner. These watches are a sibling to the Pilot’s Watch “Mark” series, currently on iteration XVIII. But it doesn’t stop at the Pilot’s Watch line – IWC also has the Top Gun, Spitfire, Le Petit Prince, and Antoine de Saint Exupéry ranges, which all essentially mimic the “Classic” line of pilot’s watches to a certain extent, but with their own hook (the Petit Prince watches have blue dials, the Top Guns make use of ceramic, and so forth). The notable exception is the Spitfire collection, which has its own distinct look and feel, and is very much a vintage inspired pilot’s watch, frequently with tan lume and more modest proportions. 

The point, if it hasn’t already been made, and if your eyes haven’t glazed over, is that IWC makes a lot of pilot’s watches. Strangely, though, even with all those references within so many unique collections, there was a real gap in size options prior to the introduction of the Big Pilot 43. For a time only (or time and date) watch in the larger IWC pilot collection, you essentially go straight from the modest  41mm Mark XVIII to the aforementioned clown sized 46mm Big Pilot. 

The Big Pilot 43 fills that gap, and because it’s a Big Pilot, it’s also something of a flagship for the brand, and has some fun bells and whistles in the movement that set it apart from other pilot’s watches in the collection (more on the movement soon). This, I think, is one of those products where there’s a certain genius in the simplicity of it all. Ever wanted a Big Pilot but didn’t want to feel like you were wearing Flava Flav’s necklace on your wrist? Now you’ve got it, and it’s still mostly worthy of the “Big” in the title. 

The Case

The simplicity of pilot’s watches is about to become a recurring theme in this review as we dive into some of the specifics around the Big Pilot 43. These watches, of course, were originally intended to perform a very specific function – if avant-garde design is your thing, pilot’s watches are probably not for you. While I certainly appreciate adventurous watch design, there’s always room in my own watch box for something rudimentary and to the point. Pilot’s watches can fill that spot quite nicely, as they are often no-frills endeavors that strive simply to be worn and not get in the way, which is actually a tough task for a 43mm watch.

I think for most people, the thing that they’ll notice first about the BP 43 upon picking it up and holding in the hand is its chunkiness and heft. The 43mm diameter, in truth, isn’t that big, but there’s a weight to this watch that is somewhat uncommon, and the finishing is excellent, and worthy of the luxury product price tag. The case is satin brushed all the way around, save for the top edge of the bezel and a thin bevel running down the case flanks. The crown is also highly polished, and the thin edges inherent in the traditional onion style design have a way of catching the light that’s unexpected. 

Let’s get to the measurements, because the “43” in the watch’s name only tells part of the story. This watch measures 52.5mm from lug to lug, and when you include the crown, it’s just about 48mm wide from the tip of the onion to 9:00. It’s 14mm thick (including the sapphire crystal), which honestly isn’t terrible given the case’s overarching feeling of expansiveness. Those dimensions ultimately translate into a watch that’s quite commanding, but of course that’s the whole point. What I said up top about brashness is most evident in the overwhelming presence of the case. 


And yet, it somehow works. Maybe it’s the pilot’s watch format and our level of comfort with this type of watch being oversized, but even for me, someone who has a low tolerance for cases that are so big they strain the limits of comfort, the BP 43 wasn’t particularly problematic. Completely aside from the watch’s size, the case is also aesthetically pleasing. There’s an appeal in the simplicity of it all – it’s a big slab of steel that’s effectively been perfectly finished (for a pilot’s watch, anyway) and even if you might have a preference for something smaller, it’s hard to argue that the watch isn’t well proportioned. 

The Dial

Again, simplicity rules the day when it comes to the dial of the Big Pilot 43. This is a straightforward pilot’s watch in its execution, with white Arabic numerals at every hour besides 12:00, which is marked by the traditional triangle with two dots at either side, a flieger watch signature. The color is  a beautiful deep blue with a sunray effect, which feels a bit flashy for a traditional pilot’s watch, but of course that’s not really what this is. Hands are in a sword shape and lume filled. They’re also polished at the outer edge, which can help greatly with legibility in certain lighting conditions. It’s also in keeping with the upmarket, luxe feeling of the BP 43. 

Legibility on this watch is among the best on any watch I can recall personally experiencing, with the exception of the full size Big Pilot, which I’ll once again note is hysterically large and quite hard to wear. Of course, the dial itself is enormous, which helps in reading the time considerably, and contributes to this watch’s secret legibility weapon. Because everything is so spread out, each individual minute marker is easily identifiable. They’re also rendered in the same crisp white as the hands and hour markers. The combined effect here allows for a precision reading of the time at a glance that is uncommon, even with very good dials on watches that are well thought through. On most of my watches, when I check the time, what I’m really after is an approximation (and to figure out if I’m late) but with the Big Pilot 43 I found myself acknowledging the exact time to the minute in a way that’s a little unusual for me. 


It’s worth pointing out that the dial on the Big Pilot 43 differs quite significantly from other watches in the Big Pilot lineup. As I mentioned above, Big Pilots typically have not one but two small complications that add an extra wrinkle, a date at 6:00 and a power reserve indicator that’s meant to show off the watch’s impressive seven day movement. This dial is far cleaner, and, at least to my eye, it’s an improvement. The IWC wordmark at 12:00 and the word “Automatic” near 6:00 is the only dial text to speak of. This stripped down look feels more like what a pilot’s watch should be, and I like the starkness of it all. This watch is also available in a black dial with the exact same layout, so if blue isn’t your thing and you want to get even more traditional, you’ve got another option. 

The Wearing Experience 

With specs and specifics regarding the case and dial out of the way, it’s time to tackle the thing about the Big Pilot 43 that is somewhat more intangible, and that’s the experience of wearing one. For me, the pilot’s watch remains a genre that is mostly unexplored in my personal collection. The reason, I think, is that something about a pilot’s watch makes it feel like it’s part of a costume, and like I’m role playing a pilot temporarily while I have one on. These watches are so specific, and so tied to a particular history, it’s always been hard for me to see them as just watches, the way I see most dive watches, which arguably are just as evocative of something hyper specific as a pilot’s watch. I am most certainly not a pilot, and it always seemed strange wearing the tool tied to a job I absolutely cannot do, but I’ll recognize here that this is a problem with my own preconceived notions and biases about these watches. After all, I don’t dive, either, but a watch with a timing bezel and way too much water resistance can be found on my wrist more often than not. 

My time with the Big Pilot 43 has shifted that stance slightly. I enjoyed wearing it very much in the short time I had it. For the first few hours, all I could think of was the key scene in one of the greatest movies ever made, when a planet saving hero volunteers to strike back at the aliens who…violated him years before. The stakes, naturally, were never so high for me, and the feeling that I belonged in a cockpit while wearing it passed remarkably quickly. 

For a watch of this size, it’s very comfortable, but I never did quite get used to looking down at my wrist and seeing how much wrist real estate it was taking up. I think the watch “fits” my 7.5 inch wrist by most definitions, but in terms of the pure visual impact, it just always looked too big. This is a very subjective thing, of course. Someone else might see what I saw and think “perfect!” And a rare thing happened as I wore the BP 43 out and about with friends: I actually got compliments. This, as most watch people know, is exceedingly rare coming from the non-watch people, so it seems worthy of a mention here. 

I wore the BP 43 mostly on the excellent five link, beads of rice style bracelet. This is the same type of bracelet that IWC has fitted to many of their pilot’s watches in recent years, but never one from the Big Pilot family, until now. It tapers very slightly near the lugs and is pretty much straight down to the clasp, which has a helpful micro-adjustment feature that’s activated by pushing down on the IWC logo. The bracelet has a comfortable drape, and when sized correctly is quite forgiving in the summer heat. Aesthetically I feel that it’s a good match to the spirit of the watch, and it’s how I’d likely choose to wear it were I to ever own one. 

The watch is also available on a riveted leather strap, and a very nice rubber strap. Both straps and the bracelet make use of IWC’s new and ingenious quick change strap system, which allows for easy switching between steel, leather, and rubber without the need for a tool. You depress a small button between the lugs, the strap or bracelet pops off, and you snap the replacement back on the waiting spring bar. These quick change systems are becoming more popular, and I welcome them wholeheartedly as someone who is fond of changing up straps on a regular basis. 

The experience of wearing any watch, though, is about more than the quality of the strap or bracelet, and the way a case’s size is managed. There’s an emotional aspect to it as well. A watch does something to you. It can impact your personality, and your confidence, and it can even recalibrate how you feel about watches themselves. I’m maybe making the BP 43 sound like more of a religious experience than it actually is, but I think it’s fair game to point out that this watch felt like an event in a way most watches don’t. I think that’s because it’s the opposite of subtle, which is the trait I tend to admire more and more in the watches I wear these days, and really feels in every one of its 43 millimeters like a “statement piece.” This, I think, is IWC going right at Rolex, and telling us that this is the watch you buy after that big promotion, or to celebrate a milestone anniversary, or whatever. And when you wear it to your next meeting, people will notice it, like it, and not think you look ridiculous (like they would if you were wearing the bigger BP).


I honestly thought I was too jaded to be taken in by all of this thanks to years of being exposed to the crassest watch marketing imaginable, but man, I really enjoyed how the Big Pilot 43 made me feel when I was wearing it. The pilot’s watch, live-action-role-playing aspect of it all really wasn’t an issue, and eventually it just became about wearing an exceedingly well made thing, which feels like every bit of what this hobby is about at a base level. 

The Movement 

A big part of what instills the feeling of quality while wearing the Big Pilot 43 is the movement. Caliber 82100 is an in-house movement of IWC’s own design, with automatic winding and a healthy 60 hours of power reserve. It’s visible through the sapphire caseback, and is nicely decorated, if a little industrially finished. That’s more of an observation than a complaint – I don’t think anyone should really expect haute horlogerie finishing on a movement built for a watch like this. That said, it’s quite advanced from a technical perspective, while not hitting you over the head with it, and the bits that make it interesting from a Movement Nerd POV are indeed right out in front. 

Certain components of this movement (and others in the larger 52000 Calibre family of IWC movements) that are particularly at risk of wearing down over time are made of an extremely durable ceramic. Looking at the caliber through the caseback, you can see the black ceramic automatic wheel quite clearly, and smaller components have also been made from the material. Making ceramic components of this size at scale obviously presents a unique challenge for IWC, and likely contributes somewhat to the high cost of the watch. The end result, if IWC is to be believed, is that service intervals will be longer, and repair bills a little less eye watering. It’s very cool technology, to be sure, but naysayers will of course point out that proprietary materials like these further tie customers directly to the brand – there’s likely no use in having your Big Pilot 43 serviced by the neighborhood watchmaker, if you’re lucky enough to still have one. Such is the state of watch collecting in 2021. 


This watch fully worked on me. I enjoyed every minute of my time with it, except for the very last one, when the separation anxiety began to kick in. I’m now back to wearing and enjoying my own watches, but they don’t have the bombastic appeal of the Big Pilot 43. As I finish up this evaluation of the watch, I’m not entirely sure if that’s a good or bad thing.

Part of any watch review, whether it’s intentional or not, involves asking yourself if you could live with this watch in your own collection, and what that would look like. The prospect of owning and living with a watch that you’ve spent real money on is obviously inherently different from sampling a watch that requires no investment whatsoever, so the best you can ever do is a thought experiment. Here’s what I’ve come up with, after quite a bit of thought: for me personally, I don’t know that the BP 43 would ever find a place in my watch box, because I don’t know that the experience of owning it forever could beat the hot flash of lightning that is the short sample period, where you can wear it exuberantly for a short period and then give it back. 

The Big Pilot 43, on a bracelet, but with all the other straps that you really want because the quick change aspect is really quite cool, creeps pretty close to $10,000 (although retail price on the watch with just the leather strap sits at $8,400, on a bracelet it’s $9,350). Now, that’s a big number. It’s nearly a five digit number. But it’s not a number that’s crazy. It’s a number that, with some planning, saving, consolidating, zero-interest credit card promotions, and luck (we really need BTC to break out soon, here) many enthusiasts could potentially afford if they really wanted it. For me though, a five figure watch is a watch I’d have to be pretty sure I’d want to wear every day, until I’m extremely old, and I don’t know that the Big Pilot 43 is that watch. For a few weeks it’s a lot of fun to wear something that’s brash and flashy – but for years? Day in and day out? As I said at the top, I’m not that guy.

Of course, this is, as I said, a thought experiment. No watch has to be worn day in and day out. Maybe it would be fun to be flashy for a few weeks at a time and then put it away for a, oh I don’t know, a Grand Seiko under 40mm? And maybe you are that guy who wants something that’s a bit loud and aggressive, but also undeniably well crafted and held together by a coherent design proven over the course of decades. If that’s you, and you’ve got the wrist for it, the Big Pilot 43 is more than worth a look. And if it’s not you, that’s ok too. I hear IWC makes their pilot’s watch in a few different flavors. 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.