[VIDEO] Hands-On: The Surprising Zenith Pilot Automatic

Zenith has taken a methodical approach to fleshing out the collections of their 4 families of watches, balancing a weighty heritage against an ethos that forces progress. How they’ve gone about this has been the subject of several of our reviews, and even editorials about the brand’s more recent history. Their newest collection of watches, released earlier this year at Watches & Wonders, explores another realm of the brand’s past: pilot watches. Zenith first filed a trademark for the French term “Pilote” in 1888, decades before the Wright brothers made history in Kitty Hawk, and to this day are the only brand permitted to print the word on the dial (they trademarked the English word “Pilot” in 1904). Zenith has made some unforgettable pilot watches in their day (the A3822 being a personal favorite), but it’s been many years since they’ve done so in a way that’s captured modern enthusiasts. 

Zenith has a checkered recent past when it comes to pilot watches, with releases dotted through the 20-teens not quite hitting the notes they needed to lay the groundwork for a permanent collection in the same way their classic sport watches have. But then, Pilot watches are a different breed altogether. Zenith’s approach with their newest collection of Pilot watches feels very different from those recent efforts, and feels like a genuine, modern approach to building a collection with some legs. To get a better sense of that direction, we spent some time with the entry point to the collection, the steel Pilot Automatic.


[VIDEO] Hands-On: The Surprising Zenith Pilot Automatic

Stainless Steel
El Primero 3620
Corrugated Black
Super Luminova SLN C1
Black Cordura
Water Resistance
10 ATM
Lug Width
Screw Down
2 yrs

The new Pilot collection consists of four watches, and two complications. A pair of steel references and their black ceramic counterparts, featuring time and date models, and flyback chronographs with a big date display. They feel decidedly different from the throwbacks and reissues we’ve been accustomed to seeing from Zenith Pilot watches in generations past, and that’s a very good thing. These are modern Pilot watches that feel, well, like normal everyday wearable watches. There is no novelty factor here.

I’d like to note that I was particularly impressed with the chronograph variants of the Pilot collection, and their use of the big date window that utilizes an instant change feature that’s immensely satisfying in practice. Similarly, the chronograph actuation feels elevated in a manner that befits the higher price tag. There are a lot of details in these watches that are difficult to convey in a few images. Of any recent Zenith release, these might be the most buttoned up in terms of overall fit and finish. 

This is relevant because, like me, you may have seen the initial press images of this release and not been particularly excited with what you were seeing. It wasn’t until experiencing the watches hands-on for the first that they started to make a lot of sense, and with some reflection about their different approach to the pilot collection overall, these became the watches that might say the most about the current state of the brand. 

The newest Pilot collection isn’t meant to be a flash in the pan or a play for some viral hype, it’s a foundation. Zenith has thoughtfully expanded their Defy and Chronomaster collections slowly over the past few years, always careful not to overplay their hand out of the gate. The Pilot watch genre is a trickier animal to wrestle, and Zenith’s cautious approach feels appropriate here, as does the decision to remain firmly in the present, rather than pulling from their heritage (which, to be fair, they’ve gotten pretty good at). That said, these watches still make a statement, and cut a clear contrast to competitor pilot watch offerings from the likes of IWC and Breitling.

The new Pilot watch collection opens with the steel Pilot Automatic, a time and date affair set into a 40mm case and stark black and white dial. This is about as straightforward as a watch can get, and feels like plenty of effort went into the small details rather than big gestures. Much of the personality of this watch comes from the wide, brushed bezel framing the dial, and the corrugated horizontal texture on the dial. Each is implemented with just enough weight to make their presence felt, but neither feel overbearing.

The dial texture is the biggest risk here, and it feels like a necessity in order to create some distance between itself and its competitors. It’s unique and done in a manner that doesn’t interfere with the core practical elements of the watch. In fact, from some angles it’s downright difficult to discern. The texture itself evokes a fuselage of older aircraft, and is one of the few nods to the past here. A horizontal bar marks the 6 o’clock hour position, and is the only departure from the fully indexed Arabic hour numerals that dominate the design of the dial. A color matched date disc sits within a discreet aperture underneath that bar at the bottom center of the dial, but this largely reads as a dateless design. 

Regardless of your feelings on that corrugated texture, the rest of the dial is a benchmark example of exceptional legibility. The stark white, lume filled numerals jump off the black base, and the hands are done in a manner that puts focus on their intended purpose. The hour and minute hand even get a black coating near their stems right to the hand stack, so the only portion you see is that which is useful in telling the time. The name of the game in creating great legibility is simplicity, and contrast, and here the Zenith is aces.

At the bottom portion of the dial you’ll find a single line of text, which sets this pilot watch apart from every other pilot watch, and this is of course the literal word: Pilot. According to Zenith, they are the only brand permitted to use this word on the dial of a watch, thanks to a trademark filed over 100 years ago for the term “pilot” in relation to watches. The style of the word is the other overt nod to history here, and while it doesn’t add much depth to this particular watch in use (to me, at least), it’s a flex of sorts that other brands, some of which might even have deeper associations with the genre, can’t match. If I’m being perfectly honest, the watch reads as more of a field watch than anything else, but I have a hard time discerning the gray area between genres these days. 

More importantly, the watch works well enough to suit my needs. I am not, afterall, a pilot, as I suspect will be the case for many of its buyers. There’s a basic practicality to the watch that has broad appeal in a manner that I associate with a generic field watch, but the label doesn’t matter, ultimately. 

In use, the 40mm case wears on the tanky side thanks to the thicker profile that sets the watch on the wrist. It’s not uncomfortable, and it certainly isn’t overbearing by any stretch, but it doesn’t sit as discreetly as something like an IWC Mark XX, for instance. The rest of the case is a touch over 12mm in thickness and under 48mm from lug to lug, so again nothing scary in the numbers, but it wears with some presence. The case finishing is some of the best I’ve seen on a Zenith recently, with a fine brush separated by a polished chamfer that runs the length of the profile. The wide bezel dominates the view from pretty much any angle, and brings a stout personality to the forefront.


Flipping the watch over will provide a view of two important details with this watch. The first and most obvious is the El Primero caliber 3620 visible through an open caseback. This is a time and date variation of the movement, with an open rotor that mimics the horizon line in aircraft instrumentation. It is still a high-beat movement operating at 36,000vph, creating a smoother than usual sweep of the seconds hand. The next thing are the push buttons at the ends of the strap as they meet the case. This Zenith utilizes a quick change system that has a few benefits, compared to others. First, it’s easy and fast to use, and simple to learn. Second, and more importantly, it utilizes an existing springbar, meaning you’re not limited to a Zenith strap ecosystem. The spring bar is still easy to replace and you can slip any of your existing straps on to the watch straightaway. 

That’s a great feature not just for the convenience of customizing your watch, but also because the butterfly clasp on the supplied strap isn’t a strong point here. The strap works and is perfectly comfortable once broken in, but is a bit finicky to adjust and the overall quality of the buckle doesn’t feel quite up to par with everything else going on here. 

Looking at this watch as a whole, it’s hard not to see this as an exciting move from Zenith. Even if you’re not a fan of this watch in particular, how they’ve approached this new collection shows a maturity that wasn’t present the last time they went back to the Pilot watch range. This collection is smart, lays the groundwork for growth, and represents a practical interpretation of their history. It also keeps the door open for a split approach to the collection, with room for a Heritage section should they decide to bring back historic designs without interrupting the continuation of the modern Pilot. This has worked well for the brand in the Defy and Chronomaster range, and I’d expect a similar trajectory here. 

The addition of the Pilot watch collection leaves just one glaring hole in the Zenith stable, and that is a dive watch range. Zenith has an interesting history here, as well, and I’d love to see them bring a clean sheet design approach to watches like the A3630 and A277. Here’s hoping. 

The Zenith Pilot Automatic is priced at $7,500, and is available now from Zenith and Zenith retailers. More from Zenith.

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Blake is a Wisconsin native who’s spent his professional life covering the people, products, and brands that make the watch world a little more interesting. Blake enjoys the practical elements that watches bring to everyday life, from modern Seiko to vintage Rolex. He is an avid writer and photographer with a penchant for cars, non-fiction literature, and home-built mechanical keyboards.