When Jean-Frédéric Dufour took over the helm of Zenith a lot changed. The brand went back to basics with a more sober design and as well, quite unique for such a pedigreed watch brand, more sober prices. This change in strategy served Zenith well, re-igniting the enthusiasm of many watch connoisseurs who had felt detached from the more abundant designs before Dufour came along.

Don’t mistake sober for boring though, because Zenith is still far from that. Not only are they still the home of the famed “El Primero”, a movement – a fact that makes any watch connoisseur’s heart pump faster (pun intended), but they also have the “Pilot”-collection. This collection gives a new twist to the term “pilot’s watch”; Big, bold and now with a new limited edition, the Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 GMT 1903.

Zenith Pilot GMT 1903As a self proclaimed watch connoisseur, the term “limited edition” is enough to make me approach with extreme caution.  Over the last decade, I have seen too many so-called “limited editions” that might mark an occasion, but often do so with only a different color accent, or an added engraving to the back. With such a state of affairs, the term “limited” has, in my opinion been used too liberally and too often. So what does that make of the new Zenith Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 GMT 1903?

Key to this new Zenith is the “1903” in the name, that sets it apart from the more common, non-limited Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 GMT. It refers to an event that happened at December 17th 1903 on Kitty Hawk beach when Orville Wright piloted the first engine powered plane over a distance of 40 meters and at an altitude of 60 centimeters. As primitive as that might sound today, this event marked a historic accomplishment in mankind efforts to conquer the skies. Although not directly involved in the flight at Kitty Hawk beach, Zenith does have something to show for when it comes to aviation history. The original Zenith Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 watches was standard equipment on a number of aircraft in the late 1930’s and even played an important role in the early and nascent era of the exciting and adventurous airmail  business at around the same time.

Historical Montre d Aeronef Type 20

As romantic as the thought is of flight pioneers in the early 1900’s, in today’s global village, flying is for most people simply a means to get quickly to different parts of the world, with lots of waiting in the process. For this type of travel the Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 GMT 1903 might not be ideal at first glance.

Yet with a diameter of 48mm it most certainly plays homage to the size of it’s historic counterpart, but those watches where often worn around the leg or placed on the control panel of the plane. In today’s world these watches are worn around the wrist, and fortunately Zenith realizes this. The case is crafted out of titanium, to keep its weight low, and fitted with a DLC (Diamond Like Carbon) coating. Relatively short lugs ensure that the strap hugs the wrist nicely. Although most people don’t wear gloves on planes anymore these days, the crown is large enough to operate easily with gloves on. The same can be said for the pusher positioned at 10 o’clock, which moves the hour hand of the second timezone forward. When perhaps not as useful as it might be used in an actual flight, we can still enjoy “gloves on” handling of the Zenith while driving vintage sports cars or before we hit the slopes on our ski’s. With a sapphire crystal and 100 meter water resistance, the Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 GMT 1903 is also more robust than its vintage counterparts.

Zenith Pilot GMT 1903 close upThe previously mentioned “El Primero” is as much a blessing as it is a curse for Zenith. You would almost forget that they make more movements than this high-beat chronograph. Case in point is the extraordinary Elite-caliber family, from which we can find caliber 693 inside the Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 GMT 1903. Introduced in 1994, it has powered almost all non-chronograph watches made by Zenith, and is generally known as a dependable and robust manufacture movement. There is however a price we need to pay for the size of the Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 GMT 1903. With a diameter of only 11 ½ ‘‘‘ (25.6 mm) Zenith opted wisely to not go for a glass case back. Instead the watch shows an stamped insignia of that historic moment of the first flight by the Wright-brothers at Kitty Beach. A wise choice and also more historically correct .

But what more do you get by choosing the Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 GMT 1903 over the regular version of this model? Well, you will of course be one of the 1903 owners of this model, since this is the number of pieces that Zenith will be producing. The DLC coating makes the watch more special, since this is only available with another Limited Edition of the  Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 GMT, referred to as the “Pilot Special” (Reference; 96.2430.693/21.C703) with only 500 pieces. Also the Nubuck strap with vintage-effect adds something to the package, but what makes this limited edition really worth going after are the numerals! Just like the regular version of the Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 GMT, the 1903 has large Arabic numerals. However, for this model they have treated the Luminova in such a way that it looks like aged Radium! This is the one detail that makes all the difference! Combined with the sandblasted black dial and DLC-coated case it gives the watch an exotic yet vintage look. Since the effect of this special treatment of the Luminova also varies per watch, each watch is in essence unique in regard to the look of the numerals.

Luminova on Zenith with "vintage Radium" effectSo while approached with caution, the Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 GMT 1903 proves to be the Pilot GMT of Zenith that you will want to have. The DLC-coating combined with the special treatment of the Luminova does elevate the watch above its siblings, and isn’t that a good reason to create a limited edition? To offer something your other watches don’t have, and make this difference substantial enough to truly stand out?

Martin Green
Eclectic taste in Haute Horlogerie, passion for diamond set watches, loves the classics 

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