Zenith was one of the first watch manufacturers to create flight instruments, including altimeters and onboard and wrisborn chronographs, to equip various aircraft manned by aviation pioneers. As examples, Louis Bleriot wore a Zenith watch when he flew over the English Channel in 1909. So, too, Léon Morane, who became the first pilot to reach an air speed of more than 100 km/h just a year later.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the Montre d’Aéronef Zenith Type 20 was onboard a number of aircraft, including the Caudron Simoun C.635 planes of the French air force and Air Bleu mail planes. And just a couple of years ago, in 2012, a man was about to make history by breaking the speed of sound in a freefall: Felix Baumgartner launched himself into the stratosphere from a space capsule wearing the Zenith El Primero Stratos Flyback Striking 10th.
Today, Zenith continues its saga of the skies, with a variety of Pilot Type 20 timepieces designed to accompany the wearer in the air or with feet firmly on the ground. The broad collection includes tourbillon, GMT and annual calendar models, heretofore ranging in size from 40mm to 48mm.
The new Pilot Type 20 Grand Feu’s case measures in at a substantial 60mm, entirely and amazingly crafted from a block of sapphire, making it the first sapphire case in the history of the Manufacture Zenith and also the largest sapphire case in watchmaking history. But in addition to its size and distinguished material, the limited edition (10 pieces) Pilot Type 20 Grand Feu is a notable timepiece for a whole host of other reasons, not the least of which is its grand feu enamel dial. To refresh your memory, grand feu enameling is a decorative technique considered one of the most difficult to execute in the realm of watchmaking.
Meaning “great fire” the grand feu art form involves carefully coating a watch dial with enamel in successive layers, each heated at extremely high temperatures ranging from 800 to 900 degrees Celsius. The end result is a highly durable, radiant dial that resists cracking over time, but the success of the lengthy process is completely dependent upon the experience, expertise and, I suspect, luck of the artisan. The extraordinarily sized dial of the Pilot Type 20 Grand Feu makes the process that much more difficult.
The counters, power reserve at 3 o’clock and small seconds at 9 o’clock, are also crafted from grand feu enamel, and the hour markers are enameled in black. The blued and skeletonized central hands as well as the blue hands on the counters offer tasteful color counterpoints. “Zenith Montred’Aeronef Type 20,” along with the Zenith star, are visible just below 12 o’clock, while “Chronometre Grand Feu” in a lovely script is evident just above 6 o’clock.
The sapphire is edged with a finely hand-chased and engraved white gold bezel, matching the décor on the white gold lugs and oversized crown—a signature of the Pilot collection. The large and usually ratcheted crowns on the Zenith Pilot watches commemorate those typical of historical aviator watches, guaranteeing a perfect grip even with gloves on.
Running The Show
Inside the El Primero 5011K movement gorgeously visible through the caseback. The hand-wound Calibre 5011K, first produced by the manufacture in 1960, was recognized as the most precise chronometer ever presented by the Neuchâtel Observatory at the time.
A small number of original 5011K calibers from the Zenith archives were updated and decorated by hand, ultimately finding their way to the interior of the Pilot Type 20 Grand Feu. The sides and back of the movement are entirely adorned with intricate scrolled and garland-like motifs complementing the motif on the bezel and lugs.
Oscillating at a rate of 18,000 vibrations per hour, the 134-component, 19-jewel Calibre 5011K also features shock absorbers on the balance staff and on the escapement, fine adjustment and a self-compensating anti-magnetic Breguet overcoil balance spring – all qualities contributing to its first-rate performances while detracting nothing from its resolutely vintage spirit. It has a power reserve of 48 hours.