Zenith Pilot Type 20 Grand Feu Watch Hands-On: A True Collector’s Piece
The Zenith Pilot Type 20 Grand Feu watch ref. 04.2420.5011/17.C714 is hands-down one of the oddest timepieces I had the pleasure of seeing at Baselworld 2014. aBlogtoWatch first debuted the Zenith Pilot Type 20 Grand Feu watch here. I suggest checking out that article for a bit more background on the watch – which is necessary reading to understand exactly what this timepiece is all about. In hand-engraved 18k white gold and sapphire crystal, this massive pilot-style watch was an even more exclusive take on the surprising hit limited edition Zenith Pilot Montre d’Aeronef Type 20 (aBlogtoWatch hands-on here) watch from 2012.
Part of the title of this article is me saying that the Zenith Pilot Type 20 Grand Feu watch is “a true collector’s piece.” Why did I say that? If you asked that question, then you were correct to do so. In the scheme of modern luxury watches, there are more “collectible limited editions” that even the industry itself knows what to do with. Limited edition watches – originally meant as something special for collectors – are totally overdone. Most are done just for the sake of doing a limited edition, and Zenith, like other brands, is guilty of that. Once in a while something truly weird and special is created that is actually produced in a limited quantity because of technical or logistical difficulty, and is meant to appeal to a niche audience. In fact, that something like the Pilot Type 20 Grand Feu watch is inherently controversial is a major reason why it is ultimately so collectible.
It all starts with a vintage pocket watch movement that Zenith restored and decorated, known as the caliber 5011 (caliber 5011K). This movement is about 50mm wide, so you understand why the case itself is so large. I haven’t discussed numbers yet, but from the look of the Zenith Pilot Type 20 Grand Feu you can tell it is huge – which it no doubt is. Back in our original article on the Zenith Montre d-Aeronef Pilot Type 20 watch, we talked more about what makes this movement special. What you need to know here is that it has 48 hours of power reserve, with the dial, subsidiary seconds dial, and power reserve indicator on the dial. The 5011 movement is also supposed to be pretty accurate – at least by reputation. A hint to that is the “Chronometre” text label on the dial of the watch. Oh, and the movement in this watch is also COSC Chronometer certified.
What Zenith did to the massive 5011 movement in this limited edition watch was to hand-engrave the hell out of it with an attractive and classic filigree design all over the exposed backplate and sides of the movement. Zenith then decided to take it further, and put the movement in a case that was also decorated – but they couldn’t decide on how to decorate it since they also wanted to show off the movement! Thus you have a very unique case architecture that includes 18k white gold lugs with front and rear bezel, with a middle section and caseback produced from transparent sapphire crystal (along with over the dial, of course). The result is something unlike anything I have seen before, with totally hand-engraved elements and a lot of exposure to the movement – which is also decorated.
If all that wasn’t enough, Zenith decided to hand-engrave the turnip-style aviator crown as well as the ardillon-style buckle on the strap – which is also something you will probably never see again – especially at this size. Whether you like the Zenith Pilot Type 20 Grand Feu watch or not, I want you to consider just how uncommon something like this is – especially from a brand like Zenith, known for making the massively popular and mainstream (mainstream luxury watch world, that is) El Primero chronograph movement for sport watches.
Speaking of size, this isn’t a small watch as I mentioned, but it has to be large because of the size of the movement. Zenith measures the Pilot Type 20 Grand Feu to be 60mm wide which includes the crown. That is at least 10mm more the the widest watch size most people’s wrists can handle. Also, assume for a moment that the average watch size is about 40-42mm wide, then the Zenith Pilot Type 20 watch is a full 1/3 larger than the average watch. It also happens to be 18.5mm thick. So what is it like on the wrist?
You can wear this watch – I mean, I did. I wouldn’t call it anything but sort of silly looking, but some people can pull it off. In this case, less than a dozen people around the world will even have an opportunity to try and pull it off. I also wouldn’t go “sporting” with it, given the delicate nature of the materials such as the sapphire crystal middle section and enamel dial. See, like I said; this is a watch exclusively for collectors. Having said that, the design is very interesting and arguably attractive if you did want to strap it on your wrist. The next time I see someone complain asking, “when are they going to stop to make ‘huge’ watches?” I am simply going to point them to this watch and tell them to get excited for more 60mm-wide timepieces.
As the “Grand Feu” part of the Zenith Pilot Type 20 Grand Feu watch name implies, the dial is produced from grand feu enamel. Yet again, we have something which makes the watch unique – how many pilot-style watches have enamel dials? What makes this design so interesting is that elements of it are meant for classic dress watches while Zenith produced it to sort of look like a vintage sport watch – with a lot of decoration. A timepiece such as the Zenith Pilot Type 20 Grand Feu will look really nice next to your set of engraved blades and guns.
Enamel dials are very beautiful, and the color lasts more-or-less forever. A close look at the white grand feu enamel dial of this watch yields extremely crisp hour numerals, text, and markers. Grand feu implies that after the enamel is applied, the entire dial is baked to make it permanent. If you want an enamel dial watch on the cheap merely to appreciate the technique, look for a vintage pocket watch with an enamel dial.
In some images it is difficult to tell, but the hands on the dial are all blued steel. The hour and minute hands also happen to be skeletonized. Given their large size, the hands are still pretty legible, but this was an interesting design decision for Zenith to make. I think it works out well in the end.
Even though the Zenith Pilot Type 20 Grand Feu watch is totally absurd when it comes to the size, engraving, sapphire crystal case, and overall theme, I sort of love it. I like how niche and exclusive it is. I like that the watch was produced seemingly with no target audience or demographic in mind. I like that I feel like one crazy person at Zenith wanted this watch to happen, so they made a few of them. The complexity of making the case, doing all the engravings, and the limited nature of the movements all add to why this is something that must be a limited edition. People might see this and think “there is no way this is really from Zenith,” but it is – and that is what I like about it. I wish brands would more often take the opportunity to do something totally against their character as the foundation for a limited edition watch.
Of course, something like the Zenith Pilot Type 20 Grand Feu ref. 04.2420.5011/17.C714 watch is going to be hard to find and expensive. It is limited to just 10 pieces with a price of $165,000. zenith-watches.com