Zenith CEO Julien Tornare
Zenith CEO Julien Tornare is relaunching the brand’s most longstanding line © Alex Stephen Teuscher

At Watches and Wonders in Geneva this week, Zenith has revived its Pilot collection of watches. But, unlike many of its competitors, the Swiss watch company will not be using fighter jets or Catch-Me-If-You-Can-style imagery to give its new watches wings.

“This is about much more than war or polluting jetliners,” says Julien Tornare, chief executive of Zenith watches. “They’re about adventure, travelling and the positive aspect of the plane — openness to the world.”

One of the curiosities of Swiss watchmaking is that it is Zenith that holds the trademark to use the word “pilot” on a watch dial, and not Rolex, Breitling or IWC — much larger companies, and all better known as pilot’s watch makers.

It is because — in an act of startling prescience — Zenith’s founder registered the French Pilote in 1888, 15 years before the Wright Brothers’ first flight. The anglicised version was added in 1904, shortly before Zenith kitted out Louis Blériot’s flying contraption Blériot XI with timing gear for his seminal 1909 crossing of the English Channel.

Zenith Pilot Big Date Flyback
Zenith Pilot Big Date Flyback

The new collection marks Zenith’s return to the pilot’s watch segment. A little over a decade ago, it revived the trademark with a series of pieces led by the Pilot Type 20, an oversized watch with vintage looks that Tornare says is showing its age.

“The Pilot was very vintage in the past, in bronze and aged steel,” he says. “The idea now is to be much more contemporary. The new watches are much more wearable.” There are four new models at launch: a pair of 42.5mm flyback chronographs; and two 40mm automatics, one each in steel and another in black ceramic. Prices start from £6,700 and top out at £11,900.

Tornare says he expects his new collection to continue a pattern that began when he first joined the company six years ago. “We have rejuvenated our client by nine years, from 47 to 36 years old,” he says.

Zenith, which is owned by the French luxury conglomerate LVMH, is now making 24,000 watches a year, says Tornare, a figure he claims is hard to increase rapidly as the company uses only its own El Primero and Elite movements in its watches.

Following the successes of the Chronomaster Sport and Defy Skyline of recent years, revenues in 2022 were up by a “high double-digit” percentage, he adds.

Now, in a further updating of the flight theme, the story of the new Pilot will be told by paper aeroplanes, explains Tornare. “We’re never going into fighter jets or commercial airliners. This is much more intellectual and poetic. It’s about adventure, crossing the world, meeting cultures.”

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