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The Collector's Series

@winewhiskywatches and his IWC “Safari” Big Pilot (AKA the Tribute to 5002)

The original 5002 series of the IWC Big Pilot is an icon that’s regarded by many as “the best” Big Pilot of them all. Is the “Tribute to 5002” even better?

| By Frank Geelen | 11 min read |
IWC Big Pilot 5010-07 Safari

When Chris Granger-Herr, the CEO of IWC, posted a photo of himself wearing the prototype for this updated version of the original 5002-generation Big Pilot in matte titanium while on his African Safari, collectors took notice. Shortly after, IWC announced a limited edition of 100 watches, which sold out almost instantly via Instagram (despite a six-month wait for them to be built). The watch was immediately nicknamed the “Safari” Big Pilot, while IWC officially named it the “Tribute to 5002.” Today we’re talking to @winewhiskywatches about his IWC Big Pilot Tribute to 5002 ref. IW501007 AKA the “Safari” Big Pilot. 

When Chris Grainger-Herr posted that picture on Instagram, I was travelling from the Netherlands to Switzerland to film one the MONOCHROME videos. So by the time I found out about this particular “Safari” Big Pilot, it was long sold out and that was that. So when I saw that @winewhiskywatches (who recently told us about his Armin Strom Resonance) owns one of this 100-piece limited edition, I was particularly interested in conducting this interview. Since I tried to obtain one of 100 watches, I consoled myself with a vintage 5002 Big Pilot, one with the original ‘fish crown’, instead. But I’ve always wondered about “the one that got away.”

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Frank Geelen – What first drew you to IWC as a brand?

The story of my relationship with the IWC brand is complicated because it’s emotionally connected to my memories of my late father and his gold IWC Cal. 89, which he owned for 57 years before gifting it to me on my wedding day. My father was already advanced in age when I was born. He was a young refugee during World War 2 and his first luxury purchase after that war was his beautiful gold IWC cal. ‘89 with a gold Milanese bracelet. He promptly put it in a safety deposit box and never actually wore it – not even on his own wedding day.

So when he gave me that watch, unworn for so long, it was an incredibly emotional moment for him – and for me. Needless to say, it hasn’t gone unworn since it was passed on to me. After my own son was born, the emotions tied up in my Dad’s watch led me to think of adding another IWC to my collection, so that my son would someday have IWCs from two generations of our family.

So did the “Tribute to 5002” become that “legacy watch”?

No [laugh]. That “legacy watch” was a gold IWC Big Pilot Petit Prince Perpetual Calendar IW502802.

How did you rationalize that a gold Big Pilot would complement an elegant gold dress watch in a legacy context?

The connection between my Dad’s vintage IWC dress watch and that gold perpetual calendar Big Pilot IWC Pilot isn‘t intuitively obvious. I really liked the watch but it took some mental gymnastics to get there. I rationalized that cal. 89’s like the one in my Dad’s watch had a long history in aviation watches. That was the link.

As a matter of history, the cal.89s were renowned for their timekeeping accuracy in their day, so much so that they were used in the IWC Mark XI watches produced for British Overseas Airline Corporation and the British Royal Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force – and a number of other air forces around the world. Those cal.89 movements were regulated in five positions and were tested by the RAF – in Mark XI cases – in temperatures ranging from -5 degrees to 46 degrees over a 44-day testing period in order to meet their required standards.

So the moral of this story is that the mind always has a way of justifying what the heart wants – and at that time, what I wanted, was a gold perpetual calendar Petit Prince Big Pilot. I also rationalized that I should stay with the gold theme for a legacy watch – and I thought that a more casual gold watch would complement my Dad’s dress watch in a legacy context.

I also guessed that the Big Pilot’s iconic design would still be relevant and desirable far into the future. The truth is probably that I just really liked that Gold Big Pilot. I still do. But it’s also fair to say that I always had a nagging feeling that I was missing out by not also acquiring a vintage 5002 series Big Pilot. I ultimately acquired several other IWC pilots – and each one had the added benefit of reminding me of my father – but for no reason at all, I never got around to that 5002.

What led you to choose this iteration over a vintage 5002?

I always thought that if I was going to acquire another Big Pilot, that it would have to be an original vintage 5002 series. As chronometric performance matters to me, I had hoped to get one the very last of the series – one of the “transitional” 5002’s with the updated movement (late 2005, early 2006, IWC introduced the new calibre 51110 in the big pilot ref. 5002, before the redesigned 5004 was introduced later in 2006.) The original “slow beat” movement may be iconic, but it’s not the best timekeeper. For many collectors, including myself, that “transitional model” was the last of the uncomplicated collectable Big Pilots until the Safari came along. After that, the dial was redesigned to remove the “9” numeral and partial numerals at 2 and 4 o’clock were added. The power indicator symbol was simplified and the strap changed from buffalo to alligator.

Time went by and, truth be told, my focus had shifted to other watches. Then, some years later, I happened to see that Instagram post by Chris Grainger-Herr, CEO of IWC, spotlighting his prototype of the “Tribute to 5002” – and I instantly knew that I was going to order one. IWC had circled around its iconic dial design since it discontinued the original in 2006. After almost two decades of seemingly limitless variations, 97 iterations in actual fact, it would have been easy to have become jaded. But when I saw this with watch it seemed – at least for me – that IWC had finally managed not just to equal but actually surpass the original. I immediately posted a comment asking Chris to add me to the list of interested buyers. He had mentioned that there would only be 100 of them produced, so I wasn’t certain that I’d made the cut – but I received a Direct Message from him a few days later confirming that one would indeed be reserved for me. If I recall correctly, the watch was produced and shipped to me roughly six months later.

What, in your opinion, makes the “Safari” a better iteration of the Big Pilot than the original 5002 series?

From my perspective, this iteration embodies everything that collectors love about the original 5002 – while improving on it in many respects. For example, the raised numerals and markers on the dial are a marked improvement. Details like the revival of the original IWC ‘fish’ crown also demonstrate how much thought went into this update. While the inverted black date window and date font are obviously clear departures from the original 5002 – in my opinion, they fit in well within the overall aesthetic of the watch. In fact, I wonder if the original white date window would have looked right on a dial with raised numerals. The use of matte titanium gives the “tribute” an industrial look that’s compatible the design of the Big Pilot – but it also reduces its weight to make it so much more comfortable on the wrist. Titanium’s strength-to-weight ratio is nearly double that of stainless steel; so it’s durable and more heat-resistant too. That makes it a great case material for a tool watch like the Big Pilot. The use of IWC’s double-barrel calibre 52110 movement in the Safari makes it a better timekeeper too.

Is there anything about the original that you prefer over this update?

In my opinion, the Safari really does represent the ultimate expression of the Big Pilot’s original design DNA. But I can also nitpick and say that IWC did get two things wrong. Their first mistake was the updated Santoni strap. There wouldn’t be anything wrong with putting that strap on any other pilot watch – but the Safari really benefits from the original buffalo strap that came with that first 5002 series Big Pilot. In my opinion, the thicker leather, heavier ecru stitching and “flight jacket” texture of the original 5002 strap really adds to the vintage aesthetic of this watch. Fortunately, I already had one of those straps in a drawer, in unworn condition, just waiting for the day that I would get around to buying a 5002. I used it for this watch instead.

The second thing that I think IWC got wrong was the caseback engraving. As IWC historian and super-collector Michael Friedberg commented in one of our exchanges, since the strap could be changed, it was only the modern caseback engraving that stood between this iteration and absolute perfection. That’s because “Die Grosse Fliegeruhr” is obviously cooler than “Big Pilot’s Watch.”

Why do you think that the Big Pilot in general – and the 5002 in particular- is such an icon?

I think that the Big Pilot became an icon because it so thoroughly defied convention and yet it was ultimately so well received. You could say the same thing about many iconic watches, like AP’s Genta-designed Royal Oak, but in my opinion no watch has ever represented a bigger risk than this one did on the day of its release. It would likely never have been made if today’s rules had applied. Think about it: It defied conventional wisdom by being too big for its time. It couldn’t pull double-duty as both a casual and business watch as conventional wisdom dictated at that time. You couldn’t swim with it either. And the über-important-to IWC East Asian market initially hated its large size. There were also significant PR risks associated with its WW2 origins.

So it’s fair to say that, in 2002, IWC made an against-all-odds bet that the design purity of the Big Pilot could transcend all of those handicaps. No one could have imagined in 2002 that “Die Grosse Fliegeruhr” would become a mainstream success – or that it would ultimately become a pillar of the brand. The fact that it exceeded all commercial expectations despite its obvious “flaws” in the context of 2002 norms is, in my view, the core reason why it’s still regarded as an icon to this day. I’ll add that, while many “oversized” watches existed only because larger watches became a trend in the 2000s, the Big Pilot is the one that started that trend. It survived the recent market shift towards smaller and thinner watches for the very same reasons that it inspired the “big watch” trend in the first place: authenticity and purity of design. I’ve made the case for why the “Tribute to 5002” has actually surpassed the original – and I maintain that view – but I still want an original 5002 as well. Doesn’t that say it all?

How did the Safari fit in with the rest of your IWC collection?

I have a pretty diverse collection that includes four arguably similar IWC Pilot watches; but in actual fact they couldn’t be more different from each other. The Collector’s Forum Pilot is an anti-magnetic chronograph in a steel case; the “Vintage Collection Pilot”, released as a 2008 novelty, is a manually-wound white gold three-hander with a rotating bezel that harkens back to the original 1936 Special Watch For Pilots; the aforementioned “Petit Prince” Big Pilot perpetual calendar in pink gold – and finally this titanium tribute to the iconic IW5002 Big Pilot.

Are there any other IWC pilot watches that you’d consider adding to your collection in the future?

I never say never. I do like IWC’s Timezoner Pilot Chronograph but it sits a bit heavy on the wrist. Perhaps they’ll consider a titanium version. And an updated 5003 Markus Bühler – the one with that turbine on the dial – would be very difficult for me to resist.

I have to ask, is your Big Pilot “Safari” a keeper?

Yes, most definitely.

That’s too bad, I was hoping that you might eventually sell it… to me…?

You can follow @winewhiskywatches on Instagram

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