Welcome to another Sunday Morning Showdown here on Fratello. Please get yourself ready because today’s confrontation promises to be a good one. In 2022, IWC introduced a new version of its Pilot’s Watch — the Mark XX. Then, last year, Zenith took it one step further with a complete revision of its Pilot line. That’s why we thought it was a good idea to put these two updated fighters up against each other and let them battle it out.

Both of these 40mm stainless steel pilot’s watches feature highly legible black dials with big white numerals. They also both have a date window and fat sword hands that hover over the dial. But apart from all these similarities, there are also a lot of things that set them apart. Daan, who’s defending the Zenith, and Thomas, who’ll back the IWC, will make sure to point them all out to you very clearly. And, of course, you’ll get the chance to back them up later in the comments.

Omega Speedmaster'57

Last week’s showdown

But before we let the pilots fight it out, let’s take a look at what happened in last week’s installment of Sunday Morning Showdown. It was the Breitling Chronomat B01 42 up against the Omega Speedmaster ’57. And even though the comments showed quite an even 50–50 split, the voting result certainly didn’t. As many pointed out in those comments, it’s probably quite tough to beat a Speedmaster here on Fratello. The 70–30 landslide confirms that theory and makes the Speedmaster ’57 the clear winner. Another conclusion you could draw from this is that people still prefer a more elegant, slimmer watch over a more show-offy, bulkier one. But we’ll let you be the judge of that. All right, let’s get ready to rumble!

Zenith Pilot Automatic wrist shot

Daan: Zenith Pilot Automatic

I don’t know about you, but I’m a fan of this new version of Zenith’s Pilot. The previous one was a 45mm beast with huge numerals and cathedral hands. There are indeed some nice iterations out there, and I especially fancy the bronze ones. Overall, though, they looked very much like vintage-inspired pilot’s watches on steroids. Then came Watches and Wonders 2023, and Zenith launched the entirely new Pilot Automatic and Big Date Flyback. Both came with a completely redesigned case and dial.

Zenith Pilot Automatic

The more streamlined case with wide lugs and a fat brushed and polished bezel on top immediately spoke to me. It looks a lot sportier than most other pilot’s watches out there. At the same time, it’s a very sturdy-looking case, something that’s reinforced by the grooves on the dial. According to Zenith, the pattern “mimics the look of corrugated metal sheets that make up the fuselage of many older aircraft.” That’s true, but it also adds a touch of playfulness to a typically serious pilot’s watch, and I love that.

Zenith Pilot Automatic

Zenith also did away with those Gothic numerals and went for a much cleaner, easier-on-the-eye font. That’s probably also why Zenith swapped the cathedral hands for more simplified sword hands.

Zenith Pilot Automatic wrist shot

A courageous pilot

I’m not against vintage-inspired watches at all. However, I think it’s courageous to step away from a tried-and-true design and go for something completely new. I appreciate this courageousness so much, and it makes me like the modern look of the Zenith Pilot Automatic even more. However, I do get that people have to get used to it a little. Apart from the “Pilot” text at 6 o’clock, nearly all references to the past have been taken away.

The IWC Mark series, on the other hand, has looked almost the same since it was introduced. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a nice design, and with the Mark XX, IWC has improved the fit a lot. I also really like its bracelet with the on-the-fly micro-adjustment. But overall, don’t you think it looks a bit boring and “flat” by now? The dial looks very clean and all, but it’s also a bit dull without any applied indices/numerals of any kind.

Zenith Pilot Automatic date window

I admit that the placement of the date window at 6 o’clock with that horizontal index right above it looks a bit messy on the Zenith Pilot Automatic. I would’ve much preferred to have the large date window from the Big Date Flyback version. But other than that, I think the “groovy” dial with the big applied numerals looks very exciting.

El Primero

Inside the Pilot Automatic, you’ll find a non-chronograph version of Zenith’s El Primero movement. It runs at a high 36,000vph frequency, so the seconds hand will sweep very smoothly around the dial. In comparison, it only holds half of IWC Mark XX’s 120-hour power reserve. But who needs a five-day power reserve in an automatic watch anyway? At least on the Zenith, you can take a look at the skeletonized rotor and the modestly finished movement underneath through the exhibition case back. All right, Thomas, let’s see what you got for the IWC Mark XX.

Thomas: IWC Pilot’s Watch Mark XX

Thanks, Daan! Let me start by admitting that I share your appreciation for the new Zenith Pilot. I, too, like the design direction and the overall vibe. Coincidentally, I have just written a full hands-on review of the Zenith that is due for publication next week. So I have something of a competitive advantage over you here, Daan, because I did find some points I feel we should cover in this Sunday Morning Showdown!

One thing jumps out when comparing these two watches in real life. The IWC wears like a comfy old pair of jeans. The Zenith, unfortunately, has some issues in the ergonomics department. It is 2mm thicker and a lot flatter on the underside. It sits rather tubby on top of the wrist rather than around it, like the IWC.

This, to me, is the one determining factor in this showdown. I can point out the pros and cons of each as much as I want, but one wears perfectly and the other, harshly put, awkwardly. In my book, that ends all debate.

A closer look at two similar but different approaches

If you handle both of these watches, the Zenith Pilot is certainly more impressive. It has more intricate shapes and textures, a display case back, and a more ambitious design. The IWC Pilot’s Watch Mark XX, by comparison, feels a tad lazy, as Daan points out. The crown is rather generic, as is the way the date is incorporated. Or should I say “not incorporated at all”?

I will be the first to admit that the Zenith feels much more like a luxury watch. Its finishing is nicer, and overall, it is just more advanced in looks. However, if I stick to my earlier jeans analogy, the IWC Mark XX is like Levi’s 501 — basic, predictable, and also, in a way, perfect because of it. The Zenith Pilot is more like fancy G-Star RAW denim with a fashionable cut — cooler, perhaps, but less of a timeless classic. Or the IWC is like a pair of Red Wing Iron Rangers, while the Zenith is like a pair of Van Bommels with blue laces. Both are great, but I know which I prefer.

It is interesting, by the way, how we associate IWC with pilot’s watches much more than Zenith despite Zenith having trademarked “Pilot” over a century ago. This may be because this isn’t the first time that Zenith radically redesigned the line. Daan, you admire this courage, but humor me; search for “Zenith Pilot” on Chrono24. Just look at the sheer number of completely different shapes that come up. That is a surefire way to keep a line out of icon territory.

Comparing the designs of these pilot’s watches

Okay, so I have admitted that the Zenith Pilot Automatic is more intricate and advanced in its design. However, the steady course of IWC, design-wise, has led to a more refined look. If you look at comparisons between the Mark XVIII and this Mark XX, you see how tiny details are iteratively improved. The resulting watch may be a tad bland, but it is close to perfection. Your mileage may vary, but I love watches like that.

The Zenith, on the other hand, feels like it could use one or two of those rounds of refinement. The case is intended to be muscular, but it should be more ergonomic. If it were a bit thinner and more curved, I would be singing a very different tune. Similarly, the handset doesn’t feel quite strong enough to hold its own in all the boldness of the case and dial. In terms of scale, the broader sword hands of the IWC would be more fitting.

All in all, I would pick boring and perfect. If, however, Zenith sticks with this aesthetic for a couple of generations, refining it over time, that could change. However, with the IWC Pilot’s Watch Mark XX at €5,750 (on a strap) and the Zenith Pilot Automatic at €8,100, there is quite a gap to bridge too!

Cast your vote!

There you have it — a fierce aerial battle on this early Sunday morning! These are two very capable pilot’s watches from brands with long histories in the skies, but which would be your pick of the two? Cast your vote, and share your motivations in the comments below!

Zenith Pilot Automatic vs. IWC Pilot's Watch Mark XX