Do you know what the first ceramic watch was? Richard Mille, Hublot perhaps? Surely Rado? The self-proclaimed Master of Materials loves the stuff on every watch it does. But no, it’s a watchmaker that, while it certainly has expertise in materials, it’s better known for its heritage designs. I’m of course talking about those incredibly German Swiss watchmakers over in Schaffhausen, IWC. And it probably wasn’t a collection you might expect – as you’ll discover as we delve into world of the IWC Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Top Gun Lake Tahoe for a thorough review.
Ceramic is incredibly scratch resistant and hard-wearing. It makes sense that it would be in something designed to be tough, to survive a serious impact. Something like a pilot watch or sports watch – words which encompass about half of what IWC does between the Pilot’s and Ingenieur. Instead, the first ceramic watch ever built was a Da Vinci.
While less high-profile than its other collections, the Da Vinci line has historically riffed on its namesake inventor as testing ground for crazy horological ideas. In 1969, it was the first collection to feature the Swiss quartz would-be Seiko killer, the Beta 21, inside the reference 3501. In 1985, it welcomed IWC’s first mechanical perpetual calendar (designed by the inimitable Kurt Klaus) and a year later the world’s first ceramic timepiece.
Now, quick technical aside. I mentioned Rado in the introduction and the 1962 Diastar was billed as the world’s first scratch-proof watch, made from ceramic. Sort of. Its make-up was actually tungsten carbide, a metal-ceramic mix used for machining. It’s a lot easier to work with than zirconium oxide ceramic, the purest form of the material used in the Da Vinci. Now you know.
The Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar in black ceramic set off a series of ultra-hard, kiln-fired innovations for IWC, including a white edition just a year later – a colour of ceramic that has kicked off a bit of a ceramic renaissance for the brand recently.
When the bright white and forest green ceramic Top Gun pilot’s watches launched last year, there was plenty of discussion in the office about which we preferred. I loved the white version, dubbed the Lake Tahoe after the body of water near the Top Gun base. Most of the others seemed to opt for the green, the slightly safer option. Well, I don’t want to say I told you so, so I’ll just write it here and hope my colleagues don’t read it because the white version was by far the bigger hit.
In fact, I’ve spotted the Lake Tahoe’s magnesium white case in the halls of Geneva’s Palexpo (outside of the year it was launched, of course) and the beaches of Marbella. One of my colleagues even spotted it on a brewery tour of New York. You can barely find them in an IWC boutique and pre-owned they’re going for a solid percentage above retail. Apparently, its big, bold and unapologetic look struck a chord. Now it’s back and equipped with a perpetual calendar, bringing IWC watchmaking full circle back to that 1986 white ceramic Da Vinci model, in the Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Top Gun Lake Tahoe.
Side note: this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this watch. Well before its actual launch, there were rumblings of a shiny new watch on Lewis Hamilton’s wrist. It was hard to miss as it was downright massive, enough that IWC must have known word would get out. In fact, they probably hoped for it. Apparently IWC’s design ethos is: does Lewis like it? Now I’ve got it on my own, slightly less famous wrist, it turns out it’s a solid approach.
A Big Pilot part of IWC’s collection aimed at the Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor programme – better known as Top Gun (yes, the very same) – the new Lake Tahoe Perpetual Calendar is a big chunk of white ceramic. In essence, it’s a recolour of the previous, sandy, Mojave version but while that kept things toned-down, that’s not the case here.
The high contrast look covers everything, from the indexes and numerals to the calendar functions. Those functions, just so you know, are date and power reserve at 3 o’clock (date on the outer ring, reserve on the inner), month at 6 o’clock, day and minutes at 9 o’clock and dual hemisphere moon phase at 12 o’clock. The year is nestled out of the way at 7:30.
It’s a lot of information, about as much as can be displayed on a watch face, even when it’s a piece as big as this – a hefty 46.5mm across. But between the size and the high contrast colourway, it’s as legible as can be. And yes, it feels just as big on the wrist as the specs suggest, with its oversized, fluted, cockpit-ready crown.
Honestly, while Lewis can pull it off, I cannot. I want to, I adore the eye-catching white and black, the sheer impact of the watch, but it’s just not comfortable for someone whose go-to is 38mm. Still, given IWCs do tend to err large, for most collectors used to the watchmaker, you’ll get on with it nicely.
Onto the movement and it’s a serious heavyweight. I’ve already run down the functions, which goes some way to explaining the amount of watchmaking that goes into a perpetual calendar, one that won’t need setting for 577.5 year – aside from the usual chronometric drift inherent in mechanical movements. It’s a real successor to Kurt Klaus’s groundbreaking 80s calibre.
I do have a slight issue with the inclusion of a perpetual calendar in a pilot’s watch, especially a military one. They’re meant to show only vital information and be easy to read at a glance. The only complication that regularly crops up is a chronograph and even that’s idiosyncratic in what’s generally a field watch for the cockpit. I understand why brands do throw the kitchen sink into their pilot’s watches (there’s a market for them), but I guess I’m just a bit too much of a purist to be entirely comfortable with it.
Personal gripes aside, the real issue with a perpetual calendar is having to set it again when the watch runs down, but with IWC’s calibre 52615 that’s less of an issue. The phenomenal movement has a full seven-day power reserve and quick, efficient winding with IWC’s signature Pellaton winding system. In short, you only need to wear it once a week to stop it winding down.
Obviously, all this means the Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Top Gun Lake Tahoe has a serious price tag: £34,900 to be precise. Though honestly, given the sheer size and high complication here, that’s not as bad as I was expecting. Thanks to the power reserve and winding system of the movement, it’s one of the most practical perpetual calendars out there (albeit one that probably doesn’t belong on a pilot’s watch), while the bright white, Lake Tahoe ceramic is as stunning as it was when we first saw it last year.
You could say that between its Da Vinci flavoured heritage and combination of aviation, ceramic and high watchmaking aspects, the Big Pilot’s Lake Tahoe Perpetual Calendar is the ultimate sum of IWC’s parts. I mean, I wouldn’t, but you could.
Price & Specs:
- Model: IWC Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Top Gun Lake Tahoe
- Ref: IW503008
- Case/dial: 46.5mm diameter x 15.5mm height, white ceramic case, matte black dial
- Water resistance: 60m (6 bar)
- Movement: IWC calibre 52615, automatic, in-house, Pellaton self-winding system, 386 parts, 54 jewels
- Frequency: 28,800 vph (4 Hz)
- Power reserve: 168 hours (7 days)
- Functions: Hours, minutes, perpetual Calendar with displays for the date, day, month, year in four digits and perpetual moon phase for both northern and southern hemispheres, power reserve display
- Strap: White rubber with textile inlay and deployant clasp
- Price/availability: £34,900