25 January 2012

Ticino Big Pilot watch review

An homage to the classic German B-uhr, the Luftwaffe navigator's watch.

By In Gear, Style 11 min read

During the second World War the German Luftwaffe pilots wore wristwatches strapped to the outside of their flightsuits with a massive 55mm case. They were commonly referred to as B-uhr for Beobachtungs-uhr – Observer’s watch. As pilot watches they needed to be accurate (highly necessary for navigation), easily readable and reliable – they were a critical part of a pilot’s equipment. With such historical cachet it’s no wonder that the B-uhr design has survived beyond the World War and made a transition into civilian life. Many homages to the original B-uhr design have been made in smaller, more wearable sizes than the original 55mm. This Ticino is one of them.

Ticino Big Pilot
Ticino Big Pilot in profile

The Reichsluftfahrtministerium or Imperial Air Ministry of Germany during World War 2 ordered five German watchmakers to build the B-uhr watches: A. Lange & Sohne, IWC, Wempe, Stowa and Laco. Each of these factories now builds their own version of the classic B-uhr design and are considered by some to be the only ‘true’ brands for a B-uhr. However, it’s hard to accuse any other brand of stealing when the design for the watch was a military standard originally conceived almost 70 years ago.

An original WW2 B-uhr by IWC, via Google

The B-uhr watches had 55mm cases, large crowns that could be handled while wearing gloves, hacking center seconds (so they could be synchronized to a reference mother clock) and ran on hand-wound pocket watch movements because they were more accurate than the traditional wristwatch movements available at the time. Two dial designs were used during the war, the early type A with only hour markers on an outside ring and the later type B, with hour markers on an inside ring and minute markers on the outside. Personally, I’m more of a fan of the minimalistic type A dial, but both designs are equally popular with WIS.

Type A and type B dial comparison, via Google

Obviously a 55mm watch can’t be worn seriously by 99% of the general population, so the various B-uhr makers have made different versions ranging from 39mm (e.g. Archimede Pilot L) to 47mm (e.g. IWC Big Pilot) and then kitted them out with a variety of different movements and functions (power reserve, chronograph, etc). All in all it’s hard to define ‘the watch’ that the Ticino is trying to be an homage of, but you’re getting the general idea of the style watch they’re striving for.

How the Laco 55mm reissue looks on a normal wrist, via Google

Ticino is a watch company that builds several types of homages and some rebranded OEM models. They only appear to be available through Sizzlin’ Watches webshop or eBay store, which makes me suspect that Ticino and Sizzlin’ are in fact one and the same entity. They sell several B-uhr variations of which the so-called Big Pilot is a WIS favourite; with its 47mm case, sterile dial, blued hands, center seconds and large diamond crown it hits a lot of the right notes. It’s called the Big Pilot in deference to IWC’s Big Pilot, which has a different dial layout but is also 47mm. Ticino’s other B-uhr homages, which includes several 44mm versions, differ notably from the Big Pilot by being hand-wound (6497 based), having a sub-dial at 9 ‘o clock for the running seconds and not having blued hands. I bought my Ticino Big Pilot at the end of April 2009 for a reduced price through Sizzlin’ Watches offer on WatchUSeek. For a mere $130 plus $10 shipping to the Netherlands I had my own B-uhr.

The Ticino runs on a non-hacking automatic Miyota 8200 movement. These Japanese (partly owned by Citizen) Miyota movements are well regarded and considered to be workhorse movements – nothing extremely special or fancy about them, but they’ll function reliably and can take a beating. The watch has 21 jewels, runs at a comfortable 21600 bph and winds uni-directionally, clockwise when facing the watch from the front. The 8200 uses an indirectly driven seconds hand which means that it can, if badly adjusted, stutter while sweeping across the dial – my Ticino however does not suffer from this problem.

Miyota 8200 movement, via Google

When googling for Miyota 8200s on Google you find several different kind of rotors used. The Ticino rotor is a half-circle without any holes, engraved “Miyota Co. Unadjusted Japan 21 Jewels” around the edge and stamped with the Ticino logo and brandname underneath. The rotor goes around pretty silently, even when it’s spinning freely, but it does make a soft ratcheting sound when the rotor winds up the watch. Like many automatic movements there’s not much to look at with the rotor blocking most of the view, and what you can see is not that pretty. No measures have been taken to dress up the movement either, none of the blued screws or pearlage we’ve seen on similarly priced Chinese movements. But like the previously mentioned workhorse moniker implies, it does what it has to do just fine.

Ticino Big Pilot rear case shot from Sizzlin’ Watches

The case is a nice and hefty 47mm piece with a fully brushed finish all over. Interestingly the case turns out to come from the same factory as the (far more expensive) Steinhart/Debaufre 47mm B-uhr cases. I put my Big Pilot next to a limited edition 47mm Steinhart and was surprised to find that the cases only differed in caseback – the Ticino was fitted with a signed display caseback, while the Steinhart had an engraved closed back. The diamond crown is pleasantly big and gives the watch that popular distinctive b-uhr look. It’s also very easy to hold and wind. The display caseback has a relatively small glass porthole, about the size of the rotor, showing us only the equally small movement and none of the empty space surrounding it. Though this does drive home that the movement is really too small for such a big watch, it’s still good that they didn’t expose the entire empty case for the world to see.

The B-uhr type A dial is a classic design that gives brands little freedom to deviate from, but there’s still a few points where a watch can differ from it’s many cousins. The choice of font and the size and placement of the numerals relative to the markers can make the difference between a sloppy also-ran or an impressive flieger watch. On the Ticino there’s not much to complain about as everything looks fine, very well balanced. The font is noticeably less bold than the dial on IWC’s Big Pilot, but that is actually an improvement in my opinion. It’s also noticeably sterile – no cheap brandname or logo to spoil the looks of this watch, very much a plus. Lume on the other hand is quite disappointing. There’s more than enough room to apply it, considering the relatively huge numerals and markers, but the poor quality of the lume used just doesn’t help. They fade out within half an hour of being exposed.

Ticino Big Pilot
Dial view

The hands are painted an appealing steel blue, with large patches of lume on the minute and hour hand. The seconds hand is a long, thin needle with a vane at the tail end. Unlike the other hands the seconds hand has no lume which makes it invisible in the dark. Historically inaccurate too: the original seconds hand was covered in lume from the turning point to the tip. Lume is as disappointing on the hands as on the dial, dying out far too soon to be usable. But the contrast between the white markers and hands against the black dial do give the watch enough visibility for normal non-pitchblack night use – except for that seconds hand, which just disappears.

Update: The 2010 revision of the Big Pilot model has a lumed seconds hand! I wonder if they read my review 🙂

2010 Big Pilot from Sizzlin Watches website

The watch has a lightly domed mineral crystal up front and a small, flat mineral crystal on the displayback. According to Ticino both sides are DLC coated for extra hardness, though I have no idea how this would compare to standard mineral or sapphire glass. I can only say that the glass has had no scratches almost 4 months into ownership. Neither side has any AR coating.

Ticino Big Pilot front and strap shot from Sizzlin’ Watches

Traditionally a B-uhr strap needs to have two rivets at the lug end of each strap part. In the old days this was functional because the rivets actually attached the open-ended strap to the watch, but nowadays the rivets are purely for show and straps are attached with regular springbars. The strap that comes with the Big Pilot is a black calf with a double rivet look. It’s not too bad and actually wearable, though rather thin and stiff. But what I really wanted was a riveted brown leather flieger strap, the traditional choice for any B-uhr, so I bought a 22mm Steinhart strap that looked a bit like IWC’s stock Big Pilot strap and mounted it in reverse.

IWC mounts the strap the other way around on their Big Pilot

Yeah, I’m trying much too hard to copy the IWC, but the deployant does actually wear better on the wrist this way around 🙂

Ticino Big Pilot
My Ticino on the Steinhart strap

Winding the crown winds the watch. Pull out the crown to first position to… uh… set the date. Yes, the date, on a non-date watch. The datewheel, you see, is hidden underneath the dial. You can hear it clicking and rotating when you turn the crown. It’s not that distracting but I would have preferred a movement without a datewheel, this just seems like a rather amateurish solution. Pull out the crown to the second position and you can set the time. It winds automatically while worn and is protected from overwinding (like all automatics).

In my opinion every collection needs a B-uhr. It’s the quintessential WW2 watch with excellent visual design and a beautiful wrist presence. The Ticino is an inexpensive B-uhr with a lot going for it, giving it excellent price/performance value. There’s really nothing else in this price range (< $150) that has all the features like blued hands, center seconds, a sterile dial and diamond crown – which is how I personally like my B-uhrs. There are several less expensive B-uhr homages available from Chinese makers (Parnis, Herc, etc) that don’t quite have these options and many far more expensive Swiss/German B-uhr’s like Archimedes, Steinhart and Laco that do. But the Ticino seems to have taken up an interesting place in the price range. Sure it has its faults: bad lume, mineral crystal, mediocre strap… but we’ve kinda gotten used to that in this homage segment. They don’t really bother me. What does bother me on the other hand is its massive 47mm size. Now this is the day and age of huge fashion watches, where even 50+ mm is starting to become normal, but you’ve got to consider your own physique. With my 6 inch wrists I feel that I can wear it only casually, but even that is stretching it. If you’ve got thin wrists, you’re really better off looking at some of the smaller models that are around. Sadly, you’ll also have to skip some of the perks of the Ticino or upgrade your budget to Stowa amounts. All in all, I’d recommend the Ticino Big Pilot – if you’re man enough to wear it.

And if anybody spots a 40-44mm B-uhr with my wishlist (blued center hands, sterile type A dial, diamond crown) for a similar price, be sure to let me know. Can’t wait to own a B-uhr that I could actually fit under a shirt 😉

Due to size issues I have sold this watch in 2010 and can no longer provide updates on the durability of this watch. Furthermore, as of january 2012 Sizzlin’ Watches now sells an upgraded version of this watch, featuring a Chinese ETA2824 clone from SeaGull, a scratchproof AR-coated sapphire crystal, closed caseback and C1 superlume. While this does address most of the quality issues I had with my original Ticino, the price increase puts it dangerously close to competitors from more well-known brands.

  1. MC 15 October 2012

    “While this does address most of the quality issues I had with my original Ticino, the price increase puts it dangerously close to competitors from more well-known brands.”

    Which competitors does it get close to? It’s still only ~$200. The only close competitor I know of is Maratac. Am interested in your response. Thank you for your review.

    • Guy 16 October 2012

      Hi MC, the upgraded Ticino is $215 now. I was thinking mainly of the Laco budget Miyota based flieger series, which ran about ~$300, and for another step up the Archimede 42mm Pilot, which goes for €375. The Archimede is a stretch, but the Laco – also one of the original B-Uhr brands! – would’ve been a fine choice versus the Ticino. I’m not sure if the budget line is available anymore though, I don’t see them on the Laco shop right now.

  2. MC 18 October 2012

    Thanks for the response, Guy! I think you’re right! $190 for 42mm Ticino w/ Miyota and sapphire glass vs $270 for Laco quality (no sapphire glass), Laco wins. Now my question is Uhren von uhr w/ ETA for $335 vs the Laco… Not sure if the ETA wins out over the original brand quality… What would you do? My first real watch purchase, planning to wear everyday.

    • Guy 18 October 2012

      Between those two I’d always pick the Laco. Not only does the Laco have the historical cachet, I just can’t get myself to overlook the date window so horribly placed on the UHR watches. It just sticks out so badly, cutting into the numeral 3. The ETA movement on the inside doesn’t make up for that outside.

      Also, if the Maratec Pilot is available to you (they don’t ship to the NL) and you appreciate their more modern take on the b-uhr, that is one sweet watch. I would probably pick their MidSized model over any of the other budget models mentioned here if I wasn’t such a stickler for the history 🙂

What do you think?