Today we’ll be taking a very close look at the Oris Big Crown ProPilot Calibre 111, a fascinating watch that combines a special in-house movement with great pilot watch looks. For our purposes, we’ll just be calling it the Big Crown Cal. 111, which is a lot less wordy. One thing to note before we get started, however, as that this particular Big Crown model has served as a trade show piece and, consequently has a few bumps and scrapes that you won’t find on a new one. This shouldn’t worry you, as this piece will return to the Oris circuit and won’t end up with a customer.
Unlike the recent Big Crown 1917, the Cal. 111 is not a model that looks to the past for inspiration, but rather, the future. While Oris is certainly well-known for its ubiquitous use of mechanical movements, it’s oddly not recognized for in-house movements. This new watch, which has its movement in its name, is unsurprisingly a departure from this trend. Whereas most of its competitors, however, have opted to play it fairly safe with their own interpretation of a simple automatic movement, the Cal. 111 is a very ambitious attempt to separate the watch from its competition.
Stylistically, the Big Crown, while nonetheless drawing from its extensive heritage, is also forward-thinking. This isn’t a pseudo-vintage attempt, but a surprisingly contemporary and utilitarian design. It even manages to be a bit avant garde in the process. I would call this watch a tool watch, aesthetically speaking, except for its nice sunburst gray dial as opposed to a more conventional matte black dial. It’s also available in a great looking blue dial.
The star attraction of the dial is, clearly, the power reserve, a feature which Oris is deservingly quite proud of. For one thing, as the dial suggests in red writing, it has a truly impressive 10 day power reserve. When the rest of the industry is only recently catching up to Grand Seiko’s 72 hour standard, Oris shot for the moon and went not for a week, but ten full days. But this isn’t the only reason the power reserve deserves special attention. This unique complication is actually a non-linear power reserve, as the space between days increases quite radically as you approach empty. The feature probably has a bit more to do with being cool than being useful, but it does make sense: most owners aren’t going to be too bothered by whether the watch has 8 or 9 days left, but the difference between 1 and 2 days is quite significant.
The Arabic numerals are both very large and luminescent to aid in legibility, a mission at which they succeed. This also presented Oris with a chance to play a little, from a design point of view, as most watchmakers would prefer to cut a numeral in half rather than to let it overlap a subdial. Oris made the bold decision to do just the opposite, and the watch is better for it, as I’ve never been fond of bisected or otherwise disfigured numerals. Where this would not have been a viable option, namely the 3 and 9 positions, they simply used no numeral at all. This is, more or less, how I’d design the watch myself, so hats off to them.
The hands also follow a similarly utilitarian approach and they provide excellent contrast against the gray dial. Understandably, the seconds and power reserve hands aren’t luminescent, in order to enhance nighttime legibility, but it does raise a slight issue with the possibility of the watch dying while you’re wearing it at night. Without a luminescent seconds hand or power reserve hand, there’d be no way to easily see if the watch had died. Fortunately, a ten day power reserve makes this a fairly remote possibility, but it might be worth considering in future versions of the watch.
The lume, as well as the design, of the Big Crown Cal. 111 does the trick, creating an extremely legible watch at night. This is particularly true thanks to those Arabic numerals and even hour markers where there aren’t numerals, making it easy to orient the watch. The watch is moderately bright, certainly plenty usable when it’s dark or in a theater, and about what you’d expect for a pilot’s watch, and it makes the most of it due to its clean design.
Lastly, at least for the dial, we take a good look at the date. The gray backdrop does a nice job helping it blend in with the dial, but I’m not fond of the way that it cuts into the seconds subdial. I would have preferred either the date or the subdial be slightly smaller to keep from cutting into each other. Perhaps this is just consistent with their approach to overlapping numerals, but whereas I think that looks like an intentional choice, this appears more incidental, and that may be the crucial aesthetic difference. Interestingly, the date at 9:00 creates a literal line across the x-axis of the watch, from power reserve, to seconds to the date. This is a highly unusual layout, but I like unusual layouts, and I think this one works. Oris basically freed up a horizontal bar across the dial to place complications.
Another unusual feature of the Oris Big Crown Cal. 111 is the crown, and not necessarily because it’s big (although it is). It’s unusual because it’s a screw down crown, and you might be wondering why that fact would be strange. The answer is that it’s because the movement is hand wound. That means that you actually have to unscrew the crown just to keep the watch going. However, due to its extremely long power reserve, this is unlikely to be much of a hindrance. The winding itself is surprisingly smooth and requires very little effort. The trade-off, however, is that it can take a relatively long time to wind it all the way, appreciably longer than it takes to wind an ordinary-length power reserve watch. On the other hand, it's something you only have to do once every ten days.
I quite like the 44mm case here. In my opinion, it wears a little smaller than that. Sure, I’d prefer if it were 42mm or 40mm, but the overall look of the watch is consistent with it being on the large side. I’d wear it. But, more importantly, I really like the theme of the bezel, which is continued on the case back. I also like the overall brushed look of the case, which contributes to a tool watch appearance.
The case is about 13.85mm thick according to my measurements, which, while not unusually thick, is a bit on the thicker side for a manual-wind watch.
Finally, we arrive at its impressive in-house movement. The utilitarian look of the watch continues to the Cal. 111 inside, with a very simple brushed design. I think it looks tremendous and I particularly love how it fills up the case back, not unlike some IWCs.
Looking up close at the movement, we see some interesting designs, although one in particular looms over the rest.
That, of course, is its ridiculously huge single barrel, which contains what I presume to be a truly epic mainspring. In some ways, this is a more visually interesting way to implement the design relative to something like the Portofino 8 Days because there’s no bridge over it. The Cal. 111 really showcases its key feature.
Taking a closer look at the heart of the watch, we discover a few more interesting choices by Oris. It beats at the relatively low frequency of 21,600 BPH, which probably helps it achieve that great 10 day power reserve. It also doesn’t result in an unusually staccato seconds hand, due to the fact that the watch uses a seconds subdial instead of center seconds, helping to promote an illusion of smoothness.
While the smooth balance and regulator combination might be quite common, a design shared by Grand Seiko, Zenith and ETA for instance, the way it goes about it is nonetheless interesting. What you’re looking at is what I have always called a rack and pinion regulator, because, well, it’s a rack and pinion. It’s quite unusual these days, but this isn’t my first encounter with the rack and pinion. Oddly enough, I’m familiar with it because it was a design that Grand Seiko relied on quite a bit in the 1960s with movements like the 6246. How’d it end up here? That’s a great question, but one you’re going to have to ask Oris because I have precisely 0 clues. Functionally speaking, however, there is no mystery. It’s just a clever way to set up a fine regulation mechanism and it’ll work like most other competing designs.
Overall, the Cal. 111 (as well as its brethren) is not a revolutionary new movement, but it is an amazing achievement for the price point of $5,600. Arguably, the closest competitor of the Big Crown is the IWC Big Pilot’s Watch, with its 7 day power reserve, but that’s more than twice as expensive. I’m also a huge fan of hand wound movements, so to get a new one in a world filled to the brim with automatics is a real gift, and particularly gutsy when you realize they would be unable to use their trademark red rotor on their own in-house movement. It’s also great to see a movement that’s made to fit modern case sizes, although this was almost necessary given that huge mainspring.
So that’s the Oris Big Crown ProPilot Calibre 111. Oris Big Crowns have been extreme popular among fans of pilot’s watches long before they were available with this in-house movement, so as long as you’re not opposed to winding the movement yourself from time to time, this should be a surefire hit. I'm really hoping we see more Oris movements down the road because they seem to be focused on producing something unique instead of making yet another ETA 2824 substitute.