Countless brands today produce variations of the storied pilot watches then worn by the German Luftwaffe. So many, in fact, that this historic archetype suffers, to some degree, the same fate as the Rolex Submariner. When an iconic design is imitated endlessly, it becomes forgettable in all instances but the original. A pilot watch from Steinhart might look and feel like an IWC Pilot, but the Steinhart only resembles what a German pilot watch might have been in the 1940s and possesses no real military or aviation credentials. It may be a well made product for an affordable price, but Steinhart wasn’t producing military issue watches in wartime. On the other hand, IWC, among several other brands, was.
Alpina boasts a military history and, in fact, they produced watches for the Luftwaffe as well, but they weren’t of the “B-Uhr” or “Flieger” type. The brand wasn’t one of the original group that produced these watches for German military pilots, and I appreciate that it doesn’t pretend to be one by flooding its Startimer collection with black and white dials and blued hands. In addition to color choices, the company continues to differentiate its pilot lineup by improvising the dial proportions, casing and strap, resulting in a watch that undeniably celebrates mid-century military aviation but also catches attention and stays in memory as something unique.
It was my pleasure to take a look at the latest addition to the Startimer collection, dubbed the “Black Star,” released at Baselworld this year. Frankly, I have a long list of watches I want to spend a week with, but the Startimer was never on it. While visiting the TimeCrafters show at the Park Avenue Armory in New York earlier this month, it caught me by surprise and on sight I knew I needed to take it for a spin.
The dial is flieger-inspired but fresh and capable of standing on its own
On first sight, the Black Star proves itself as not just another “me too” flieger. A gray sunray dial serves as the backdrop, instantly a deviation from your standard pilot piece, but the watch truly cements its personality through the depth, sizing and proportions of its dial elements. The applied Arabic numerals, coated with SuperLumiNova, are rendered in a more slender font and are more pronounced to complement the oversized case and promote legibility day or night. Around the dial is a raised chapter ring with a minutes track, and the hour markers at the poles of the dial extend from the elevated chapter dial onto the gray surface, making them twice as tall as the Arabic markers and lending a breathtaking depth to the dial. Alpina substituted its logo in place of the familiar triangle and two dots often seen at the 12 o’clock position of most fliegers, a move that enables the watch to establish its role as an aviation instrument and at the same time demonstrate its originality. All of the dial markers are stroked with a thin polished steel border, a luxurious treatment that let’s the dial offer an occasional secretive glimmer in the right light.
A bi-compax chronograph layout keeps the dial symmetrical and uncluttered. Enlarged to suit the size of the watch, the two black registers side-by-side are like the dial’s two wide open eyes staring back at you. At 9 o’clock is the running seconds and at 3 o’clock is the 30-minute totalizer for the chronograph. Both have white hands and contrast sharply with their circular-grained backgrounds. The primary hour and minute hands of the Black Star are similarly shaped to traditional flieger hands, but Alpina used white instead of blue. Counterbalancing the white stopwatch seconds hand is a red painted Alpina triangle.
Much of allure of the dial is owed to the crystal. The domed sapphire crystal is well treated with anti-reflective coating, offering a perfectly clear line of sight to the dial at all angles.
A large but sleek and stealthy case earns its namesake
This Startimer has a black PVD-coated stainless steel case measuring 44mm x 53mm x 14mm and rated water resistant to 100m. Its black coating is the reason for its nickname and is the only differentiating characteristic between the standard steel Pilot Auto Chrono in the Startimer collection. This variation boasts an overall stealthy appearance with mostly brushed surfaces with polished details, like the bezel and the outside edges of the lugs.
On the right side of the case, matching pushers and a screwdown crown protrude proudly. When it comes to operating crowns and pushers, it doesn’t get any easier than with the Startimer. The oversized crown is notched, easy to grab and twist; the pushers, which unfortunately do have a tiny bit of play, have a large surface area for a sure press.
Caliber AL-860 (SW-500)
Through the sapphire crystal exhibition case back, you can see the AL-860 caliber, the same movement used in the Alpiner Chronograph 4 we recently covered, which is based on the Sellita SW-500 with a custom Alpina rotor. The SW-500 is a 30-jewel automatic dual-register chronograph movement with 46 hours of power reserve.
The strap is where the Startimer stumbles
The Black Star’s biggest flaw lies in its strap and buckle. It’s a black calf leather strap, luxuriously soft but extraordinarily thick at 5mm and, though it tapers to about 2.5mm once the holes begin, the bulk is visible on the wrist. Most watches have the buckle end of the strap on top of the watch and the loose end on the bottom, but some brands reverse them. It’s not uncommon on pilot watches, but if you’re used to the traditional orientation, then this takes time to adapt to as it sits on the wrist differently. The thickness (and length) of the leather is emphasized by the way the strap fastens because the strap is doubled over on the inside of the wrist, a sight that likely you’re unfamiliar with. A long and sturdy strap is part of the pilot watch vibe, but the case isn’t that unruly to justify so much leather, although I recognize that’s a matter of personal taste.
Further, the PVD-coated deployant buckle is of the snap variety and doesn’t utilize a push button release system, which concerns me for two reasons. First, in my experience, these buckles are more susceptible to wear and lose security; second, these clasps are usually reserved for cheaper watches and I’m underwhelmed to see this type of buckle on a mid-range timepiece. I’d rather Alpina have implemented a standard pin buckle. Finally, my wrist is 6.75 inches, and I couldn’t find a comfortable fit. The second-to-last pin hole left the watch too loose on the wrist and the last one was nearly causing the strap to cut off my circulation. If I were to own this watch, I’d require a strap change, but it’s worth noting that there isn’t a lot of room between the case and spring bars, so weaving on a thick NATO, like a Crown & Buckle HD NATO, won’t work. However, you should have no problems whatsoever fitting a regular NATO or a new leather strap.
With the right strap, the Black Star would feel and look great on the wrist in a variety of situations. It’s sizable and hefty but its dimensions and weight are easily manageable and fall in line with contemporary sport and pilot watches. This is one of the most wearable 44mm watches I’ve worn. It works as an everyday watch, although you may encounter difficulty sliding the 14mm case beneath a shirt cuff. You should expect the size and high-contrast dial to attract attention at the office, although it’s sophisticated in its design and far from ostentatious. It’s a bold watch and it’s unlikely that your coworkers will have seen anything else like it.
The Final Word
The Black Star retails for €2,350, which is about $3,200 USD at the time of this writing. If you’re in the market for a flieger pilot chronograph, then the Alpina Startimer isn’t your best value. Brands like Archimede, Steinhart and even Stowa and Laco, two of the original WWII flieger producers, offer pilot chronographs for $1,000 less than the Alpina Startimer. However, if you want a handsome original design that isn’t being reproduced by everyone and their brothers, then the Startimer is worth your consideration. The dial has clearly been influenced by the pilot watches of yore, but it’s one-of-a-kind in its own right, and it proves that Alpina sweats the details. On looks alone, the Black Star appears like a more expensive watch than it really is.
Spending over $3,000 on a watch knowing that I’ll forgo the OEM strap is a bit of a hurdle for me to get over, but I know many collectors who couldn’t care less about OEM straps. They’ve purchased Rolexes and swapped the steel bracelets in favor of leather or NATO without ever looking back. If this sounds like you, then maybe the Startimer earns a spot on your wish list.