The Zenith Type 20 Extra Special was one of the first watches from a major brand to go bronze, the trendiest material in the industry today, but it’s also one of the best.
There’s no question that bronze is in something of a renaissance in contemporary watchmaking. Zenith didn’t start it, but they are one of the best, being experts in vintage-looking watches already. Making the Type 20 more interesting is that it’s a pilot’s watch while most bronze watches are maritime inspired.
So the Type 20 Extra Special Bronze is a watch that is, in many ways (bronze aside), the resurrection of Zenith’s popular historical pilot’s watches. That helps shed some light on the elephant in the room, its unusual name. Vintage Zeniths literally had SPECIAL written on their dial, and Extra Special was one of those vintage designations. These are “extra” hard to find, so please click here to see an example of one.
With that out of the way we can really focus on why the watch is so popular. Setting the case aside for the moment, the charm of the Type 20 is in this ultra-bold dial. It’s a tool watch in the conventional sense of the word, but in a sea (sky?) of flieger clones, Zenith’s designs really stand out. The first half of the equation can be found in these huge cathedral hands, a touch that feels particularly old-school. They also increase legibility because no hand shares the same shape with any other, important for quickly reading a watch in adverse conditions.
The massive, stylized Arabic numerals are the second half of the equation. They offer incredible contrast against the matte black dial and thanks to that unique font, they also feel novel and, dare I say it, special.
Like other Type 20s, the Extra Special offers class-leading lume. This watch is incredibly easy to read at night, both due to the intensity and shape of the lume. Note that the watch is intrinsically easy to orient because of the large, luminescent numerals. The seconds hand is thoughtfully minimized while the shape of the hour and minute hands is unmistakably different. Today this watch is a vintage throwback, but make no mistake, almost every design decision that this watch borrows was created not for aesthetic flourish, but to make it a better tool.
This is actually the second Type 20 Extra Special that’s available, the first one being steel. The 45mm bronze model is far more popular though as it really, really stands out from the crowd. 45mm is not incredibly huge, at least not by today’s standards, but put that in bronze and you’re going to make a statement. Zenith apparently used an alloy that will patina particularly quickly. This will not only contribute to the aged, vintage look of the watch, but in a year or two, every bronze Type 20 will essentially be a unique one-off.
The bronze composition is certainly not the only eye catching thing about the watch though. That onion crown is huge! These crowns make it extremely easy to set and wind the watch, even if you’re wearing gloves.
Although its 45mm size is undeniably large, small lugs restrict its lug to lug dimension to a relatively normal 54mm. The thickness is surprisingly tame for a contemporary watch of this size at a rather mundane 14.2mm.
Given that it’s a vintage tool watch, a solid back is no surprise, but the composition of the back might be. It’s not bronze, which might disappoint some. This, however, is a thoughtful decision to keep the copper from oxidizing on your wrist. In fact, Zenith even avoided steel, which irritates a small number of people’s skin, in favor of hypoallergenic titanium.
Unfortunately, the great case back blocks our view of the in-house Elite 679 automatic, but this is pretty close to what it’d look like if you took the case back off (the movement would be smaller, but hey, artistic license and all). The Elite isn’t as celebrated as its older El Primero brother, but it’s a great movement in its own right and even has a few advantages, like its thinness and the ability to hack.
So there’s the Type 20 Extra Special Bronze. If you can put its verbose name aside, it’s a very special watch indeed. There aren’t a lot of big name, in-house options for bronze pilot’s watches these days, at least outside of Zenith’s own motorcycle/airplane mashup the Ton-Up, so if that’s what you’re looking for, Zenith has pretty much cornered the market. Your choices get considerably better if you’re looking at diving watches, where I would also recommend the Tudor Black Bay Bronze.