IWC is based in Schaffhausen in the north-east of Switzerland, separated from Germany by the mighty Rhine and very close to the Rhine Falls, Europe’s largest waterfall. But one could say that Schaffhausen is an island in Switzerland’s watchmaking industry, since the vast majority of the country’s manufacturers are based in the French-speaking part of the country.
The company has made its name internationally through a passion for innovative solutions and technical inventiveness. As one of the world’s leading premium brands in the luxury watch segment, IWC creates masterpieces of haute horlogerie, which combine engineering and precision with exclusive design. The reputation of the brand from Schaffhausen is founded not least on the fact that its highly qualified employees master every step of the production process behind in-house movements and complications such as the minute repeater, the tourbillon and the perpetual calendar. For the designers and construction specialists at IWC, the claim to excellence, “Probus Scafusia” – “Craftsmanship made in Schaffhausen”, which was first formulated in 1903, is not only an enormous challenge; it is also their great passion.
And, by the way, few brands are as celebrity aware as IWC. Kevin Spacey is a long-term friend of the brand, and even produced a play, Leo and Lisa, in a celebration of its iconic Da Vinci line. Ewan McGregor is a regular visitor to IWC’s stand at the SIHH watch fair, while Cate Blanchett and Boris Becker are often seen brandishing their IWCs around Geneva.
Needless to say, I am also a huge fan of IWC. So it was only a matter of time until I got to visit their headquarters in Schaffhausen. And indeed, I did, a few weeks ago.
My favourite IWC
They say the old ones are the best, and that’s certainly true in the case of IWC’s Portuguese line, which harks back to a model made in 1939 at the request of a couple of Portuguese watch importers who believed there would be a demand for a large wristwatch with the accuracy of a marine chronometer. IWC installed a highly accurate pocket-watch movement in a plain 41.5mm case with the option of simple black or silvered dials. The Portuguese was made in small numbers until 1958 before being revived for IWC’s 125th anniversary in 1993. Many regard it as the quintessential IWC, and various versions are available; the most covetable is the Portuguese Chronograph 3714 with its crisp, vertical sub-dial layout – a classic piece that seems impossible to improve upon.
Do I really need to say more? Never ending love justified.
The IWC woman
In 1999, an unusual and provocative advertising campaign proclaimed that “men’s watches” were the Schaffhausen-based watch manufacturer’s core business. In terms of size and design, IWC’s indisputably masculine timepieces such as the Big Pilot’s Watch and the Portuguese became the style templates for men’s watches worldwide. The IWC brand became synonymous with masculine timepieces and, in the perception of watch aficionados, an “official supplier to men”.
But in the brand’s long history, IWC produced not only watches that were “Engineered for men” but also women’s watches with the same claims to sophisticated technology and quality as the men’s wristwatch collection. Indeed, it was women during the 1920s who transformed the wristwatch into the must-have fashion accessory after the First World War, when men were still more interested in the functions provided by the first wristwatches. And do note this: in the 1970s, women purchased a third of the watches manufactured by IWC.
But to me, these masterpieces are engineered for men whose home port is victory. For heroes, even. Be it pilots, sailors, architects, designers. And heroes know no sexes. You can be a woman and struggle with hybrid careers, be as strong, and as heroic as a man, while being feminine.
What all IWC lovers, men and women, definitely share is strong work ethics, the stubbornness to be the absolute best, and the courage to fight for what they dream of. Quietly and steadily. Gracefully even.
Being in Schaffhausen, IWC was gracious enough to allow me access inside their Museum. Because history is easier to absorb, while in front of you, behind glass vitrines, where you can almost touch and feel it.
Inside, I found some of the earliest IWC watches on record, and all of the classics pieces from the brand’s superb history, including many that act as the inspiration for today’s collection – think original Portuguese pieces from 1939, 1950s MKXI pilot’s watches, late 60s Aquatimers, and the original Genta-designed Ingenieur SL.
Plus, I learned that all foundations of watch manufacture in Schaffhausen were laid by an American, Florentine Ariosto Jones in 1868.
Boston watchmaker Florentine Ariosto Jones founded the “International Watch Co.” in Schaffhausen, far from the watchmaking centres of French-speaking Switzerland. His plan was to bring together progressive American production techniques with the skilled craftsmanship for which Swiss watchmakers were renowned. And it was in Schaffhausen that he found ideal conditions: modern factory premises, a hydropower plant driven by the Rhine to run his machines and, not least, a centuries-old horological tradition. The company’s excellent reputation was established right from the start with the very first Jones calibre named after its founder. In 1885, IWC demonstrated its innovative spirit in the Pallweber pocket watches, with their revolutionary digital display for hours and minutes. And it was the end of the 19th century that saw the appearance of IWC’s first wristwatches featuring the 64-calibre pocket watch movement. The rest… Well, the rest is definitely history. In the making.
Inside the IWC laboratories
IWC’s watch families – the Pilot’s Watches, Portuguese, Ingenieur, Aquatimer, Da Vinci and Portofino – look back on a long tradition. They attest the innovation of the engineers in Schaffhausen through four generations and embrace the broad range of the company’s watchmaking expertise: from robust watches for everyday use to professional sports watches and the complexities of haute horlogerie at its finest. These are joined by watch specialities such as the Grande Complication and the IWC Vintage Collection.
A finely-made watch must excel in both everyday and adverse environments. To be assured of this, IWC has devoted a state-of-the-art laboratory in Schaffhausen so that its watches meet rigorous standards. Inside, a skilled materials engineer, Dominic Forster, heads a team of seven who devise and then implement all sorts of challenging tests.
The idea is to ascertain that every part of each watch will work perfectly even when subjected to abuse. The components undergo intentional torture. They are heated, jarred, pushed and pulled. To accomplish this systematic stress, IWC’s extensive testing laboratory has ingenious equipment that stretches watch components to their limits. The lab is not simply a place where watches are measured to ensure that exacting tolerances are met. Instead, it is where every part is used, abused, inspected and then evaluated to extraordinary standards.
And, yes. I became an IWC engineer – for one day! Following the instructions of the absolute best skilled professionals, I was able to put together the winding mechanism of a precious IWC watch – without complications such as the minute repeater, the tourbillon and the perpetual calendar, though. What I learned from those tough hours spent there with the IWC staff, is that it simply is not enough to be a specialist and a grand engineer. One should also possess endless patience. Which means passion and dedication.
As a premium brand in the international luxury watch segment, IWC has committed itself to the manufacture of top-quality products in haute horlogerie. More than 1100 employees, including 120 eminently qualified watchmakers, are involved in the development, manufacture and distribution of perfect mechanical masterpieces. The renowned watch manufacturer in eastern Switzerland has over 900 sales outlets worldwide, including more than 60 IWC boutiques in cities such as New York, Beijing, Dubai, Hong Kong, Geneva, Paris and Moscow. Since 2000, the company has been part of the Swiss Richemont Group.
Last but certainly not least, the company takes its economic, social and ecological responsibilities seriously, as borne out by a wide range of internal activities as well as partnerships and joint ventures in every corner of the globe. Its social commitment, for example, is best demonstrated by its support for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, which works for physically and socially handicapped children and young people worldwide. In the interests of ecological sustainability, IWC supports the Charles Darwin Foundation – among others – in its struggle to maintain the flora and fauna on the Galapagos Islands. Closer to home, the company uses green energy, recycles waste heat and ensures that its operations are CO²-neutral.
[All images shot with my Olympus Pen EPL-7.]