Function Meets Emotion at this Historic Swiss Watchmaker
A muffled ding from the loudspeaker is followed by a directive in a foreign language, prompting a downward glance at your wrist. In that fluid universal gesture, releasing the watch from the cover of your shirt cuff, you angle the face toward your eyeline. Ten minutes until departure. You take a final sip of your espresso, shoulder your single suitcase and head for platform number seven.
Many years later, you find yourself in the same station. It’s recognizable, even with its many changes. You have changed too. Your traveling party numbers four—a wife and two grown children. A similar noise from the loudspeaker, albeit colder, cleaner this time, sends your eyes to your wrist. The dial presents you with the hour and minute, yes. It also sends you somewhere deeper in your thoughts. A flood of memories, emotions, adventures. All inspired by this constant companion, a little machine that keeps the time.
The significance of a watch, particularly a mechanical watch crafted to last generations, goes well beyond its physical construction.
“Yes, we need engineering. Yes, we need performance. Yes, you need quality,” says Christoph Grainger-Herr, CEO of IWC Watches. “But what really makes the difference between just a functional object and an object of beauty is simply the power of design.
Established in 1868 in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, on the banks of the Rhine River, IWC owes much of its own success and longevity to an overarching emphasis on design. Unique for a Swiss watch company, it was actually founded by an American, Florentine Ariosto Jones, who set out for Europe following his time in the Union Army.
At the time, the town was already a “hub of engineering, automotive component manufacturing, train manufacturing,” says Grainger-Herr. Merging American spirit and systems with a respect for Swiss craftsmanship, Jones found Schaffhausen to be the ideal setting for his watchmaking endeavors.
The devotion to harnessing and preserving craftsmanship continues today.
“We train our own watchmakers and our own engineers at IWC, and we often have families that are third or fourth-generation watchmakers,” notes Grainger-Herr.
With the modern shift to all things digital, you might think that timepieces of this class would be at risk of tumbling into obscurity. But it’s not something the watch world hasn’t already encountered, according to Grainger-Herr, citing the “first quartz crisis” as the most pertinent historical reference for the present disruption.
“But what really makes the difference between just a functional object and an
object of beauty is simply the power of design.”
“Quartz watches suddenly made displaying the time precisely so much more efficient and so much cheaper,” he says. “That was really the moment when mechanical watches transcended from something functional into something highly emotional.”
When speaking about longevity, a high-end quartz design may last several decades. The inexpensive, highly accurate technology has spawned plenty of successful iterations over the years, including at IWC itself.
With proper upkeep and maintenance, though, a fine mechanical watch will keep ticking for centuries. The best designs can, and should, outlive us all, and our children too. You could spend the rest of your own life understanding all the intricacies and complications that power the most refined mechanical movements. What makes these watches such powerful symbols, though, comes down to their human element.
“It’s a machine with a heartbeat, and it’s something that speaks to people because it’s not clinically mass-replicated,” Grainger-Herr says. “One human being has put an object together to last forever that you can enjoy every single day of your life.”
In terms of signature IWC timepieces, the Pilot’s watch and Portugieser families are perhaps the most synonymous with the brand. Both were initially purpose-built tools to assist during aeronautical and nautical adventures, respectively. Before the days of GPS, precise timekeeping in these pursuits was not just a benefit of owning a quality watch. It could be the difference between life and death.
Modern examples are still inspired by the DNA and pure aesthetics of these original designs.
The Pilot’s watch, with its large numerals and dial, was engineered for clarity and legibility in flight, an extension of cockpit instruments from the 1930s. The oversized crown on the side allowed the pilot to make adjustments while wearing gloves.
The Portugieser, a design thought to have originated as a commission request from a wholesaler in Portugal, took the accuracy, functionality and durability of IWC’s respected pocket watch movement and formed it into a model that would fit on the wrist during seafaring expeditions.
In terms of modern innovation at IWC, the month of April in 1985 holds special significance. For five years, master watchmaker Kurt Klaus had been working toward a revolutionary spin on the perpetual calendar. His imagination took final form in the watch known as the Da Vinci Ref. 3750, which debuted at the international show in Basel.
Inside lived a “a preprogrammed calendar for 499 years, that will know every single year, every leap year, every month, every day, every day of the week, and show the moon correctly for the northern and southern hemisphere in our double moon phase indication,” Grainger-Herr notes. “And to be able to control it with a single crown on the side of the watch case? It’s really an absolute masterpiece.”
This feature has come to define the modern era at IWC, and has even been incorporated into examples from the Pilot’s watch and Portugieser families. The craftsmanship within the perpetual calendar is stirring. Wearing something on your wrist that will function into eternity is equal parts humbling and inspiring.
For such small objects, these finely crafted timepieces possess an extraordinary amount of power. Apart from their precision, and inherent beauty, a cherished watch always “grounds us again in who we are as a person,” says Grainger-Herr.
This cosmic connection helps shape an enviable legacy for one of the world’s great watchmaking operations, reminding us that a special watch is not just a timekeeper. It’s a part of you.