Today, IWC is one of the most exciting watch brands around. Its watches are seen on the wrists of American actor Bradley Cooper, specifically the Big Pilot with seven-day power reserve (an upgraded version of the watch worn by Orlando Bloom), Lewis Hamilton, and even sharing the screen with Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz in The Bourne Legacy and Michael Douglas and Shia LeBeouf in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. The watches are big, bold, unabashedly masculine, symbols of power from the wrist backed by the brand’s history as a supplier to the military and its solid reputation for creating ultra-reliable tool watches.

Bradley Cooper wearing Big Pilot watch
Bradley Cooper wearing Big Pilot watch
Lewis Hamilton wearing Big Pilot watch
Lewis Hamilton wearing Big Pilot watch

But what you may not know is that quietly behind the scenes in the sleepy town of Schaffhausen, IWC has been one of the single greatest innovators in Swiss watchmaking. It was the first brand to industrialize the split-seconds chronograph, the minute repeater and the perpetual calendar. And in each instance, it brought a new level of reliability to these mechanisms. It was the first brand to create a luxury dive watch with a built-in depth gauge and make seven days of power reserve accessible to the average watch buyer. But it’s in the world of material innovation for its cases, in particular, that IWC has been uniquely groundbreaking. In fact, if it wasn’t for IWC, two of the materials used most commonly in Swiss luxury watches, the ultra-light and strong titanium and the totally scratchproof ceramic, would have never entered the world of high watchmaking. Here’s how it happened.

Titanium

Titanium is so damnably strong and crazily resistant that it was used extensively in the US Air Force’s spy plane SR-71 Blackbird that for over 30 years held the record as the fastest plane ever created. At its top speed of over 3,500 kilometers an hour, most metals would simply melt and disintegrate because of the heat generated by aerodynamic resistance. But not titanium. The Blackbird was so fast that standard operational procedure when a surface-to air missile was fired was simply to outrun it. The Blackbird could only be produced by fabricating its skin and structure largely from titanium.

SR-71 Blackbird over Sierra Nevada Mountains of California (Image: USAF/Judson Brohmer)
SR-71 Blackbird over Sierra Nevada Mountains of California (Image: USAF/Judson Brohmer)

But how IWC became the first watch brand in the world to create a watch made from this extraordinary material is really the tale of two extraordinary visionaries. The first is Ferdinand Alexander “Butzi” Porsche, son of the automobile company’s founder and designer of its halcyon icon, the 911. Amazingly, 10 years after the launch of the 911, in the ultimate mic drop, he stepped away from the car industry to set up his own design firm with a focus on applying his sleek minimalist aesthetics and capacity for mechanically ingenious solutions to luxury objects like sunglasses, lighters and watches. The other was Günter Blümlein, the man in charge of managing German industrial group VDO’s watch brands IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre (and later A. Lange & Söhne).

Ferdinand Porsche
Ferdinand Porsche
Gunter Blumlein
Gunter Blumlein

In the late ’70s, the watchmaking industry was reeling from the assault of cheap Japanese-made quartz watches and Blümlein recognized that the only way for IWC to survive was to reach all-new audiences. In his collaboration with Porsche, he dreamed up an extraordinarily futuristic chronograph watch. The Porsche Design Titan Chronograph reference 3704 was characterized by a pared-back functionality, an enticing ergonomic shape that included integrated pushers, and a case and bracelet fully fabricated from titanium.

Porsche Design Titan Chronograph ref. 3704
Porsche Design Titan Chronograph ref. 3704

Says Kurt Klaus, IWC’s former technical director, “IWC had to pioneer the technology for crafting titanium cases. One issue was that the material had a tendency to ignite during the machining process, and so we had to find new ways to cool it more effectively. It was truly stepping into the unknown.” When the watch was unveiled in 1980, it was a shockingly advanced demonstration of what the future of Swiss watchmaking could look like.

Kurt Klaus
Kurt Klaus

IWC soon began to experiment with titanium for additional collaborations and it naturally found its way into an all-new dive watch, Porsche Design and IWC’s Ocean family launched in 1982. Says Klaus, “In addition to having a great strength-to-weight ratio, titanium is one of the most resistant materials to corrosion, and so it was very logical to choose it for a watch that would be immersed in seawater.” The most popular model amongst these was the Ocean 2000, which achieved 2,000 meters of water-resistance without a helium-release valve.

Porsche Design by IWC Ocean 2000
Porsche Design by IWC Ocean 2000

Says Klaus, “We got around the helium-release valve by simply building a better watch.” Today, these watches, in particular the “Bund” versions adopted by the German military, are extremely collectable, specifically the “Minesweeper” iterations that feature totally antimagnetic movements, as proximity to magnetic materials could set mines off. (Be mindful that, at some point, these mechanical movements were changed to quartz.)

Porsche Design by IWC Ocean 2000 Bund
Porsche Design by IWC Ocean 2000 Bund

Porsche Design and IWC even used titanium for its sonic qualities in a World Time Alarm model (with a quartz movement). In total, the collaboration between IWC and Porsche Design lasted from 1978 to 1997.

Porsche Design by IWC World Time Alarm
Porsche Design by IWC World Time Alarm

Following this, IWC continued to use titanium as one of its signature materials in applications, including the 1999 Deep One — the first luxury dive watch with mechanical depth gauge — as well as the GST (Gold Steel Titanium) family of watches launched in 1998 that filled the gap for sleek modernist sporting chic watches after the association with Porsche Design ended.

Read more about the GST Deep One here.

GST Deep One (1999)
GST Deep One (1999)
GST Aquatimer Titanium (1998-2004)
GST Aquatimer Titanium (1998-2004)

Indeed, one of my all-time favorite watches is the IWC GST Perpetual Calendar Chronograph — my first perpetual calendar — and we’ve got one of these right here for sale backed by our 15-month warranty.

GST Perpatual Calendar in titanium
GST Perpatual Calendar in titanium
GST Perpatual Calendar in steel with salmon dial
GST Perpatual Calendar in steel with salmon dial

Titanium was also used extensively for the relaunch of the Aquatimer family in 2004, an entire family of diving watches inspired by the Deep One and featuring internal rotating bezels.

Aquatimer Chronograph in titanium (2004-2009)
Aquatimer Chronograph in titanium (2004-2009)

Titanium made the leap to IWC’s Pilot family, first appearing in a limited-edition Big Pilot Perpetual Calendar watch for retailer Wempe, and then again for another retailer, Celllini. The light weight of titanium brings a considerable measure of comfort to the 46mm juggernaut of a timepiece. The standard Big Pilot with seven-day power reserve has also received the titanium treatment in several instances, in particular in limited-edition collaborations with retailers such as the Italian stalwart, Bartorelli.

Big Pilot Perpetual Calendar Cellini
Big Pilot Perpetual Calendar Cellini
Big Pilot Bartorelli
Big Pilot Bartorelli

In 2017, the brand launched its own heritage-themed Big Pilot in titanium while CEO Chris Grainger-Herr posted an image in 2017 on his Instagram feed of a 100-piece “Safari” edition featuring the dial from the 5002 and a matte titanium case.

Big Pilot Heritage in titanium IW5010-04
Big Pilot Heritage in titanium IW5010-04
IWC CEO Grainger-Herr’s Instagram post of limited edition Big Pilot (IW5010-07) with 5002-inspired dial
IWC CEO Grainger-Herr’s Instagram post of limited edition Big Pilot (IW5010-07) with 5002-inspired dial

Finally, titanium has found its way into IWC’s Ingenieur family, in several different watches from the Double Chronograph to the AMG Chronograph, and of particular interest, in a Digital Perpetual Calendar limited edition, all of which we are pleased to offer here..

Ingenieur Double Chronograph IW3865-01
Ingenieur Double Chronograph IW3865-01
Ingenieur AMG Chronograph IW3725-03
Ingenieur AMG Chronograph IW3725-03

Ceramic Zirconium Oxide

Ceramic is a crystalline material like glass that can be made into complex shapes boasting high strength, light weight and is almost totally impervious from scratches from any material save diamond. It is strong as hell. So strong it’s used for the plates in bulletproof vests and to reinforce tank armor. It’s also used in dental implants, as the coating in jet engines and for the brake discs in F1 cars thanks to its low thermal conductivity, and for knives that hold their edge better than their steel counterparts thanks to their hardness.

The idea of a scratchproof watch begins as far back as 1962 with the Rado DiaStar, which won both the Red Dot Award and the IF Design Award. This watch achieved its Herculean resistance with a case made from tungsten carbide, the hardest metal on Earth.

Rado Diastar (1962)
Rado Diastar (1962)

In 1980, Omega presented the “Black Tulip”, a Cermet watch featuring a cushion case and integrated bracelet both in a kind of ceramic hybrid. But this was a very cool-looking, limited production and a very expensive model. It also featured a quartz movement. However, the case was not pure ceramic but a composite consisting of aluminum oxide ceramic and tungsten carbide.

Omega “Black Tulip”
Omega “Black Tulip”

It fell to IWC to pioneer the use of a ceramic case in high watchmaking with the incredible Da Vinci fully synchronized perpetual calendar chronograph. To learn about that watch, read the story here. In 1985, IWC had already shook up the watch industry by creating a perpetual calendar, a watch with full indications for date, day, month and leap year and that automatically compensated for the shifting 28/30/31-day rhythms of the months, even knowing when to add the leap day. In addition, IWC’s watch was the first to control all these indications with a single crown. It was also priced significantly lower than the comparable timepieces. So much so that, as Kurt Klaus recalls, “In short order, we began producing more perpetual calendars than the rest of the industry combined.”

In 1986, IWC followed up this incredible achievement in movement design with another world’s first — a ceramic case used in a serially produced Swiss mechanical watch, the reference 3755. The resulting timepiece was a marvel to behold. A round black body complimented by mobile yellow-gold lugs, a definitive penning of the blueprint of high watchmaking’s future.

Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar in black ceramic (1986)
Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar in black ceramic (1986)

This black case was followed later by a stunning white ceramic case combined with white-gold lugs, a monochromatic masterpiece.

Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar in white ceramic
Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar in white ceramic

All of IWC’s ceramic cases are made in the following way. Zirconium dioxide is placed in a mold with a binding agent and then submitted to heat and pressure until a case blank is formed. During this process, the binding agent melts away and the remaining solid form also shrinks considerably. This is then further machined with diamond tools.

The next use of ceramic appeared in 1994 with the arrival of the brand’s now-iconic Flieger or Pilot’s Chronograph. This was a downsized version of the brand’s game-changing 1991 Doppelchronograph. Read the story on this watch here. Indeed, the dial-side iconography was essentially identical to that of the split-seconds chronograph — the pared-back diameter of 39mm and supreme functionalism made for a watch that was universally beloved from the onset. But the real buzz around this launch was that IWC had taken the occasion to launch not just one, but two versions of the Flieger — the reference 3706 with a steel case and the reference 3705 with a black case.

Pilot’s Watch Chronograph in ceramic (IW3705-03, 1994-1998)
Pilot’s Watch Chronograph in ceramic (IW3705-03, 1994-1998)

It’s important at this point to understand that the success of ceramic as a case material related not just to its impressive performance characteristics of extreme hardness and light weight. But that it also provided one major aesthetic advantage. It could be used to create scratchproof black watch cases. By this point, multiple brands had attempted to create stealthy black watches, including TAG Heuer, Porsche Design and Panerai, in its pre-Vendôme Group incarnation. The technology used for all of these was called PVD or physical vapor deposition applied to steel cases, although in Porsche Design’s case, it also experimented with black anodized aluminum. In all instances, the spectacular-looking cases scratched easily. Once scratched, the underlying metal was laid bare beneath the coating, causing a once-achingly sexy timepiece to look like it had been chewed up and spit out.

By pioneering the use of zirconium oxide, IWC had paved the way for an entire generation of blacked-out watches from brands as diverse as Panerai to Audemars Piguet to Richard Mille — indeed, none of this would have been possible without its daring, pioneering move. For this reason, both the Da Vinci 3755 and the Flieger 3705 deserve their place in modern watchmaking’s history books.

The next ceramic Pilot’s Watch was the limited-edition Doppelchrono reference 3786 in ceramic, dating to 2006. This was followed up the next year with a non-limited-edition “Top Gun” version of the same watch, this time with small red fighter-plane motifs on the seconds hands.

Pilot’s Watch Doppelchronograph IW3786
Pilot’s Watch Doppelchronograph IW3786
Pilot’s Watch Doppelchronograph Top Gun IW3799
Pilot’s Watch Doppelchronograph Top Gun IW3799

The “Top Gun” range of watches, in association with yes, that fighter pilot school in Miramar, California, was also where we first saw the appearance of ceramic as the case material for the iconic Big Pilot model in both the standard seven-day power reserve as well as perpetual calendar versions.

Top Gun Miramar Chronograph IW3880-02
Top Gun Miramar Chronograph IW3880-02

The “Top Gun” range of watches, in association with yes, that fighter pilot school in Miramar, California, was also where we first saw the appearance of ceramic as the case material for the iconic Big Pilot model in both the standard seven-day power reserve as well as perpetual calendar versions.

Ceramic has also been used to great effect by IWC in the Ingenieur family of watches such as this stunning blacked-out AMG version.

Ingenieur AMG IW3225-03
Ingenieur AMG IW3225-03