COMPLICATION H SEA

This has been an instrumental project in the history of modern horology and there was no way
I was going to let it die.

In 1979, when Günter Blümlein took over the International Watch Company (IWC) and Jaeger-LeCoultre, he made Schaffhausen the Swiss-German base of IWC’s operational nerve center. It was largely from Schaffhausen that two decades later, he launched his dream brand, A. Lange & Söhne, which revived high Saxon watchmaking. And during this later period, it seemed that his attention was primarily focused on this brand, giving it advantages such as the fabrication of purely in-house calibers from the onset. In some ways, it could be perceived that IWC, once the favored child of this great leader, diminished slightly in the attention paid to it. At the time of Blümlein’s untimely passing, a small gap had appeared between IWC’s primary years of technical achievement beginning in 1985, with the launch of the Da Vinci perpetual calendar chronograph, which was shortly followed by the Grande Complication and Il Destriero Scafusia watches in late ’80s and ’90s. So when Georges Kern took over the reins of IWC in 2002, he had his work cut out for him to restore vitality and market leadership to the International Watch Company.
Over the last five years, Georges Kern has embarked on a mission to further strengthen his brand based on two core foci. The first has been to create more functionally innovative in-house calibers to increase the percentage of manufacture movement-equipped timepieces in his model range. The impetus behind this has been to technically distinguish IWC and stress its manufacture status. The second has been to refine and strengthen his model range by eliminating the weaker models (such as the GST line) and forge instantly identifiable icons in his model range. In both cases, Kern has performed with fantastic success. IWC has gone from using only five percent of in-house movements when he joined the company, to over 50 percent as of this year. Further, the manufacture’s in-house movements, in particular the 5,000 series automatic caliber with seven days power reserve and Pellaton winding mechanism, and the new caliber 89360, are amongst some of the industry’s most impressive technical achievements.
His solidification of his model range to include the Aquatimer, based loosely on IWC’s Deep One diving watch; the Ingenieur, based on the 1976 Ingenieur SL designed by Gérald Genta; the Big Pilot based on the B-Uhren from 1936; and the Portuguese, based on the original Portuguese watches commissioned in the 1940s, have all achieved iconic status and are recognizable at a glance. Brand awareness of IWC is at an all-time high as evinced by movie stars like Orlando Bloom and Benicio Del Toro conspicuously displaying them on their wrists. So it was perceived as a radical move when Kern ended the long run of the legendary Da Vinci – the timepiece that put IWC back on the high watchmaking map – to replace it with an all-new, completely redesigned Da Vinci this year.
We caught up with Kern at the launch of this new timepiece at the Uffizi museum in Florence to catch a glimpse of his vision for this model and for his brand in general.

The majority of your models are rooted in the manufacture’s past. Why adopt a completely new design reference for the Da Vinci? There were two main reasons why we decided to create an all-new design. First, we thought that there was no way that we could create another round men’s dress watch because this
would compete with our Portuguese. Such is the iconic nature of the Portuguese that the other watch would have suffered in comparison, and even if it were successful, it would have been a cannibalization of our own product range. The second factor is that the Portuguese appeals to the client who wants a classic watch. So we’ve already covered the classic-oriented market. But there is an increasing market, particularly in Asia, for more design-oriented watches. There are many brands, which I won’t mention, that are capitalizing massively on this hunger for very contemporary-feeling watches. And we thought, “Well, we have a history in design innovation.” So, it would be legitimate for us to create this type of timepiece. Having had a tonneau-shaped watch with a Beta 21 movement in our past, why not take a bit of inspiration from that?

Can you please elaborate on this new emerging market for mechanical watches? There is an emerging group of new global elite who are very interested in watchmaking. This is good for the industry in general because it demonstrates that mechanical watches are as popular, if not more popular than ever before, as contemporary consumer culture. So, the Da Vinci was specifically created for this market. It is for the consumer who chooses to drive an Aston Martin instead of a Porsche. He is more exuberant, more artistically inclined.

If the objective is to penetrate this group of new global elite consumers, how does the Da Vinci distinguish itself from timepieces such as Hublot’s Big Bang or Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak Offshore? Where our new Da Vinci distinguishes itself from the other timepieces in this sector is that it has bold design parameters, but it also comes with an in-house chronograph caliber. We only launch new models in tandem with new movements. This is the mark of a real manufacture. So, you get both form and content, which almost none of the other design-oriented watches can claim to have. We have brought real technical content into this arena with the Da Vinci chronograph and its new movement. This is the added value we bring. There are many brands that come out with fantastic designs and make substantial turnover but, ultimately, they are not offering anything related to movement innovation to the customer. Furthermore, as a manufacture, we bring a level of sustainability to this segment. We give the customer the assurance that we will always be there to service his watch.

Is this watch meant solely for the more fashionable set of clients? Not exclusively. What is interesting about IWC is that we have a great deal of customers who buy more than one of our watches. The repurchase rate for our watches is one of the best. The average IWC customer ends up buying an average of two and a half IWC timepieces over the years. Why? Because we have such distinction among our models, so when you buy one IWC, you have not bought the brand. But when you buy one watch from other brands, you would have bought the brand’s identity. Our Big Pilot is completely different from our Aquatimer, which is totally different from our Portuguese, which is, in turn, different from the Ingenieur. There are some design codes that you will clearly recognize in all of them. For example, the Da Vinci is a big, chunky, man’s watch that possesses a very Germanic attention to engineering details.
So you have a watch that represents both form and content in a realm that is dominated primarily by form? Yes, clearly. We wanted to have this dual approach in having added value in design, but with substance. And this substance differentiates us in the market.

The new Da Vinci has made a clean cut from the past. Will this strategy be used for other products as well? Yes, it can be perceived as a clean cut from the Da Vinci. But we had to do this in order for the product to survive and to be relevant again. The only brand that can survive with almost no evolution is Rolex. Otherwise, the cycle for watches is shorter and similar to that of cars. Every five to six years, you need to make the design evolve. Only by making it evolve, do you endow it with classic status. But for the Da Vinci in the last 20-plus years, the watch has remained largely unchanged. So, we were not able to save the design due to contemporary tastes. We did something totally new, but still rooted to the past of this timepiece.

Why use this new watch as the opportunity to launch your in-house chronograph? To legitimize any new timepiece, we always launch new models and new movements in tandem. Why a chronograph? Look, we knew we needed a chronograph badly. You have been asking us when we will come out with our chronograph for three years now. And the focus on creating a chronograph was part of our plan to expand the range of our in-house calibers. Five years ago, our in-house manufacture movements comprised only five percent of our output. In half a decade, that has increased to over 50 percent of our output, which I think is very strong, considering the amount of investment necessary to truly test the quality of an in-house caliber. Furthermore, each caliber we’ve launched represents a strong level of technical superiority and innovation relative to other products in the market. We have an automatic with higher power reserve, superior winding efficiency and shock resistance. We have a manual wind movement that is amongst one of the most beautiful on the market.
Now, we have a chronograph. We have four in-house calibers (the
5,000 series used in the Portuguese and Big Pilot, the 8,000 series
used in the Ingenieur, the Jones / Caliber 98 used in the minute repeater and in special Portuguese watches, and the in-house chronograph used for the moment in the Da Vinci) and we are going to develop even more base calibers. We want to have, in every one of our model ranges, in-house movements at the top end of the product pyramid. I think, as a brand at the level of IWC, this is absolutely fundamental. I don’t think we will be able to put in-house calibers in some of the more accessibly priced watches to replace a Valjoux 7750, because we make too few movements for this. Also, we cannot make a movement for 150 Swiss francs. But we want to have the credibility, recognition and legitimacy
of a manufacture.

With the movement being round while the watch is tonneau-shaped, can we safely guess that it will gravitate to the rest of the model range? Yes. The movement is round so it can be used with other cases. It will also be used in combination with other complications. Next year, we will transition into using this chronograph movement as the base of the 2008 Da Vinci perpetual chronograph. But we wanted to go in stages for this transition. We kept the original movement created by Kurt Klaus in the 2007 product range to help make the connection between this model’s past and its future. The reason why we did the Kurt Klaus limited edition is because we wanted to create a bridge between the classic Da Vinci and the new perpetual coming out next year. You have to understand that in many of the European markets, this watch has come as something of a shock. Because this has been an all-new beginning in terms of design.

Why not bring out the new Da Vinci perpetual chronograph this year as well? Our priority this year was to launch the chronograph to emphasize the impressive technical feat that it is. For innovation, you need to have a rhythm for people to digest and you must manage your growth. You must chart your growth step by step. The old Da Vinci was a huge success in central Europe, so we wanted to at least have the face of the old Da Vinci in the new Da Vinci.

When did you get the idea to do a Kurt Klaus (IWC’s former technical director and creator of the original Da Vinci signature synchronized perpetual calendar) edition of the 2007 Da Vinci perpetual chronograph? We thought that since Kurt Klaus created this complication, which is the world’s first synchronized perpetual calendar, and he is celebrating 50 years in our company this year, why not do homage to the wonderful things he’s done for us? This also acts as an emotional bridge to next year.

How did Kurt Klaus react to the news? Kurt Klaus is a very modest man. He has done so much for the brand, but he never really talks about it. He generally shies away from recognition, but we are going to give him the number watch in platinum. In 50 years, I can hope to have this kind of credibility.

How has the response been to the new Da Vinci design? The most important thing is that people must like it spontaneously. And people have had this reaction. It is aesthetically a very strong product. But we also want to thoroughly underscore the technical content and quality of the watch.

With its multi-part case construction, this would be the perfect showcase for mixed material watches – rose gold and ceramic, for example. Is this your plan? We pioneered the use of ceramic in high watchmaking, so it would make sense for us to create a ceramic Da Vinci. In addition, if you take a look at the construction of the watch, the case is multi-part and incredibly complex. The movement actually sits inside a titanium inner case. But this multi-part construction also gives us the liberty to do combinations of materials that we think will be well received.

Where can IWC grow further? In terms of our share of sales, we are still the biggest in Europe. In Europe, we are huge and there are several countries where we are the number one brand of the Richemont Group – even ahead of Cartier. So, our goal is to replicate this success in other countries. It will take cumulative investment to have cumulative visibility. We have been growing over proportionally in the United States and Asia, but we are still under proportion in visibility, in comparison to Europe. So, our main goal is to raise the recognition of the brand in these countries. H

 

top of his game
In conversation with Georges Kern, CEO, IWC by wei koh

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