From the moment of its creation, borne out of the bold visionary ambition of the American F. A. Jones to unite the disparate arts of watchmaking under one roof in a factory powered by the mighty Rhine Falls, the single defining quality of the International Watch Company has been the spirit of innovation. And this very quality finds its most steadfast champions in Kurt Klaus and Christoph Grainger-Herr, both extraordinary symbols of the free-thinking that has always defined IWC.
Living History: Kurt Klaus
Kurt Klaus is the brand’s – and arguably watchmaking’s – greatest repository of horological culture. If watchmaking had a hall of fame, Kurt Klaus would have been inducted long, long ago. While he was the technical director of IWC, he oversaw the development of the world’s first industrial split-seconds chronograph, the world’s first Bourdon-tube depth gauge inside a wristwatch, the world’s first modular minute repeater, the world’s first seven-day-power-reserve automatic movement with hyper-efficient Pellaton winding system, and he single-handedly created the world’s first synchronised perpetual calendar where all information – day, date, month, year, leap-year indication, moon phases and even digital reading for the year – was controlled by a single crown.
He oversaw the “Warhorse of Schaffhausen” (also known as Il Destriero Scafusia), a tourbillon, minute repeater and split-seconds chronograph that was, incredibly enough, built on a Valjoux 7750 base calibre. And if you find this counter-intuitive, think again. Because IWC has always been about finding technical solutions to make any complication more reliable, more robust and function better than its haut de gamme counterpart, at a more accessible price.
The Custodian: Christoph Grainger-Herr
CEO of IWC, Christoph Grainger-Herr, began his career as an architect. But he prefers to think of this as a vocation that can encompass the implementation of visions that go far beyond the aesthetic. For Grainger-Herr, architecture is about social discourse, and so far his conversation with the watch-buying public, expressed in particular through the “150 Years” Jubilee Collection, has been a profoundly engaging one. He has already shown a deft hand at activating aspects of the brand’s halcyon past in unexpected ways to define its future. Case in point, the much buzzed-about IWC Tribute to Pallweber wristwatch. Another example would be the further evolution of the Pilot’s Watch family beyond its pragmatic roots to now seamlessly house an annual calendar complication with elegance and élan.
Revolution had the pleasure of sitting down with these two great innovators to discuss how the 150th anniversary of the brand was encapsulated in the collection of watches created to commemorate it. In doing so, we felt privileged to relive some wonderful memories with Klaus even as we learned how Grainger-Herr will steer the brand toward greater success in its inexorable future, always in the spirit of innovation.
The emphasis for the brand this year has been to take stock of the past, to honour the past, give glimpses of the future and, of course, to celebrate 150 years of watchmaking achievements. The collection takes inspiration from IWC’s founder F. A. Jones, a man that Grainger-Herr explains still means a great deal to the company. “Jones was a very precise and technical man, all about that meticulous side of engineering, but on the other hand he was a bold entrepreneur and a bit of a dreamer,” he says. When you look at our products and our stories today, it is very much that same combination – having fun with the ideas and concepts we come upon, but at the same time making sure everything is engineered to a very high Swiss-Germanic standard.
“The building that it all started in is still used and it makes us so proud every day. It is a piece of early American architecture in the middle of Switzerland. It represents someone who came here, who was not only an engineer, but also an incredibly bold thinker who had an almost crazy idea to set up this industrialised manufacture in the Swiss heartland. The fact that his dream was realised and is still the beating heart of a big global brand, is very humbling; and to come through that door every morning makes you feel and live the heritage of that brand. It is almost unique. In the modern era, a lot of brands are little more than assembly plants, but we can show you everything from manufacture to assembly to marketing – this is powerful.”
Coming to Schaffhausen
When it comes to life at IWC, Grainger-Herr and Klaus speak with one voice when they say they cannot imagine working at any other manufacture. “I was born in St. Gallen, not far from Schaffhausen,” said Klaus. “I wanted to come home and IWC was the only watch manufacture close by. I asked if they needed a watchmaker and they did, so I started in 1957 and I am still here – no longer working on watches, but representing the brand I love. I felt comfortable from day one, back when I was assembling the Mark 11 movement. I had never felt this before, not in school or work. It was the case even in the hard times of the 1970s and it is still the same feeling today. IWC is my home.”
“I have been here for 11 years and my story is not that different from Kurt’s,” agrees Grainger-Herr. “I loved the brand and I realised that they probably needed an architect. I came and asked, and they said that they did. I remember coming through the door for the first time and I, too, felt this sense of family. I loved the people and I loved the atmosphere and that has never changed. I never wanted to work anywhere else – it was not about career, it was about feeling settled. This brand, unlike any other, is about the mix of engineering, purity of design and emotion, and it is that which people fall in love with. We take this fascination with IWC and we make it liveable and allow our clients to experience it.”
Klaus, a man that Grainger-Herr refers to as “a living memory of the company and our legacy of watchmaking”, was recruited by the legendary Technical Director Albert Pellaton, inventor of – among other things – the bidirectional Pellaton winding system. “I think about him every day,” Klaus says. “He was a special and talented man and I often wonder why he chose me to be his assistant. He started me off assembling movements and then I moved to the repair department – this was all to teach me the IWC philosophy. Interestingly, I repaired an original Pallweber. I remember it because it was a very difficult job and for this reason I admire the watchmakers who worked on the new models in the Jubilee Collection.
“Mr Pellaton always insisted on the highest quality. He taught me that a watch movement must be very robust. It must be a watch for life. It is not about breaking records for thinness – in fact I have always hated movements that are slim just for the sake of it, as did Mr Pellaton. It is this philosophy of quality and performance that has made IWC watches the best on the market in terms of accuracy and quality.”
With Pellaton’s teaching engrained in him, Klaus remembers the toughest times that he and IWC faced during the 1970s when quartz was leading the way, his mentor had passed away, most of the company’s engineers had left and he felt completely alone. “There was no more movement development and we were buying in ETA automatics or Jaeger-LeCoultre quartz calibres. IWC had never produced complicated watches before, but I had the idea to develop a speciality and I started to make a mechanism on a pocket-watch movement in my free time. IWC watchmakers only worked Monday to Thursday at that time, so on Friday I was allowed to come to my workshop and do my own thing.
“I made a moonphase pocket watch, a simple calendar. I was lucky because, although most companies would have thought it crazy to produce a mechanical watch at this time, IWC decided to experiment and make a limited edition of the watch [containing Klaus’s Calibre 9721]. We made 100 pieces, just to see if there was any demand. We presented them at the Basel Fair in 1977 and they sold out in record time. It was excellent motivation to continue developing.”
Another mark of its role as an innovator, IWC was one of the first companies to recognise that there was still a demand for mechanical watches and, because of the success of Calibre 9721, it continued on this path, but always on pocket watches. At the end of the 1970s, Hannes Pantli, at the time IWC’s Sales Director, visited Klaus’s workshop to discuss the past successes and future of IWC’s mechanical watchmaking, telling the watchmaker: “Stop with pocket watches, they are out of fashion. Now do the same in a wristwatch.” And this was the birth of the Da Vinci ref. 3750 Perpetual Calendar Chronograph.
Referring to perhaps his greatest achievement, Klaus says: “When I made the Perpetual Calendar, I didn’t know exactly what a computer was. I made all my sketches on the drawing board. I created the prototypes after manually making the calculations. It was the time of quartz watches, and, although I am proud that IWC was part of developing the first quartz wristwatch movement in Switzerland, I am happy that we never continued to make quartz movements after that. My main job with Mr Pellaton was to make watches more and more accurate, but compared to quartz there was no chance, so we had to do something else.”
The Visionary Road
When it comes to the Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Chronograph, Grainger-Herr says it is probably IWC’s most important watch, an accolade that Klaus accepts with pride. “It is my story,” he says. “The big problem was that there were other perpetual calendars on the market, each a masterpiece and very complicated. IWC did not want to do it the same way as people would just see us imitating and that would not help us. It had to be new, extraordinary, never seen before.
“I like to call it the new generation of perpetual calendar – one that could be made in serial production. We never wanted to make unique pieces. For IWC, the watch industry is important, not the individual watch, so I tried to make the calendar for industrial production, as well as with a system that was easy to use. These two things together made it a huge success. After two years, IWC’s annual production was 2,000 perpetual-calendar wristwatches – more than the rest of the industry put together.”
So, with this one watch, IWC – a brand that was never particularly interested in making complications – kick-started the revival of the mechanical watch in the 1980s, a feat that both of our interviewees attribute to another industry great who put his faith in IWC: Günter Blümlein, a man who altered the course and changed the future of fine watchmaking for ever. “The success of the Da Vinci was only possible thanks to him,” says Klaus. “It was Mr Blümlein who wanted to continue developing, even allowing us to bring in Giulio Papi to help develop a Da Vinci minute repeater. And then, in the 1990s, we made the first grand complications and, from then on, IWC started to be a complications specialist. We lost Mr Blümlein in 2002, and I don’t exaggerate when I say I lost my best friend. Nobody believed that we could revive mechanical watchmaking, but when I explained the Perpetual Calendar to him, he understood and he said: ‘Yes.’”
For Klaus, still an active ambassador for the brand at 83, these values of experimentation and innovation remain at the core of IWC. “The watchmakers are working in the same way that I did 60 years ago,” he says, adding with a little laugh: “Except they have modern tools. To apply oil, I had to use a pin; today they have a tube and a machine that does it with greater accuracy, but the positioning is still determined manually.”
And, when it comes to the creation of the Jubilee Collection, especially 2018’s hero watch, the Pallweber Edition “150 years”, Klaus congratulates everyone involved on their accomplishments. “I worked on a Pallweber pocket watch around 60 years ago,” he says. “It was seriously hard work. The idea was crazy and the piece was incredibly hard to assemble and adjust. I am happy that the young engineers today made this one with new technologies. And the result is fantastic – the dial and the complications really do suit a wristwatch.”
For Grainger-Herr, the Pallweber was the perfect choice of timepiece to head up the anniversary collection. “We have always had the digital-display pocket watch in the museum and we were fascinated by it and have long thought that it would be wonderful to re-engineer it into something modern. Somewhere along the line, we came up with the idea to try and reimagine it in a wristwatch, which had never been done before. Long ago we decided that it made sense to do this for the 150th anniversary. It is the anchor piece that sits at the top of the Jubilee product family.”
This internal barometer for judging what will appeal to clients emotionally is something that can, in part, be attributed to Grainger-Herr’s background in architecture – something that he automatically incorporates into the watches. “I love all areas of engineering and design – buildings, cars, jets – so IWC is the perfect watch brand for me,” he confides. “With the Jubilee Collection, I think we have got this mix of technicality and design just right. Even with the younger audience, the reception has been brilliant. I was not really expecting the millennials to fully understand the IWC Tribute to Pallweber, for example, as it is not mainstream in any way, but the new generation of watch buyers has welcomed it and shown an interest that I really didn’t expect.”
While, some may see an homage collection as easier than creating something brand new, the technical and aesthetic challenges involved with the Jubilee Collection are a direct response to this common misconception. As Grainger-Herr explains: “The technical content gives that bit of reassurance and celebrates our watchmaking skills. In terms of technical content, comparing what we could do in 1884 or 1945 to what we can do today in terms of reliability, performance, power reserve, anti-magnetism… it is worlds apart. We have made huge progress. We see this most clearly in the IWC Tribute to Pallweber – the progress is tremendous.
“When it comes to design, it is always an evolutionary process. You do very small incremental changes over the years. To develop an icon along a very credible line you cannot have any sudden or radical changes – that’s how we develop. We are inspired by our classic codes but they never feel dated. That is the beauty of something like the Big Pilot watches from the 1940s – they look as contemporary today as they did 70-odd years ago. Whether you are talking about cars, buildings, or any object of design, that is the ultimate thing you strive for: something that always looks current and beautiful. A Jaguar E-Type has never not been beautiful, and that’s what we are trying to achieve.
“On the other hand, it’s interesting to see that making a mechanism like a jumping hours and minutes is still extremely complex. We need to integrate two complete mainspring systems to power the base movement and the jumping mechanism. It is challenging, but it shows that the new generation can innovate just as well as the old generation.”
The New Standard
Which brings us neatly back to the Jubilee Collection. Finding it hard to choose a favourite from the 28 new watches, Klaus explains that he likes them all because they are now 100 per cent IWC production – from basic movements to calendars and repeaters – which was the ultimate goal of F. A. Jones when he first went to Schaffhausen.
Most importantly, Grainger-Herr wanted to have a range of price points, so every IWC fan could be a part of the celebrations. Everything is limited, from a Portofino Automatic to a Constant Force Tourbillon, but it is a very inclusive collection that represents IWC’s spirit as a brand.
Grainger-Herr explains how the watches for this important celebration year were chosen: “We wanted to go beyond what we had done for the 140th anniversary where we reinterpreted the original watches from each range. This time we wanted a collection that celebrates the past and present, so we looked to heritage pieces and watches from the more recent past – the Portofino Moon Phase from 2017, for example, captures the spirit of the original 1984 Portofino Moon Phase, yet it is modern in every way. We have also introduced brand-new pieces. So, the criteria were iconic designs and a big range of interpretations.
“As Kurt said, we are not about unique pieces. We want our watches to be very beautiful, but also very functional and robust. We chose to use lacquer for the dials instead of enamel as the latter is less stable across different types of dial, and also, we have some faces with a lot of cut-outs like the Perpetual Calendar and the Perpetual Calendar Tourbillon, and it is extremely hard to make these in enamel because it has a minimum thickness and it is tricky to carve into that on the more intricate dials. We wanted a consistent look across the collection so, although we could have made the IWC Tribute to Pallweber with enamel and the rest with lacquer, it wouldn’t have been the same aesthetic, so we decided to use lacquer for everything.”
This uniform look is the reason that there are no sports watches included in the collection – the Ingenieur and Aquatimer being conspicuous through their absence – and also the rationale for the more complicated versions of the IWC Pilot’s Watches. “These are the pilots’ watches for everyman,” says Grainger-Herr. “The case is polished rather than sandblasted or brushed, as it doesn’t have to go into battle. It has a more festive look and is more classic.”
“These started life as tool watches,” continues Klaus. “In fact, we were the only Swiss manufacture to make them and they are the heart of IWC. But I love the new pieces and I am very happy that my successors have done something this nice. For a long time, I worked with young generations of watchmakers and I think the spirit of what is important to IWC is always passed on – the new pilots’ watches more than any others show that. Elevating them to the pieces we see today is a tribute to IWC’s past and the importance of the pilots’ watches we made from the 1940s on.”
If forced to choose one new watch that best represents the whole collection, for Grainger-Herr, it would be the Perpetual Calendar. “It is the clarity of the dial combined with the huge complication that is a massive engineering challenge but so simple to operate,” he explains. “I think clarity and simplicity are what IWC is all about. We don’t do complications for the sake of making something complicated. We do it because we are systems engineers at the end of the day and we are solving a practical problem – and doing it beautifully. Any watch needs to be industrialised and it needs to have emotional storytelling because that is what our brand encapsulates.”
That said, however, he thinks it is impossible to sum up IWC with just one watch. “My favourites change with my mood,” he says. “Currently, from the Jubilee collection, I love the IWC Tribute to Pallweber in red gold and I also wear the Portugieser 8-Day Hand-Wound with red-gold case and the Portugieser Chronograph that we have fitted for the first time with Calibre 69355 in-house chronograph movement in steel with white dial and blued hands. They are the three I keep going back to.”
For Klaus, it is his Portofino Hand-Wound Moon Phase, inspired by a moonphase pocket watch that he made and which was nicknamed the “Fried Egg” because of its flat open face and translucent Murano glass moonphase… although he does add with a wink: “But, of course, I love the Perpetual Calendar models, too.”
When a 22-year-old Klaus first walked through the doors of IWC 61 years ago, the only goal was to make watches of the highest quality and he believes that is still the case today. What has changed, however, is the method of production. “When I first met Mr Pellaton, I had already been working for a short time at Eterna, which was a good company with high-quality products, but Mr Pellaton told me: ‘You have to understand that IWC is one step higher. An IWC watchmaker is something special.’ One sentence that always stayed with me was when Mr Pellaton, who was the greatest constructor of novelties, looked at some prototypes I had worked on and told me: ‘Yes, this is very good. But it could be a little better.’ I never forgot this. It can always be a little bit better. This was Albert Pellaton. And this is IWC.”
“I completely agree,” nods Grainger-Herr. “IWC is about steady, intelligent, consistent advancement. A smarter, better and hopefully more beautiful watch each time. This was the ethos at our foundation, and this is what we will continue to do into the future.”