A Tour of IWC [4/98]

Archives September 24, 2002 admin

A Tour Of IWC

by The “Group of Five

The Members of the “Group of Five” are Michael Friedberg, Eugenio Demmenie,

Foie Gras, William Massena and Hans Zbinden

A Group of Five –five Timezoners united by an avid interest in watches– made plans to visit International Watch Company in Schaffhausen during the 1998 Basel Fair. With the help of several friends, arranging the visit to IWC by the Group required extensive arrangements, including numerous faxes and e-mail communications. With great anticipation, the Group learned that everything was set for 2 p.m. on Friday, April 23. Through E-mail, the members of the Group had agreed to meet each other at the Cafe Gourmet in Zurich (just opposite the railway station) at 11.30 a.m. on that day.

The Group of Five was a diverse group, representing four different nationalities (American, Austrian, Dutch and Swiss) and having four different native languages (Dutch, English, French and German), not necessarily corresponding with their nationalities. The two Americans had arrived exhausted at the cafe, having just completed Trans-Atlantic flights. Assuming you would be interested in knowing what watches Group members were wearing for this special occasion, they had on an IWC Doppelchronograph, an AP Royal Oak Offshore, an IWC Portugieser, a JleC Master Control Geographique, a JleC Master Control and a Rolex Everest Circa 1953.

After a drink at the Cafe, the Group took the 12:13 train to Schaffhausen, where they arrived 38 minutes later. Just before Schaffhausen Railway station the Group saw the Rhine Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in Europe and reportedly the scene of the deadly struggle between Sherlock Holmes and the evil Professor Moriarity. Schaffhausen itself is a beautiful town and because the Group was an hour early they walked through the cobbled streets with ornate old buildings (one of the nicest buildings is the Haus zum Ritter). Of course they looked in every watch shop window in town, and even noticed a few vintage IWC
pocket watches.

The headquarters of the International Watch Company is along the river Rhine in a light industrial area. There are two other main IWC buildings that are not adjacent and a few blocks away. The headquarters reception area is surprisingly small: the Group could hardly fit in and there were only two
(leCorbusier) chairs for guests. At first the receptionist wasn’t certain if she could let the Group enter. Could the Group’s well-laid plans have been a mistake? But after showing a Fax invitation, all was straight and, a moment later, the Group’s guide, Mr. Guenther Groetchen, welcomed everyone. He was very friendly and encouraged the Group to ask any questions.

Mr. Groetchen, an engineer, is responsible for the purchase of manufacturing equipment at IWC. He has been with IWC for more than 35 years and he played a major part in the successful attempt to produce the world’s first titanium watch (IWC Porsche Design), as discussed further below. The Group noticed that Mr. Groetchen wore a
Da Vinci perpetual calendar automatic chronograph. Mr. Groetchen explained that IWC employees are entitled to buy a single IWC watch every year at a reduced price.

A Few Facts About IWC’s History

Mr. Groetchen first took the Group to a conference room which had display cases housing currently produced IWC watches. While in this room, the Group was given a brief history of IWC.

The company was initially founded in 1868 by Mr. Florentine Ariosto Jones, an American who sought to make a fortune by producing watches in Switzerland, which at that time had much lower labor costs than the United States. Jones’s initial overtures to the traditional centers of Swiss
watch making (in the French speaking areas) were not very successful.

Subsequently he was attracted to Schaffhausen, in the German speaking part of Switzerland (close to the border with Germany) and away from the traditional centers of
watch making. Jones appeared on the scene at just the right moment. Mr. Johan Heinrich Moser (a watchmaker, that had sold and manufactured watches in St.Petersburg) had just build a new hydro-electric power station in Schaffhausen, providing cheap electricity, and he had been trying to attract small factories to his new industrial zone. Jones arrival also coincided with a high level of unemployment under the available local work force.

Jones had hoped to combine American techniques of mass production with lower Swiss labor costs, and hence produce watches less expensively than was possible in America. His idea was soon shattered. Building the factory had taken longer and operating the machines gave more problems than had been anticipated (watch production was less than half of that planned). Jones soon ran out of money and had to look for new partners through forming a stock company.

After a IWC’s first bankruptcy (many would follow in its history), Jones returned to America and the company was rescued in 1876 by the Schaffhausen Handelsbank . Another American, Ferdinand F. Seeland (who only spoke English), was appointed as manager. The new IWC collapsed a few years later and went bankrupt for a second time. The company was rescued this time by Johannes Rauschenbach-Vogel, a former director, who assumed complete control in 1880.

IWC remained more or less in family (Rauschenbach Homberger) until 1978, when it was bought by VDO Adolf Schindling AG. VDO was later taken over by the Mannesman group. Originally the IWC workforce was somewhat concerned by an acquisition by a non-Swiss company, but these concerns quickly dissipated. VDO/Mannesman added much needed capital, they didn’t take any money out and they gave IWC a high degree of autonomy.

Currently, IWC has approximately 300 employees. Mr. Groetchen estimated that IWC makes 35,000 watches a year -about 10,000 of which are flight watches (Mark II, Fliegerchronos, etc.). Mr. Groetchen also estimated total Portugesier production is 2,000 per year (for all models) and about 1,000 for the
Da Vinci.

IWC Museum

After this introduction on the International Watch Company in the conference room and viewing current models, the Group followed Mr. Groetchen by climbing a narrow winding staircase to the attic of the building, where the IWC museum is located.

The museum not only gives an overview of IWC’s history, but has also reserved some room for the history of the watch. For example, there is a replica of the world’s first pocket watch, which has only one hour hand (minutes were not important back then) and several 18th century English
pocket watches with fusee chains. Of course, there were also marine chronometers. Some of the later (19th century)
pocket watches were beautifully enameled.

The first IWC pocket watch (with Jones calibre) on display dates from 1868, the year of IWC’s foundation. Mr. Groetchen pointed out the several advanced technical features of this pocket watch: an elongated index that facilitates the precision adjustment of the balance spring, a bimetallic balance to compensate for temperature changes and a Breguet mainspring. Another noteworthy
pocket watch on display was the world’s first digital display pocket watch (1885), based on a so-called Pallweber system. One of the “Group of Five” members previously had seen a similar IWC Pallweber in an antique
watch shop at Bern for 700 Swiss francs. Needless to say, he is still lamenting a missed opportunity.

Many other interesting watches were on display. These included IWC’s first wristwatch (ca. 1900), the Ingenieur from 1954 (IWC’s first automatic, which also featured protection against magnetic fields), the IWC Porsche Design titanium watches, the Grande Complication (1990) and the il Destriero Scarfusia (the
battle horse from Schaffhausen) from 1992. On display also was a genuine Mark IX from the 1930’s -a watch that all the members of the Group would die for. It is like Mark X but with knurled bezel, fancier numerals and spade skeleton hands. The bezel rotates with elapsed time indicator. There was also a Portugieser replica, one of the few watches on display that was without a movement.

Especially noteworthy were several Da Vinci chronographs/perpetual calendars with white, red, blue or turquoise ceramic cases. Collectors will look for these in vain; the only ones that exist are in the IWC museum. They were included to illustrate that different colors are possible when using different mixtures of metallic oxides and other ceramic components.

Mr. Groetchen told the Group that no IWC models on display in the museum had been purchased back from the market. Every IWC watch was an example kept by the factory throughout the years.

Spare Parts Depot and Movement Assembly Room

Climbing back down the staircase, the Group of Five next visited the spare parts depot, where even parts of the original Jones calibre pocket are stored. Mr. Groetchen called this depot “the pharmacy”, where “the movement doctors” still can get a “recipe of 100 years ago”. As an illustration he took out some of the old boxes with parts, appropriately labeled and cataloged. He told the Group that there is still a need for the parts of the early watches on a regular basis. The supply of parts is very extensive even for watches that were discontinued many years ago.

Later during the tour, the Group learned that the 23rd, 24th and 25th century indication (showing 22, 23 and 24) of the Grande Complication and Il Destriero Scarfusia is not supplied in a specially sealed tube, but is already present in the case itself…so that its owner in the year 2200 can’t lose the part (incidentally, one can also see this in the just released 1998-9 IWC catalog on pages 41 and 46).

After viewing the meticulously labeled drawers of pharmacy, the Group went to where watch movements are assembled. The particular room is also where the more complicated movements are assembled, repaired and serviced. The room has an “L” shaped layout, receiving lots of light through the windows and with some having a nice view of the Rhine.

What immediately struck everyone upon entering the assembly room was the great silence in which the assembly of the movements takes place. One can hear a needle (or better …. a hair spring) fall. The intense concentration of the watchmakers, many of whom were young, was beyond belief. Even during the Group’s visit none of them looked up and their work wasn’t affected whatsoever by their not so quiet visitors.

The assembly room contained about 15 watchmaker’s tables. The height of the chairs relative to tables is chosen in such a way that only the upper part of the watchmaker’s face is above the table, thus allowing work at almost eye level, good support of the arms during assembly and prevention of breathing on the movements. The tools on each table were laid out according to the preferences of each individual watchmaker; some had many tools on the table and others but a few.

Mr. Groetchen said that each watchmaker receives a monthly salary and is not paid according to how many pieces are assembled. Each watchmaker completes a movement from start to finish (no assembly line) and each movement can be traced back to the watchmaker that worked on it. Once a year there is a review of each watchmaker’s work.

Mr. Groetchen explained that all raw movements purchased by IWC were completely assembled by IWC, as a quality control measure, and usually were enhanced with IWC parts. The Group asked Mr. Groetchen whether there was any difference in finishing or assembly among the various movements used by IWC. Mr. Groetchen said that there was none, except that the complicated movements were assembled by a group of about Five of the more senior watchmakers at the end of the room.

Assembly of a grande complication requires years of experience and is left to a few highly trained and very experienced watchmakers. Mr. Groetchen explained that the assembly of a grande complication does not just entail assembling parts: to let the movement function some parts need a little adjusting, a little bending, etc.. The watch is first assembled and parts are – so to speak – tuned , so that every function works properly. .Then the movement is disassembled, subsequently reassembled and finally oiled. A grande complication takes about 2 weeks to assemble; the subsequent disassembly and reassembly take another two weeks.

While most of the watchmakers wore very nice IWCs (one of them wore a Mark XI), the watch of IWC’s number one watchmaker, Gunther Klaus, really stole the show. Gunther Klaus makes the movements for the Il Destriero Scarfusia and on his wrist was his uniquely cased prototype of this watch. Our guide made a few humorous comments about this, while Mr. Klaus worked on an IWC Grande Complication. Mr. Klaus clearly heard this, but he obliviously continued to work on his movement, demonstrating the very high degree of concentration and dedication that is apparently necessary to assemble such a complicated movement . It was interesting to learn that some of the experienced IWC watchmakers train watchmakers of service centers abroad; for example, Gunther Klaus trained Jack Freedman on the IWC’s most complicated movements.

The Group of Five was suitably impressed with the skill utilized in assembling movements. The work was meticulously done with one person working by hand on one movement at a time, more like a studio than a factory. The Group next visited the
case making operations. These rooms and procedures were very different but equally as impressive.

IWC’s Case-Making History

The Group learned that IWC is one of the few companies that makes its own cases and is a trendsetter in, and example for, the Swiss watch industry. Mr. Groetchen explained that IWC’s tradition of making its own cases started with the titanium Porsche Design watches in the late seventies.

Coincidentally, two articles in the latest IWC magazine, International Wristwatch, (1998, n. 2), also describe IWC’s
case making in even greater detail. The articles reveal that Mr. Groetchen, who was head of
tool making at IWC in the seventies, played a major role in solving the technical problems that IWC faced in making the World’s first titanium watchcase. Titanium is a very difficult material to work with and, modest as he is, Mr. Groetchen didn’t mention his important role during the tour. Most of what follows is from these articles.

At the end of the seventies, F.A. Porsche had the idea of using titanium – a non magnetic material – for a watch case. After a long search IWC found a manufacturer that said they could make the titanium watchcase. IWC would manufacture the bracelet. The parts of the bracelet (back and front) would welded together, which was not an easy task. To weld titanium the surface must be clean from dirt and free from moisture (hand sweat is not allowed). To achieve this, the metal’s surface is first treated with
acetone and then a protective gas is used during the welding. The first attempts with resistance welding were disappointing, until somebody had the idea of adding small protrusions to the titanium bracelet parts to define better the position of the welding.

In addition to these problems, the third party case manufacturer gave up after 1.5 years of unsuccessful efforts. Their announcement came just three months before the announced launch of the first titanium watches in the US (November 1980). IWC, which had committed itself, decided to make the titanium cases on its own — IWC accomplishing a tour de force with significant improvisation and enormous dedication. It truly is amazing that a company that previously had only experience in making watch movement parts and working with brass quickly succeeded in making a watch case from a “difficult to work with” metal like titanium.

Manufacturing the titanium case for the Porsche Design watch involved hot forging. At first, the forms used for the forging process could not withstand the high pressures involved. Finally, sintered steel forms proved to be a solution. Titanium also requires the right speed to remove material during milling,
lathing and drilling. The right speed and good cooling liquids are essential to prevent (local) overheating of the material. A chip has to break at the right moment/place and not interrupt the material-removing process by sticking to the object etc.. IWC mastered all these problems and also managed to polish the material, which the technical literature at that time said was impossible. To eliminate thread erosion of titanium parts, IWC used nitride hardening (certainly before Ventura introduced their nitride hardened case), making it three times as hard as hardened steel and 1000 times harder than untreated titanium.

As you know, IWC Porsche Design watches are no longer produced. Mr. Groetchen attributed this to IWC incurring losses on the manufacture of each watch, particularly the complexity of the cases and bracelets. The new GST models are technically easier to produce (and some of the Group suspects less expensive without a royalty to Mr. Porsche). The next day, the Group of Five saw the new Porsche Design watches by Eterna at the Basel Fair. The finishing of the Eterna Porsche Design titanium cases and bracelets did not approach the finishing of the titanium IWC GST or the late IWC Porsche Designs models.

Case/Bracelet Finishing and Polishing Departments

Entering the “case/bracelet finishing/polishing shop” after the movement assembly room is a bit like stepping into another world. The department is housed in a small subsidiary area in the back of the main IWC building. Of course , it was much noisier, with pop music audible from a radio in the background. But by no means should one underestimate the great skill (again all hand work here!) that is involved in finishing a case and polishing it. Cases are made and then finished by reduction: the craftsman can only remove material and not put any material back. The difference between removing too little and removing too much is
sparingly small (to less than a tenth of a millimeter).

Mr. Groetchen pointed out that removed material (less then 1 % for each watch case) is collected using a type of vacuum cleaner above each work station. This is not only necessary for good working conditions, but it also saves money if one is working with precious materials like titanium, gold and platinum, since collected material is sold back to the supplier.

After seeing the polishing, the Group saw how the cases and bracelet parts are made in steps, using numerically controlled milling machines and lathes (most of the machines were Japanese). Working from an engineering drawing of the case part design, the position of each tool is programmed into a small computer that is a part of a large machine. After completion of programming, a test specimen is made out of silver, since that metal is easier to work with. Very precise tolerances are required. The dimensions of the specimen case then are checked and , if satisfactory, the production of the “real” cases can begin. As mentioned above, a great amount of cooling lubricants, and the right angles of the tools relative to the surface and the right speed, are essential to prevent local overheating and to assure good product quality. It appeared that IWC was making cases in relatively small lots: perhaps 100 at a time. The same machines are used to produce gold, steel or titanium cases. Gold is easier to worth with then the steel or titanium which IWC uses.

According to Mr. Groetchen, once you know how to deal with titanium’s “peculiarities”, it also is easier to work with than the steel alloy that IWC uses. For its titanium watches, IWC uses pure titanium containing 0.2 percent oxygen. IWC’s new Aquatimer, its special divers watch which is water resistant to 2000 meters, however, is made of a titanium alloy with aluminum and vanadium additions (TiAl6-V4). Normal steel watch cases contain 15 percent Nickel and 18.5 Chrome, but the steel alloy that IWC uses for its cases is surgical steel, that has a very low percentage of Nickel at 0.18 percent.

As you may have noticed, no word has been mentioned so far on the making of the dials and the hands. They are supplied by another company as is the case of almost the entire Swiss watch industry. According to Mr. Groetchen, there are only three top dial manufacturers in Switzerland and they supply the industry. However, IWC does have two full-time designers among its employees. Considering the few new IWC models introduced each year, these designers must spend extensive time planning the design of each dial, case, bracelet and even buckles.

Engraving Department, Making Movement Parts, and the Lange Connection

After the case making departments, the tour continued in another building, a few blocks (about 300 m) away from the main building, where the engraving of case backs and the manufacturing of custom movement parts occurs.

The department where the engraving of case backs takes place is very small. As with all the other departments that were visited, it looks more like a custom workshop than a part of a factory. There were about 5 engraving workstations. A customer can order his IWC with any engraving desired. The quality of the engraving is very good, although perhaps not distinctive. Some examples of engraved portraits of certain heads of state and other celebrities were on permanent display. Skeletonized parts were also made in this room.

Although IWC obtains movement parts from third parties like ETA and Jaeger-leCoultre, they also make certain movement parts, especially for their own complications. In the case of certain ETA movements (sorry, the Group can’t recall which ones), IWC also substitutes wheels with a harder steel and replaces the mainspring with a longer one. In other words, IWC wants to ascertain that the movements in their watches are up to their “standards”. An interesting remark by Mr. Groetchen was that the base plate and bridges of a movement are made in pairs: holes, taps etc. are made in one operation, which is easier in obtaining precision.

IWC not only makes custom parts for its own complications (such as the perpetual calendar and Grande complication), it also does so for related companies –Lange and Jaeger-leCoultre– when they are in a pinch. These parts frequently are very small and have minute engineering tolerances. One of the machines that is used for this process is a so called “wire eroding machine”: The technique uses sparks to erode small pieces of metal off a
work piece. The sparks are formed along a moving wire, when the wire comes into contact with the plate, the moving wire cuts the metal much like a
band saw. A group of ten plates was made in one go during the group’s visit. A similar technique is spark eroding, where a shaped tool erodes a mirror shaped cavity.

The Swiss member of the Group of Five noticed a drawer with the word Lange written on it in this room. After mentioning this to Mr. Groetchen, Mr. Groetchen kindly showed us several drawings of certain Lange parts and talked about IWCs involvement in the resurrection of Lange. Many of the Lange employees had not previously been watchmakers and some of them had been unemployed. Despite this, the level of the Lange employee is very high: there was great demand to get a job at Lange among former East Germans. The most talented were recruited and then many were trained by IWC. Mr. Groetchen seemed very proud of Lange’s success, which he also attributed to IWC know-how, and the high level of skill exhibited by Lange employees.

End of the Tour and Some Final Remarks

Alas the tour had come to an end…..The Group of Five could have stayed at the IWC factory the whole weekend! The Group thanked Mr. Groetchen for this wonderful tour and he gave them his card, so that they could contact him with any further questions. In return, the members of the Group gave him a SWIS pin and informed him about TimeZone. Mr. Groetchen became the first SWIS member in Schaffhausen! He remarked that he was now on the Internet, but still learning how to use it.

Looking back on this rare experience, it is was a very, very impressive tour. To characterize IWC as a company may be impossible. However, one can say that IWC truly is a company of high grade engineering. IWC combines old world artisanship (especially in polishing and movement assembly), using individualized hand-work done piece by piece, with high tech modern technology employed on a non-mass produced basis. IWC is and has been a pioneer in numerous technical innovations, especially in making watch cases, relative to the entire Swiss watch industry.

The Group of Five then traveled back to Zurich, looked in every watch store window along the Banhoffstrasse, and finally went out to dinner at a former Guild House across from the river.

Copyright ©: The Group of Five 
May 18, 1998