IWCs Portugiesers

A History & Critique

Forum: TimeZone – Advanced Forum

Date: Sun, 21 Dec 1997 04:20:35 GMT

From: Michael Friedberg

International Watch Company, at least for its first 50 years, produced pocket watches and not wristwatches. In fact, the only book on the history of the company (Toelke & King, IWC- International Watch Co. Schaffhausen, 1987)chronicles only pocket watches until 1940, when it shows its first IWC wristwatch. That wristwatch was a huge aviator’s navigation watch, with a diameter of 55mm, that used a 19 ligne pocket watch movement.

Before 1940, however, IWC did make wristwatches, but they really were adapted pocket watches. Shugart & Engle’s Official Price Guide to Watches shows an unusual one, with the crown at 12 o’clock. The German dealer, Haeffner, a few months ago listed what it called a “Portugieser” from the 1930’s -using a small pocket watch movement and a diameter of 43mm. That watch was gold and had a typical pocket watch face (black Italic Breguet numerals on a white dial, small seconds at 6 o’clock). While I’m not certain if that watch was an “authentic” Portugieser, it did show that early IWC wristwatches were modified pocket watches.

The story of the “authentic” Portugieser is told in recent IWC catalogs. According to the 1995/96 edition: “At the end of the 1930s IWC received a request from Portugal. A customer wanted a wristwatch of the same size and accuracy as a pocket watch IWC selected the slimmest and most reliable pocket watch movement in its range, and designed a classic stainless steel case to house it. “Some reports said that this request came from the Portugiese Navy.

In all events, the resulting watch was distinctive. In addition to being larger than a normal watch, it had a stainless housing, a matte silver-plated dial, embossed gold Arabic numerals, and gold swallow hands. Again, small seconds were at 6o’clock, in a slightly recessed subdial. However, the watch may not have been important historically, at least because it is not shown in Toelke and King’s history of IWC.

In 1993, in honor of IWC’s 125th anniversary, an exact replica of the Portugieser watch was made by IWC. This “Jubilee” edition witnessed 1000 in steel, 500
in rose gold and 250 in platinum. It used IWC’s own 982 calibre manual movement (called 9828 because of a minor change -Jubilee engraving on the bridges). Actually, the watch was not an exact replica, at least because it had a sapphire back. The movement has been one of IWC’s finest, with a swan’s neck
fine regulator and 18,000 bph amplitude. The watch (Ref. 5441) sold in the U.S. for $21,500 in platinum, $12,500 in rose gold and $8,500 in steel. It quickly sold out, even though there were rumors that dealers, at least in Europe, had to buy “sets” of all three models in order to get any.

Shortly after introducing the Jubilee model, IWC made a minute repeater Portugieser (Ref. 5240) and a manual wind, rattrapante chronograph model (Ref.3712), the latter using a modified Valjoux 7760 base movement. In 1996, IWC introduced a smaller (35mm) model in rose gold, Ref. 3531, using a modified Jaeger LeCoultre 891 base movement which is visible through a sapphire
back. In 1997, IWC introduced several further Portugiese models -the Ref. 3531 in steel, a platinum small model (again 35 mm) with a sweep seconds hand and date at 3 o’clock (using a JLC 889/2 ebauche), and an automatic single chronograph (Ref. 3714). The automatic chronograph uses a highly modified Valjoux 7750 base, with IWC even increasing the number of jewels in the movement from the standard 25 to 31 (I suspect they replaced the ball bearings in the rotor). Photographs of the movements, as shown in Watches 98, reflect
a high degree of hand finishing, include using blued screws and extensive Perlage).

Of course, none of these post-1993 models have any historical authenticity;
they are modern derivations from the Jubilee model. However, I once saw a Jaeger LeCoultre chronograph from the 1940s that had striking similarities to the Portugiese chronographs -even to the distinctive “hammer head” pushers.

Actually, there are two families of Portugiese models with stylistic differences
-the small and large models. The 42/43mm models have an unusual crystal that extends outwards from the body of the watch, almost as if it was convex, with an unusual bezel the flares out. The smaller models do not. But all models in the group have a family resemblance, including the matte silver dial, the gold (plated actually) plain numerals, the swallow hands. Except for the new platinum model with center seconds, all have a recessed seconds subdial at 6 o’clock.

I have owned two of the models and found their timekeeping immaculate, within 3to 4 seconds per day. The finishing is typical of IWC’s extraordinarily high attention to detail. But, at least to me, the value of these watches is in their design. Regardless of technical characteristics, these watches reflect a stylistic triumph. Aesthetically, these watches present a series of contradictions that harmonize perfectly. They are both retro and modern. The silvered dials contrast to the gold numerals and hands, which contrast to the case metals. A matte steel base contrasts subtly to a polished bezel. The unusually large size of most of the models creates an impression of strength, which contrasts to the delicacy of the watch’s face.

The smaller models parallel in many ways IWC’s dress watches of the 1960’s, except that the Portugieser models have Arabic numerals at all positions. The larger chronograph models, however, have a distinctive niche -they are ‘dressy’ chronographs. They aren’t ‘another’ sports chronograph: no black dials, no steel bracelets, no luminous hands or markers.

In fact, probably the major complaint against these watches are that they aren’t utilitarian. Except for the new small platinum model, there’s no date function. The chronographs have only one chronograph
subregister, a 30 seconds counter at 12 o’clock. The lack of tritium makes them harder to read in the dark. The modern Portugiesers are beautifully made and work ‘well’ as watches, but they can be considered as ‘style’ watches in the best sense of that word.

The entire line is not inexpensive, even by IWC standards. The new automatic chronograph in steel retails in the U.S. at $5,995, in contrast to the automatic Flieger chronograph at $3,995 -and the Flieger has additional day and date complications, a anti-magnetic sub-housing, one more chronograph register, and a luminous dial. Purely functionally, the Portugieser doesn’t compete.

Why, then, the difference in cost? IWC’s pricing criteria, of course, is known only to it. A more limited production of a specialty product might not permit economies of scale. But I would suggest that the attention to detail -admittedly styling details-costs much more. Those silvered dials can’t be produced like a silk-screened dial. Those applied numerals require more time and attention. That special bezel and perhaps custom crystal have to cost more. That great dial work commands a justifiable premium.

Are these watches worth their cost? It is difficult to cost justify many watches, but these models represent a design triumph. They are at least distinctive and in most examples unique. Yet they are traditional at the same time. Beautiful watches in every instance -and they happen to work well, too. And that Portugiese story from the 1930s has a charm all its own.