Ruminations on the International Watch Company

An Adventure In Retrogrouch Heresy

by Carlos Perez

February 13, 2001

The clang and clatter of tireless machines, the jets of steam and pillars of billowing smoke — these are the images brought to mind by the word “industrial.” In complete contrast lies the silent and magical elfin aura of atelier handcrafts, the mysteries of which we imagine are overseen by a hoary Rumplestilskin. It is these that Florentine Jones intended to forge together in his vision of the International Watch Company — the awakening power of Industrial America, and the heritage of knowledge of the Swiss crafters (as well as their lower labor costs), which then in mid-19th century were in the process of surpassing their neighbors in France.

Thus it was on the American model of industrial enterprise rather than the traditional Swiss cooperative of etablissage that IWC set out to manufacture as much of the complete watch as possible — in time becoming a specialist of movements and case-work. While the company would change hands many times, the philosophy of simple and practical high-quality watches with robust, reliable, and accurate movements would guide and sustain IWC for well over a century.

It was only the Great Storm of quartz — which IWC had a hand in creating — that would finally shake the solid foundations upon which it was built. In its evolution as it adapted to survive, we find now that IWC is rather a different company than it was a mere 20 years ago. It has nonetheless found success and indeed flourished, but in opening a current catalogue one finds that IWC is a primarily place of high complications, chronographs, and “sports” watches. Perhaps I am the only one who thinks of something different when I think of the brand “IWC.”

The IWC that I think of was arguably the premier house of the sensible, daily-wear watch. From its unbroken heritage of pocket watch manufacture, to its long golden age of hand-wound and automatic wristwatches, and its few signature exotic works that stand out despite their lack of complication. I think that IWC first entered my consciousness in a story by Chris Ingram, with the idea of the “black faced Schaffhausen,” but the sporty Fliegerchrono in the tale never satisfied this idea for me, and neither did the new GST line when studied in person — and which were then the darlings of TimeZone.

Our modern dualism of categorized “sports” and “dress” wristwatches has blotted out and rewritten much of wristwatch history. The legacy of the fine watch with timeless design and a robust and accurate movement is no more. The classic functional watch that served through peace and war has been replaced by the “sports” styled watch, and the old classics are re-badged as “dress” watches, and are largely considered effete and useless. Likewise, specialized “professional” or specific application watches have been dumbed down and swept into this new “sports” watch category. I lost interest in IWC until I encountered the not-then discussed “Portuguese” and “Portofino” collections, which eventually led me back to their predecessors and all that IWC once was.

Most obscured today is IWC’s long heritage of hand-wound watches — a tiny glimmer of which we see in the design of the automatic Portofinos and small auto Portuguese. While a full accounting of them is far beyond the abilities of the author, I will touch on a few of the most significant — those based on calibres 83 and 89, and the related calibre 88. The legacy of these movements is as intimately tied to IWC’s simple daily-wear watches as to their celebrated amagnetic military-specification watches.

In terms of production volume, calibre 83 was one of the most successful IWC movements ever produced. Its elegant six-bridge design marks it as a transition between the refined pocket watch calibres of the day and the true wristwatch calibres to come. First introduced in 1930, it was soon adapted for use in the in the Mark IX military-specification wristwatch with an amagnetic escapement. It would again be used in 1943 for Mark X, but in a further upgraded form with the addition of shock-resistance. While they are the most famous bearers of calibre 83, these two wristwatches represent only about 1/10th of the total production of calibre 83 — it enjoyed tremendous success in civilian form as well.

Its successors, calibres 88 and 89 were introduced concurrently in 1946. If less elegant in appearance than the 83, the 88 and 89 became simpler and more robust — better suited to military service and the rigors of day-to-day civilian wear than their predecessor. Their related form is clearly defined by function, yet bears the elements of craftsmanship expected of high-grade movements. It was the center-seconds version, calibre 89, that was selected for military use in the Mark XI introduced in 1947. As the most famous bearer of calibre 89, the Mark XI would be produced for approximately 30 years. Calibre 88 would be produced until 1964, used solely in civilian watches of classic subsidiary-seconds designs akin to those of the calibre 83. The success of the austerely styled regular production calibre 89 watches would carry them into the early 1990s.

The secret history of IWC’s hand-wound watches represents a lost noble heritage with few peers in the industry. Their timeless wristwatch designs reduced the form of the watch to its simplest and clearest terms, and for me are more expressive of IWC’s identity than the egoless purity of the wristwatches they built to military specifications. While I do not intend to detract from IWC’s military watch heritage, I feel that their classic watches deserve at least equal esteem. Perhaps it is all moot however, as the sales of handwinds have been largely killed by automation — both by mechanical autowinding and by battery-powered quartz.

The most exotic family of IWC wristwatches are those based its large chronometre grade pocket watch movements. In fact the oldest movements still produced by IWC are its pocket watch calibres 95 and 98, first introduced in 1928 and 1936 respectively. A curious merging of this pocket watch tradition and IWC’s growing wristwatch production, the now famous and treasured Portugiesers were made for a few years in the early 1940s, with a total production thought to be less than 500 units.

While the history of large pocket watch movement based instrument watches is a long and varied one (including IWC’s own B-Uhren), the manufacture of a similarly based daily-wear watch is one that apparently originated with IWC, and though they have been often imitated they have never been equalled. In the years that followed the limited production of the original Portugiesers, many vintage IWC pocket watches have lost their movements to “made up” Portuguese-style wristwatches.

In the otherwise aesthetically-challenged 1970s, IWC began the production of the profoundly classical Portofino Moonphase watch — which they’ve only recently discontinued. Nominally the first “Portofino,” it was based on the lepine-style pocket watch calibre 95 rather than the hunter calibre 98 (specifically calibre 9521). Its design is a tribute and a reflection of the long and unbroken IWC history of pocket watch manufacture, and is quite distinct from its Portugieser cousins (see image at top).

The true modern Portugiesers are a rare lot, produced only in limited editions. The Jubilee Portugiesers of 1993 in only 1750 examples (calibre 9828), the Portuguese Minute Repeaters of 1993 in only 550 examples, with IWC’s repetition minutes module adapted to calibre 95 (calibre 95290), and the Pisa Portugiesers of 1997 in only 50 examples (calibre 9828).

While the “small” automatic Portugieser is the watch that reawakened my interest in IWC, in retrospect I find it more akin to a reinterpretation of the old calibre 88 watches in an automatic form (nothing to complain about!) than an authentic Portugieser. It is only now that we see what an automatic Portugieser truly ought to be, with the new limited edition Portugieser 2000 and its automatic calibre 5000 — a movement which effectively may be the first automatic pocket watch calibre since the late 19th century experiments that followed the work of Perrelet and Breguet.

Much of the technical merit of calibre 5000 is taken from a lineage of calibres which I personally consider the peak of IWC’s in-house movement manufacture — calibre 85. While technically not the first, calibre 85 was really the definitive automatic movement of IWC. Designed by IWC’s Technical Director Albert Pellaton, the automatic winding system that sill bears his name is yet unparalleled even in our “high mechanical renaissance” (ThomasM). Introduced in 1950, the movement evolved mechanically from calibre 85 to 852, 853, 854, and to its highest and final form calibre 8541B (shown below).

Like its hand-wound watches, IWC’s automatics initially followed in their long-established and decidedly austere design aesthetic. But it was in 1954 when this movement and style were finally combined with the amagnetic properties of the old Mark series, and the then-new possibilities in water-resistance, that arguably the greatest work of IWC as a wristwatch manufacture was created: The Ingenieur — the simple and uncompromising definition of functional timekeeping.

A gentleman’s alternative to the milspec Mark XI, it was set apart by the “lightning bolt” logo — its symbol of electromagnetic defiance. As the vanguard and living symbol of IWC, it was continually upgraded and refined over the 21 years it was produced, becoming the paragon of an old design and manufacturing philosophy best summed in their motto Probus Scafusia. It was finally discontinued in 1975 as it, a true professionals watch, was replaced with a Gerald Genta redesign as a luxury “sports” watch, and survived by the other bearers of calibre 85: The Yacht Club, an elegant and braceletted “sports” watch; and the Aquatimer.

While the status of a prestige brand is borne primarily by its most exclusive high-ticket complications (the “prestige” of which trickles down to its “entry level” offerings), the reputation of a manufacture of high-quality practical watches lies in turn in the average performance of its products, in terms of real-world accuracy and reliability. Rather than put its creative and developmental efforts into exclusive and showy (but prestigious) complications, IWC formerly demonstrated its technical prowess by dedicating its best minds and putting its best efforts into improving the basic, functional watch in real and useful ways. Thus for me it will always be the original Ingenieur that is the standard bearer of IWC — the real Destriero Scafusia.

The future for IWC appears brighter for the IWC retrogrouch than it has in some time. While I do not expect that there will ever be a return to IWC’s glory days of hand-wound watches, variations of the new calibre 5000 will no doubt serve in annual or bi-annual limited editions for some years to come, with rumors of a B-Uhr styled model for 2002. There have also been promises of a new smaller automatic calibre, probably a resized and simplified redesign of calibre 5000 or a thinner successor to the 8541B discontinued several years ago. While it has been said that it will only be used in “dress” watches at first, who knows? Perhaps one day the classic Ingenieur may live again…

Special thanks to Michael Friedberg

Image Credits:

Moonphase, cal 89, and cal’s 83 & 89 by Terry Russell
Mark IX, X, XI, and B-Uhr by Roland Kammer

Jubilee Portugieser, calibres 9828 and 5000, and Ingenieur by Larry Seiden
Calibre 8541B from ref. 1850 by Zeetan

Copyright © Carlos A. Perez 2001
All Rights Reserved