An American engineer with an Italian name creates a watch manufacturer in the German-Swiss canton of Schaffhausen with the very appropriate name of International Watch Company. Meet IWC, one of the great names of high-end watchmaking.
The History of IWC
The northernmost canton of Switzerland has a centenary story: around 1049, Count von Nellenburg founded a Benedictine monastery and a community formed around it. The namesake town is first mentioned as Villa Scafhusun, and one of the theories about this name is that it comes from Schaf, a sheep common in that region that appears on the city’s coat of arms.
The First Local Industrialist: Johann Moser
In 1850, the city had a population of around 8,500 inhabitants and its development was somewhat slow. It was then that the watch manufacturer and industrialist Johann Heinrich Moser (of H. Moser & Cie, a brand still extant) built the first hydroelectric plant and pushed Schaffhausen into the industrial age.
IWC is Founded by Florentine Ariosto Jones
The biography of Florentine Ariosto Jones, who founded IWC in 1868, is shrouded in mystery. What is certain is that he was born in New Hampshire in 1841 and that he fought in the Civil War as an enlisted man in 13th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. He gave his occupation as “watchmaker”, and there is a photograph in the Library of Congress that may be of the young Jones holding a pocket watch. There is a resemblance to a photograph we know to be of him as an older man.
Soon after the war was over, he worked for E. Howard & Co., one of the best watch companies in the USA, rising to the position of Superintendent. However, in 1867 he went to Europe looking for a place to begin his own company. His goal was to combine “all the excellence of the American system of mechanism with the more skillful hand labor of the Swiss” to produce watches for the American market.
Jones met Moser in Le Locle and the seed for the first watch company in the northeast of Switzerland was planted. In 1869, Jones rented a building that belonged to Moser in the Rheinstrasse, and in 1874 he was already expanding to a new plant. This was close to Moser’s hydroelectric plant and is the current headquarters of IWC.
Under New Management
Due to conflicts with the board of directors, Jones returned to the USA and died in 1916. So, in 1880, the Rauschenbachs, an industrialist family from Schaffhausen, took over the company with Johannes Rauschenbach-Vogel at the helm.
Johannes didn’t live long enough to see his company grow. He died in 1881 and his son, Johannes Rauschenbach-Schenk, took over the management.
New Century, New Ways
Johannes Rauschenbach-Schenk died in 1905 and his wife, two daughters and their husbands, took over IWC under the name Uhrenfabrik Von J. Rauschenbach’s Erben. (One of the daughters, Emma Marie Rauschenbach, had married Dr. Carl Gustav Jung in 1903, and so the famous Swiss psychologist was one of the directors of IWC.)
However, Ernst Jakob Homberger, Schenk’s other son-in-law, became the sole proprietor in 1929, after buying the holding of his brother-in-law, Carl Jung.
After the Second World War, Albert Pellaton became technical director of IWC. One of his inventions, the Caliber 89, protected the watch movement from magnetic fields. He was also responsible for the development of the Caliber 85, IWC’s first automatic winding mechanism.
The last individual proprietor of IWC, Hans Ernst Homberger, took over in 1955. This is also the year when the Ingenieur with automatic winding – a model still in production – was launched.
The Modern Era
In the 1960s, IWC was one of a group of companies – including Omega, Patek, Rolex and others – that worked in the Beta 21 project, developing the then revolutionary quartz movement: this meant that the precision of the watches would be significantly increased, and IWC released its Da Vinci quartz model in 1969.
However, it also meant that Japan would threaten the once solid Swiss watch market with quartz models much cheaper than the Swiss timepieces. The 1974 rise in the price of gold and the 40% devaluation of the Swiss Franc made the watch prices rise 250%. This scenario was game-changing and IWC reacted, deciding to invest more in mechanical watches with complications.
In 1978, IWC launched their first model designed by Ferdinand Porsche, a partnership that lasted 20 years. (The designer’s company also created models for Orfina and Eterna, but the most fruitful collaboration was with IWC.)
One of these models was the Porsche Design Compass Watch, that incorporated a liquid-filled compass under the watch case: it could be flipped to reveal the compass underneath. The case was aluminum for less metallic interference and to make it lightweight.
In 1991, the new IWC director, Günter Blümlein, founded the LMH group in Schaffhausen, which held 100% of IWC, 60% of Jaeger-LeCoultre and 90% of A. Lange & Söhne, employing over 1,400 people.
LMH was sold to the giant luxury group Richemont in 2000 for 2.8 billion Swiss Francs, preserving the independence and continuity of its brands, including IWC.
Notable Vintage IWC Watches
One of the First IWC Wristwatches
Gentlemen did not use wristwatches at the turn of the century: they were the domain of the ladies. Pocket watches for men lost the race to wristwatches only in the 1930s. This model from 1899 is a beautiful example of a feminine pocket watch adapted to a wristwatch band with lugs.
This innovative dial design, with a jumping-hours digital indication of hours and minutes in small apertures, was conceived by Josef Pallweber, an Austrian engineer, in 1882 and produced by IWC in 1885: it is extremely rare today and much sought after by collectors.
In the 1920s, Cortébert, a Swiss manufacturer, obtained a license and started to produce that which some consider to be the world’s first digital wristwatch. They were included in a selection of the 50 watches that changed the world.
In 1939, two Portuguese importers ordered large case models with the precision of marine chronometers: it was the beginning of the Portugieser collection, still being produced in new versions. From the beginning, the cases were big (43 mm was unheard of in those days), but the watch was elegant and is one of the brand’s best sellers.
This year signals the important launch of the W.W.W., a wristwatch for military use by the British Army: these letters are engraved on the back and mean “Watch, Wrist, Waterproof”.
Porsche Design Titan Chronograph
Another fruit of the collaboration with Ferdinand Porsche was the world’s first wristwatch made of titanium: the Porsche Design Titan Chronograph of 1980 had almost invisible chrono pushers, making it a sleek, avant-garde watch.
1982 was the year when the Ocean dive watch was launched, with an exceptional water resistance up to 2,000 meters. It came with a metallic bracelet and also with a Velcro dive strap, allowing it to be worn over a wetsuit sleeve.
The Da Vinci Chronograph
An exceptionally complicated watch, the Da Vinci chronograph, was launched in 1985. It had a perpetual calendar, programmed for the following five centuries. One of its models had a case made of a zirconium oxide ceramic compound, something unusual for wristwatches back then.
The Grande Complication
Faithful to its name, the Grande Complication of 1990 is a reference in watchmaking, with minute repeater, perpetual calendar, Moon phases, and chronograph. Its development took seven years.
Scafusia is the Italian way to say Schaffhausen, and the Destriero Scafusia – launched in 1993 in a limited edition of 125 pieces, celebrating the 125 years of the brand – caused a stir among collectors. It had 22 functions and was at the time the most complicated wristwatch around.
GST Deep One
This ingenious model with a titanium case, shown in 1999, was IWC’s first watch with a mechanical depth gauge, thanks to a device called Bourdon Tube.
Current Watch Lines
The company produces six collections or families of watches: the largest – with 42 models – is Portofino, evocating the famous Ligurian fishing village at the north of Italy and its celebrity and artistic visitors. Some of the models in this collection have a metallic bracelet in maglia Milanese, with fine links. The watches range from clean, pure classic models with hour and minute hands only, to a tourbillion retrograde date display.
Then comes the Pilot’s Watches collection, with 36 models. They are all inspired by the first pilot’s models produced by IWC, and the most emblematic is arguably the Big Pilot’s Heritage Watch 48, with an imposing 48 mm titanium case, oversized winding crown and clear readability; the manual-wound movement has an 8-day power reserve. Needless to say, this model will not go well (and probably won’t fit) under a social shirt sleeve.
The Portugieser collection has 33 watches, keeping the same big case design of the first models, and featuring most complications produced by IWC. Its case dimensions allow it to house a movement with impressive 7-day power reserve. The Automatic, shown here, has some watchmaking elements of the 1930s, especially the numerals and hands; the dial has a power reserve indicator at 3h.
Aquatimer, as its name suggests, is the diver watch in the IWC catalog, presently with 16 models. Since it was launched, in 1967, it aims at both professional and amateur divers. One interesting model is the Chronograph, self-winding, with rubber strap and a double window at 3 o’clock showing day and date besides the subdials for hours and minutes of the chronograph.
The Da Vinci collection is a tribute to the great Renaissance man and includes some feminine models, with jeweled bezels and smaller case diameter. The Chronograph Edition “Laureus Sport for Good Foundation” has a 42 mm steel case with a nice blue dial and a flyback chronograph function, meaning that you may reset the chronograph without having to stop it between measurements.
As we said, the Ingenieur was created in 1955, with a review of the design by Gerald Genta in 1976, with the Jumbo SL and screws on the bezel (a feature he also included in Royal Oak). Present models, such as this Automatic, are more retro-oriented and reflect the first designs of this flagship watch. It has a stainless steel 40 mm case and an automatic movement, with date display at 3 o’clock.
How to Buy an IWC Watch
Please check out our extensive guide on how to buy a watch for more information.
For daily use with a suit or a nocturnal scenario, the Portofino is the ideal line, especially for the 40+ gentleman. Most have a 40 mm case, such as the Portofino Automatic (ref. IW356501), made in steel with a crocodile leather strap and date window at 3 o’clock; a fine timepiece for $4,500.
The younger generation will find the Pilot collection more to their taste, due to the bolder lines: the Pilot’s Mark XVIII (ref. IW327001) has a 40 mm case in steel, with a silver-gray dial and large numerals and hands. It retails for $3,950.
And regardless of age, the Portugieser line has a nice retro design that fits most situations and wearers. I like the Chronograph (ref. IW371445) for the 1950’s style numerals and hands, and the size is relatively modest for this collection: the case has 40.9 mm in steel, with automatic movement and black alligator strap. It costs US$ 6,900.
IWC is not a brand with “entry-level” price models. Moreover, some of its models have changed from their muscular, even chauvinistic appeal of the 1990s – as these ads above show – to a style a critic said that seems at times “more like a luxury hotel chain than a watch manufacturer”. And the gentlemen’s models seem to have grown a bit too much for comfort.
That being said, it is a company almost 150 years old, with good design, uncompromising quality, and a complete line of watches, from the simple, clean automatic to the grande complication models. And if getting off the safe, but beaten, path of Rolex, Patek and Omega is your aim, then IWC may be a good choice.