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05/13/2024
 4 minutes

The History of IWC

By Barbara Korp
IWC-Big-Pilot-IW329303-W010818-2-1

IWC History: A Legacy of Engineering and Aesthetics

IWC is simply different from other watch brands. Not only is it one of the few Swiss-German brands in the watch industry, but – more than others – it is a manufacturer that puts the spirit of engineering front and center. In this article, we’ll trace the roots of this brand’s DNA and the path that led IWC to become the company it is today.

IWC Gets Its Start

IWC (International Watch Company) can trace its history back to 1868, when American engineer and watchmaker Florentine Ariosto Jones founded a watch factory on the grounds of a former monastery garden in Schaffhausen, Switzerland and began producing technically masterful pocket watches. Since its early days, IWC has taken an industrial approach to watchmaking, combining the craft knowledge of Swiss watchmakers with modern technology and the hydropower of the nearby Rhine.

IWC Taschenuhr
IWC pocket watch

 

The Birth of the Pilot and Portugieser Collections

In the 1930s, IWC developed two watch collections that are still among the brand’s most popular watches today. In 1936, the company introduced what is perhaps now the most famous IWC timepiece: the first watch specially engineered for pilots. Three years later, two Portuguese importers commissioned the design of large wristwatches equipped with pocket watch movements – thus the IWC Portugieser was born.

IWC Portugieser aus dem 1940ern
IWC Portugieser from the 1940s

Post-War Era

The economic boom of the post-war period benefitted the watch industry, but it also presented new challenges. The increasing ubiquity of technology in everyday life meant that more and more magnetic fields were affecting the accuracy of watches. Albert Pellaton, IWC’s technical director at the time, was determined to solve this problem through inventions like an inner cage made of soft iron. This signature IWC feature protects the movement from magnetic fields and is still used in pilot’s watches today. Pellaton’s most famous invention, however, was a new winding mechanism that is now named after the IWC watchmaker. In the Pellaton system, the winding wheel is pulled on two ends by pawls, allowing for a power reserve of up to seven days – a revolutionary achievement both then and now.

Vintage IWC mit Pellaton-Aufzug
Vintage IWC with a Pellaton winding system

New Additions

IWC launched several important watches in the years that followed, including the first IWC Ingenieur in 1955 and the Aquatimer in 1967, which was the first diving watch ever produced in Schaffhausen. During this time, the company also helped develop the first Swiss quartz movement, the Beta 21, which in turn powered the first IWC Da Vinci. The models in this collection remain popular today.

IWC Da Vinci mit Beta 21 Quarzwerk
IWC Da Vinci with the Beta 21 quartz movement

IWC and the Quartz Crisis

Like all brands, IWC was hit hard by the quartz crisis. Instead of pivoting and shifting focus, however, IWC returned to the brand’s core values, above all technical excellence. At the height of the quartz crisis, the company produced the world’s first titanium watch cases, thereby making a name for themselves as experts in the field of materials science. IWC also made a name for itself in the world of watch complications, with Kurt Klaus shaping the history of the brand. In the mid-1980s, his perpetual calendar featured in the Da Vinci collection; shortly thereafter, to mark the company’s 125th anniversary, IWC launched the Il Destriero Scafusia, which at the time was the world’s most complicated mechanical wristwatch.

IWC Il Destriero Scafusia
IWC Il Destriero Scafusia

The Quartz Crisis Ends

While the end of the quartz crisis shifted economic conditions, IWC maintained its focus on materials research and technology. Whether producing the first wristwatch with a bronze case, or developing Ceratanium® and new ceramic alloys, IWC was and still is today a leader in materials science – thanks in no small part to its cooperation with Formula 1. Of course, the company has not forgotten the art of watchmaking and has developed new and complex complications like the double moon display, which has been added to the perpetual calendar.

IWC Heritage Today and Tomorrow

In 2023, IWC updated the Ingenieur for the 21st century by modernizing the original Genta design in subtle ways. In 2024, the brand revolutionized the perpetual calendar with the Portugieser Eternal Calendar. Not only does this watch perfectly navigate the leap year exception rules in the Gregorian calendar. As if that weren’t enough, it also displays the phases of the moon so accurately that it will only deviate by a single day after 45 million years (!). These are just some of the ways IWC adapts its rich heritage to the present day and makes watchmaking history. The brand remains true to itself and to its mission: to dedicate itself towards creating a future worth living – one in which long-lasting timepieces are cherished as well as continually optimized. After all, the ethos of the engineer is to take responsibility for the past, present, and future. And IWC has been active in shaping all three.

IWC Ingenieur (2023)
IWC Ingenieur (2023)

About the Author

Barbara Korp

The moment I learned that watches were a lot more than just simple jewelry, I was hooked; I become enamored with the elegance of timekeeping. But there was one small hitch: most models were just too big for me to wear! That didn't discourage me, however. In fact, I developed quite a niche interest.

Read more

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