One hundred and fifty years.
Not much of a lifespan for a university, a European town, or a Sierra redwood. Five minutes and a few dollars spent on eBay can put you in possession of a coin or a book that was already ancient in 1868, the year Florentine Aristo Jones traveled from Boston to Schaffhausen to found the International Watch Company. If you deal in matters cosmological or geological, a century and a half barely merits mention. It is an eyeblink.
In matters horological, however—in this new era of watchmaking where opportunistic investors wrap whole-cloth start-ups in tissue-thin histories of dubious or borrowed provenance, where long-dead marques and models are hydraulically fracked from the past to adorn commodity movements and generic designs—IWC’s claim to 150 years of continuous production feels truly rare, deliciously enviable. All the more so for its aristocratic approach to that history—how the company has always refused to be handcuffed by its own weighty tradition.
Consider, for instance, that iconic trio of 1970s Gerald Genta sports-watch designs. Audemars Piguet has tirelessly extended the Royal Oak to a multitude of variants, while Patek Philippe has carefully conserved the core Nautilus concept across four decades. IWC, on the other hand, simply abandoned its Genta-designed Ingenieur this year, like a child tossing away an unwanted toy. And why not? The firm had an older design, from 1955, that it felt deserved a reboot into the new “Ingy.” Such behavior is the hallmark of pur sang, whether in Frankish nobility or watchmaking royalty.
Yet there has always been an iconoclastic streak in IWC’s history, starting from the moment of its birth. F.A. Jones was no Swiss burgher; he was New Hampshire born and bred, and his eyes were firmly fixed on the American market. Thus, “International Watch Company,” to emphasize the advantages of a Swiss product over the domestic competition. It did not entirely pan out, and Mr. Jones was to leave the firm after seven years. By 1884, IWC was Swiss in both management and ownership, headed by Johannes Rauschenbach-Schenk. He was fascinated by the recently unveiled Pallweber system.
When Douglas Adams wrote in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that humans were “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea,” he likely didn’t know about Josef Pallweber’s innovation, which predated Hamilton’s Pulsar P1 of 1972 by nearly 90 years but was, strictly speaking, a true digital timepiece. IWC would go on to produce approximately 20,000 Pallweber-system pocket watches, which used jumping-minute and jumping-hour complications, along with numbered discs to power hour and minute displays, much like the date indicator on a contemporary mechanical watch.
The decision to terminate production of the Pallwebers put the digital watch into a Rip-Van-Winkle-like slumber until the beginning of the Space Age. Still, IWC continued to innovate as the tide turned from pocket watch to wristwatch after World War I. The Special Pilot’s Watch, Reference IW436, arrived in 1936 to serve the needs of a new class of adventurer. Antimagnetic and proofed against the freezing temperatures encountered by open-cockpit aviators, the IW436 established aesthetic and functional directions for pilots’ watches that continue to this day.
One of the brand’s few stubborn loyalties—to its own hand-wound movements—prevented IWC from taking advantage of John Harwood’s “Perpetual” patent for self-winding mechanical watches. But in 1950, technical director Albert Pellaton designed and patented a unique bidirectional winding movement that would first appear in 1955’s Ingenieur. It used a soft-iron case to deflect magnetic fields, and can be considered an early example of what is now called a “tool watch.”
The quartz era brought a variety of conventional and “mecha-quartz” hybrid movements in watches that might seem eccentric to modern eyes, but should start enjoying a well-deserved renaissance of regard. Similarly, a partnership with Porsche Design resulted in a series of highly regarded sport watches, including the wonderfully campy “Compass” collaboration. Here, the dial and movement could be flipped up to reveal—you guessed it—a liquid-filled compass. The entire watch was made from aluminum, so as to prevent interference with the directional needle.
A more significant product was the Titan chronograph, the first wristwatch to use a full-titanium case. IWC expended substantial effort addressing the challenges of machining, offering an unprecedented combination of lightness, durability, and corrosion resistance. The follow-up effort, 1982’s Ocean, could be used at depths of up to 2,000 meters and was available in a completely antimagnetic version for military divers whose jobs could take them close to magnetic mines.
Renewed interest in Swiss mechanical watches soon found IWC well-positioned, a notion which perhaps did not occur immediately to the nouveau riche, but which nonetheless offered impeccable historical credentials, producing a variety of sports and luxury pieces. A diverse series of cobranding efforts, with entries ranging from the Fondation Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to the Mercedes-AMG Formula One team, has kept IWC firmly in the public eye; radical designs of the Da Vinci and Ingenieur lines have demonstrated a commitment to keeping its core models fresh.
But the main attraction is the mechanical-digital display for hours and minutes. Whereas the unusual jumping mechanisms of the 1884 original required frequent winding by the standards of the era, the new tribute rectifies that issue by decoupling the minute wheel for 59 of every 60 seconds, reducing drag and allowing for a 60-hour reserve. The unique manufacture movement requires 50 jewels and operates at an impressive 28,800 vph. As one would expect nowadays, the dial is a relatively large 45 mm. The caseback is sapphire, all the better to allow one marvel at the complications within.
In that spirit, IWC has chosen to mark its 150th anniversary by issuing no fewer than 27 commemorative editions, including tourbillons, perpetual calendars, and a new movement with ceramic internals. The spotlight will, however, undoubtedly shine brightest on an all-new effort that reaches back to that 1884 Pallweber design for inspiration. The IWC Tribute to Pallweber Edition “150 Years” (Ref. IW505002) is a very different take on the modern digital watch, using an 18-karat red-gold case, a white dial with a lacquered finish, white display discs, and a blued seconds hand.
Priced at $36,000 and limited to a total production of just 250 examples, the Pallweber tribute is not meant for general consumption. Nor does it presage a new era of mechanical-digital watches. (Although such a development would be a welcome change from the current focus on hypertrophic case-size and increasingly recherché combinations of complications.) No, it’s better to think of this latest piece as a statement, a celebration of what IWC has always done best, a testament to its singular position in the industry: that tireless champion of innovation, free to alternately disregard and venerate its history, both deeply rooted in tradition and fearlessly focused on the future.