Striving for perfection and the noble art of horology at IWC
BY JASMIN HUMMEL
Haute horlogerie is all about first-class, distinctive watchmaking artistry. In the quest for the perfect embodiment of the ‘code of beauty’, we have only the very best place on the world stage. IWC has been a fixed feature of the international market as a leading manufacturer since 1868, wowing watch aficionados with its timeless designs. Christian Knoop, Head Designer at IWC, provides insight into the long-established Swiss company, into the significance of many years of craftsmanship and into the role of being one of the world’s leading brands within the luxury watches segment.
Mr Knoop, the watchmaker profession looks back at a very long and rich tradition in Switzerland, with the products being highly coveted worldwide. IWC will be celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2018. How is this tradition experienced within the business?
Firstly, I have to say that it is of course very exciting to be able to work for a brand with such a rich tradition. IWC’s history is very special. In 1868, the American watchmaker Florentine Ariosto Jones came to Switzerland with a bold entrepreneurial idea: he wanted to combine the expertise of Swiss watchmaking specialists with modern American manufacturing techniques, with the aim of creating the best pocket watches available at the time. Within a very short period of time, he established the infrastructure for manufacturing more than 10,000 movements a year in Schaffhausen – and this in an age in which most watches in Switzerland were still made as a cottage industry in ateliers. Our founder’s entrepreneurial spirit and the quest for engineering excellence have decisively shaped the history of IWC. To this very day, our watches combine precision engineering with extraordinary and simultaneously timeless design.
What specifically makes the IWC brand different in your product segment?
What makes IWC unique are our six product families: Pilot’s Watches, Portugieser, Portofino, Ingenieur, Aquatimer and Da Vinci. All these are deeply rooted in our history: the Pilot’s Watches, for example, go back to the first watch specially designed for pilots back in the 1930s. Many of our watches also have a technical background as functional watches – for instance, the Portugieser, designed as a navigational instrument for sailors, the Pilot’s Watches, a flight-compatible, easy-to-read watch for the cockpit, or the Aquatimer, a diver’s timepiece. Models such as the Pilot’s Watch Mark XI or the Portugieser Chronograph have become veritable icons of watchmaking artistry. We are very proud of these.
As a designer, you are the so-called ‘creator’ of the products. Your ambition is the perfect end product in terms of its aesthetic. How do you manage to communicate the brand through the special design?
What makes our products stand out is their timeless aesthetic. Take the design of the Portugieser, for example: the first Portugieser was manufactured almost 80 years ago and looks just as fresh and modern today as it did when it was first launched. The challenge for our design team when developing a new collection is to filter out the essential aesthetic codes of a family of watches and to reinterpret them in a contemporary manner. The new Ingenieur watch, for example, is strongly inspired by the first model created in 1955, but still has an extremely modern appearance.
What design is your personal favourite and why?
All our products are close to my heart. Because as designers, we work on a product for two to three years prior to its launch, my current favourites are all watches that are not yet on the market. If there is a watch that stands out for me, then it has to be the Portugieser Yacht Club. It was one of the first watches that I worked on when I came to IWC nine years ago. For this reason, it will always be particularly special to me.
The ‘Da Vinci Collection’ was relaunched in 2017, taking its inspiration from the 1985 design. What motivated you to intensively refocus your attention on this collection?
The Da Vinci is the one IWC collection of watches that has changed the most over the decades. The first Da Vinci was launched in 1969 as a quartz watch with a hexagonal gold case, very much in keeping with the zeitgeist of the 1970s. The 1985 Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar was then presented in a round case with a double-frame bezel. This was inspired by a Leonardo da Vinci sketch, which portrays harbour fortifications in Piombino. The timepiece was not only impressive in terms of its design, but also marked a turning point: with the legendary Kurt Klaus eternal calendar, IWC rang in the return of high-end mechanical movements and sophisticated complications. We are now continuing this chapter of our history with the new Da Vinci.
Is there a universal ‘code of beauty’? And how can it be measured?
What is so interesting about this is that there is no such benchmark, although countless scientists over the centuries have searched for it. Even Leonardo da Vinci constantly attempted to create a link between mathematics and aesthetics in his work. He wanted to find a formula that would make beauty measurable and predictable. For this reason, we have made this fictitious ‘code of beauty’ the focus of our communication campaign. By the way: we also pay homage to the work of Da Vinci by engraving the ‘Flower of Life’ on the case back of the ladies’ watches in the new collection.
IWC is a brand that is consciously targeted at men. How have the male understanding of beauty and awareness of aesthetics changed over time?
That’s an interesting question. This awareness has undoubtedly changed constantly over time. In conjunction with our 150th anniversary, we have intensively focused on our beginnings back in the 19th century. Interestingly, aesthetics back then played a very important role for men, evidently among other things in the apparel at the time and also in the elaborately embellished pocket watches. I believe that men today are much more consciously focused on aesthetics and fashion, trying to underline their personality with accessories. And a high-end mechanical wristwatch – often the only item of jewellery worn by men – is of course an essential instrument for emphasising your personal style.
What ‘beauty codes’ need to be adhered to specifically when designing men’s watches?
Many of our watches are characterised by their respectable size. The generous dimensions of the Portugieser timepieces, for example, are due to the fact that we historically often used pocket watch movements for our wristwatches. Many designs are therefore emphatically masculine. But that does not mean they are not appreciated and worn by women as well. Our portfolio offers tremendous diversity, with the perfect watch for any outfit and occasion. Some customers wear a Portugieser for business, an Aquatimer or Ingenieur for leisure or sports and a Da Vinci or Portofino on elegant occasions. The interaction of various aesthetic elements that complement different attire or occasions is playing an ever more important role in the luxury timepiece segment.
How many people work on a watch throughout the overall manufacturing process, from the idea all the way through to the finished product?
In the early days of horological craftsmanship, the watchmaker was both the designer and the creator. Our founding father, F.A. Jones, was the first person to merge pre-industrial processes with serial production in the Swiss watchmaking industry. And division of labour has of course massively increased over the last 150 years. Today, specialists from ten or more disciplines are engaged in the development of a new product. In addition to designers, case specialists, material scientists and movement constructors, there are also sales, marketing, industrialisation, text laboratory and customer service specialists involved. They all have different perspectives and bring various ideas to the process. Their different approaches to issues often result in controversial, but tremendously important creative dialogue. The aim of this approach is to create products that find favour with our customers in every respect.
As a brand, IWC is a major ‘product placement’ player. What are your product placement collaborations and what is your approach?
IWC is closely linked to various players within the movie industry. These include directors, producers and of course numerous well-known actors such as James Marsden, Cate Blanchett and Sir Patrick Stewart. In addition to this, we support film festivals across the globe, promoting young filmmakers with the ‘Filmmaker Award’. The fact that our products feature in so many productions has less to do with special arrangements than it does with the fact that many people in the movie industry simply love our products and wear them in the films.
What innovations can we expect from IWC in its 2018 anniversary year?
IWC turns 150 next year. For this reason, we will be unveiling an outstanding collection of truly special watches at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva. I am at this point unable to reveal much about this, but suffice it to say that it will be one of the most spectacular collections that has ever been presented on the occasion of such an anniversary.
Christian Knoop has been Creative Director at IWC Schaffhausen since 2008. 2018 is an anniversary year for both IWC and him personally. Before coming to IWC, he worked as a designer for several well-known companies, including Philips Design. He is an admirer of the aesthetic consistency of the brand. For him, watches are the most emotional of all design products. As part of a creative dialogue, he designs the watch creations of tomorrow in collaboration with his design team.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin, issue Q4 2017. Picture credit © IWC Schaffhausen