Being in the watchmaking game for 150 years is no easy feat, but IWC are stepping into the second half of their second century of existence with class, elegance and spearheading the importance of a classic timepiece in an era where innovation seems to be the be all and end all. Stefan Inhen, head of research and development at IWC, stresses just how key maintaining the brand’s integrity is. In a time where complications are installed for the sake of it, we sat down with Inhen to discuss why IWC hasn’t fallen down that trap in 150 years of operation, and won’t do so in the 150 years to come.
Firstly, the 150th year celebration is such a momentous birthday, what’s it been like leading the team producing the Jubilee pieces?
We had to really bring some technical novelties, we had to do even more projects – I would say double the number of movement projects we usually do – and we had two new base calibres within the Jubilee collection and we have the Pallweber within the collection. It was a huge workload.
When you’re creating a modern version of a classic, how do you decide which features to maintain from the original design versus which to update?
It was very easy, with the Pallweber. We know this old mechanism quite well; we still share these watches from that century. But it has its limits – we are talking about technology from 1884 – it’s not the status we need today or what the customer expects today. So for us the Pallweber makes it really exciting and one of the most exciting projects of the past 10/15 years because there was nothing. When you do a Tourbillon or a perpetual calendar or something like that, you have a lot of references where you can look at outside, and even inside, we have a lot of history with all these kinds of things. But for the Pallweber, if its an old mechanism we couldn’t take it, so it was really the brief – it should look like the classic one but do it in the modern technique.
We had to start from scratch. Five years ago, it was very nice. You don’t have this opportunity very often to start something completely new and so we did a few concepts in the beginning. We know quite well how to manage as we have also the digital perpetual calendar and we have the annual calendar. These are always tricky because they take a lot of energy and we were quite clear from the beginning – we need a lot of energy. We were focusing directly on this problem, and the result was that we have two separate barrels – one is really powering a normal gear train with a normal balance wheel etc. as it powers up 60 hours and so on. The only task of this gear train is we have the small second out of it and it gives an input every minute to a second gear train. And the second barrel, which is only powering the whole mechanisms of the discs, gives the input and the energy comes from the other side and that’s the only connection between these two barrels, via the hand wound. They get wound parallel and then they work completely independent, one powers the balance, the other one brings the energy to switch the discs.
Would you say that the biggest challenge from the whole collection was solving that issue with the Tourbillon?
[Yes] but it was a really nice challenge. There were two developers in charge and one project manager. Several times I told them, “You have the most exciting project of the past 10 to 15 years because it’s so special, there’s nothing else on the market, so you can really think about it, you can create your own ideas, there’s no reference, nobody will come and say that you have to do it like this or have you looked at that or something like that, can be completely innovative and do whatever.” That was a beginning really, to find the right way.
Looking back through the 150 year catalogue, is there anything from the past that you feel is a ‘holy grail’ piece that you would either love to have, or is a favourite that stands out to you?
One of my first projects was the Calibre 89 – the in house chronograph, which is now already more than 11 years on the market. 11 years on the market, so yeah I’m looking back to this project. I bought recently a Portugieser with this movement inside.
When it comes to the design and creation out of all your pieces, is there a common thread that defines IWC’s DNA?
We have all of our product families and mostly these product families have their own DNA. They all have their look; their DNA and we have to respect this of course. When you look, overall, I would say we are very archetype, we don’t do very fancy things and usually it has to make sense and it has to bring a benefit to the customer. To do a complication just to say it’s complicated – it doesn’t make so much sense for me. For example, usually we don’t have retrograde displays. When you do a normal disc, you have the opportunity to take a full circle, it’s better for the readability. But if you have a Tourbillon and you can’t use a full, then of course it makes sense to go into retrograde.
Is there a line you draw when you’re doing things experimentally?
We have a small innovation group which create their own ideas and then we present them to the management. Sometimes the influences come from the management directly and we also use what we hear from our customers…Sometimes there are really interesting points you can take with you and you can give it in the innovation group, they can think it on and bring it into a direction. Just offers a really different way to get to a good idea.
Let’s say we fast-forward another 150 years. If you had to pick a piece to be the flagship for the 300th Birthday of IWC. What would it be?
I don’t know. Maybe it would be a combination of nice complications we did in the past. I’m not sure. Personally, even we don’t have one in the collection, but I still love the minute repeater. I’m a watchmaker – for me it’s still one of the nicest and highest complications. The minute repeater combined with the Pallweber for example would be a nice thing.
Looking forward, is there anything in particular you feel you want to create or achieve during your time at IWC?
There are some things of course. We brought a lot now for this Jubilee so it will take some time to bring something new on this level but we have already ideas and we’re working on these kinds of things but I can’t comment on these kinds of things. But we have quite some ideas. Now, as the Jubilee is over, now we start to have cups of tea again to develop.