An Old-School Debate on the Beloved Brand
Opinion: Has IWC Lost Its Way?
Watch connoisseurs are a passionate bunch. You wouldn’t think there’d be a lot to get hot and bothered about when it comes to antiquated and genteel timepieces. But just visit any of the countless web forums dedicated to this crazy hobby and you’ll see debates raging that would make even Presidential hopefuls blush. Today we present two sides to the divisive argument that the International Watch Company (IWC) has somehow sold out or lost its way. How better to address the issue than an old-school-style debate? We’ve held onto the personal appeals and fiery language while ditching the Points of Clarification. Taking the affirmative side — that IWC has lost its way — is contributing writer Shane Griffin; for the opposition — arguing that IWC has not lost its way — is Timekeeping section editor Jason Heaton.
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by Shane Griffin
IWC is losing its way. The company still makes some beautiful watches, and it has a handful of well-finished in-house calibers. This is a watchmaker that has been a major leader with regard to innovation for over 100 years, so that’s a given. In recent years, however, IWC has relied more so on marketing than haute horology. Before anyone flips a table, let me explain.
IWC may have been at the forefront of watchmaking innovations a number of times over the last century or so, but today it’s falling behind the curve. Its competitors, Omega and Rolex, have been pushing harder on in-house innovations. Sure, IWC has delicately finished high-end calibers, but they only seem to fit into not-so-delicate oversized cases. In today’s age of robots applying aesthetic finishing, well-executed Geneva stripes are the minimum. What gets the job done is going the extra mile on the differentiators. IWC’s current technology isn’t groundbreaking. The brand touts its rotor system its most unique technology, but that was invented 80 years ago. Omega’s Co-axial Escapement, in-house silicon balance springs and 100 percent non-magnetic movement show how it is looking forward. Rolex has its Parachrom balance spring; it invented a two-tone ceramic bezel technology; it still uses a higher-grade steel than everyone else; its movements are unquestionably reliable. It’s fair to say that Breitling and even TAG Heuer are making a run at IWC with their recent in-house calibers.
And it’s not just innovation that’s gone awry. IWC’s also strayed from its heritage. The Ingenieur family is a great example. On its website, IWC says these watches were made for scientists, engineers, pilots, et al. Yet in the last five to seven years, the Ingenieur line has somehow become a racing-inspired series. Race car drivers don’t fit in anywhere. It’s a total disconnect. It’s the equivalent of Rolex putting a slide rule on a Sub and introducing a watch for navigators. With such history and meaning behind their Ingenieur line, IWC is doing itself a great disservice with this change of direction. Are they good looking (if we ignore the size)? Sure. Are they well-made pieces? Of course. But I expect that from all of IWC’s watches. What I don’t expect is for IWC to lose sight of one of its major identifiers in favor of flashiness. The majority of this line looks like something off of the Hublot website, and that’s disturbing. What’s more, while the basic 3239 is an understated, handsome watch, the ETA 2892 inside is a little too understated. If Omega can fit a 9300 into the Speedmaster 57, IWC needs to be doing the same. Hell, give me a manual Ingenieur if you have to!
I’m not an IWC hater. I think many of its watches are gorgeous (read: Portuguese Hand-Wound 8 Day). There’s no doubt that IWC makes great timepieces that a lot of people enjoy. But I’m also man of passion, and I’m allowed to be picky. It’s worth questioning whether the brand is being misdirected by its marketing efforts. It’s time to get back to basics: a scaled-down Ingenieur family focusing on its roots, more widespread use of in-house calibers, and a concentration on bringing some hard-hitting technological innovations to the entire lineup.
by Jason Heaton
IWC is not losing its way. The world of luxury watches, dominated by Swiss brands, tends to be a conservative crowd, averse to radical changes. Yet in this increasingly fast-paced world, attention spans are short and collectors and enthusiasts get restless with brands who sit still for long. Hence we see annual product updates, special editions, celebrity endorsements, sports sponsorships and lavish launch events to keep the watch public’s attention. So yes, there is an awkward dance between the traditions of watchmaking heritage and cutting edge 21st century marketing. IWC has done a masterful job of both.
Marketing and fine watchmaking do not have to be mutually exclusive. Watch collectors, forum denizens and bloggers criticize a brand for not evolving fast enough but when a brand steps a little outside of its established aesthetics or gets a little too experimental, it is equally frowned upon. IWC has taken some chances that some have embraced while others have seen as a sell-out. Count me as one of the former.
What’s wrong with reinventing yourself? So what if the Ingenieur was initially a scientist’s watch? White lab coats and pocket protectors don’t sell watches like a Nomex racing suit. Selling watches means more money for R & D, which means great new watches year after year. Besides, if you want a scientist or engineer angle with your timepiece, there’s plenty of science and engineering in Formula 1.
And the Inge has not suffered from its rebranding as a motorsports watch. The Carbon Performance and AMG Black Series Ceramic are emblems of what the Schaffhausen brand does well: working with difficult new case materials, angular Teutonic styling and fitting them with rugged, efficient in-house movements. The Silberpfeil and Chronograph Racer references make use of IWC’s great 89365 movement, which was one of the first to combine hour and minute counters in one subdial. And if you are nostalgic for an anti-magnetic tool watch, there’s the basic Automatic to scratch your Genta itch.
As for movement innovation, I would argue that IWC has been staying the course it set with the Pellaton winding system 80 years ago, through a mix of steady improvements, prudent use of highly adapted ETA movements (the Doppelchronograph!) and an overall guiding principle of durability and reliability. The 7-day automatic movement found in the Portuguese and Pilot families is lauded as one of the best self-winding movements around. As I mentioned earlier, the 89365 chrono motors are some of the most intuitive and versatile, perhaps on par with OMEGA’s 9300 series. And if you want haute horlogerie, you need only look at the perpetual calendar and constant force tourbillon models in the Ingenieur family or the astronomical (and astronomically priced) Portuguese Siderale Scafusia.
Sure, CEO Georges Kern loves his celebrities and over-the-top media events. But as long as IWC keeps producing the kinds of lustworthy sports watches they’ve long been known for, they can launch IWC-wearing clowns over the Rheinfall for all I care. In the end, people don’t buy luxury watches for telling time. They buy them for their mechanical ingenuity, the styling and the feelings they conjure up when they wear them. Watches are one of the few acceptable accessories a man can wear. IWC embraces this and continues to be true to their tagline, “Engineered for Men”. I hope they never stop.