Feature: The IWC story

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Just like its timepieces, the definitive tome on the fine watchmaker, which features a book within a book, is an inimitable and unique work of art  by Elaine Lau

The stories that resonate with us are often those of men and women who set out into the unknown and blaze a trail where there was none, who hold fast to their dreams, and who triumph. These stories inspire in us a sense of awe and wonder, and we cherish them for that.
Embedded within the IWC Schaffhausen story are these very elements. In the 1860s, American watchmaker Florentine Ariosto Jones, then the director of F Howard Watch & Cie, was looking to do things differently and better than the competition in the fledging American watch industry. He knew of Switzerland and its outstanding watchmakers, as well as the relatively low labour costs. Tapping into their know-how and skills, he decided, was the way to set himself and his company apart from the others.
And so, the enterprising and pioneering Jones set sail across the Atlantic Ocean from Boston to Switzerland, setting up shop in 1868 in Schaffhausen, a town in east Switzerland (he was given the cold shoulder in the watchmaking centres of western Switzerland) to produce movements for the North American market. There had been a clockmakers’ guild in Schaffhausen dating all the way back to the 16th century, but it was only with the arrival of Jones, with his gift for innovation and talent for engineering, that a new era would dawn.
Jones brought with him industrialised techniques for the mass production of parts, and along with a hydro-station that was installed in the town, he was able to realise his bold ideas at the International Watch Co. The firstborn of this manufacture was the family of movements named after him: the Jones calibres. His principle of manufacturing high quality watches with consistent tolerances worked — and this marked the beginning of the reputation now enjoyed by IWC.
The promising start, however, ended in commercial difficulties for Jones and the company passed to Swiss hands. What he left behind though was an aspiration for sophisticated, ever-better technical solutions — in other words, a drive for innovation. Despite the initial hiccups, the manufacture went on to establish itself at the forefront of watchmaking invention, such as the pocket watch with digital display that it introduced in 1885, and being one of the first to market wristwatches in the 1930s. From this period onwards, IWC continued producing technically sophisticated timepieces — some of which have written watch history — that are sought after by collectors all over the world. Indeed, the strongest thread that runs through the IWC Schaffhausen story is that of consistency — consistency in innovation, quality craftsmanship, and retaining a distinct timelessness and classicism in design.

Definitive book on IWCIWC Schaffhausen’s remarkable story can now be read in its entirety in a newly released book, IWC Schaffhausen. Engineering Time since 1868. It is a painstakingly researched, in-depth account of the brand, its heritage, tradition and history. Divided into three parts, the massive book, weighing more than 4kg, draws a line between the company’s history and IWC today, highlighting its achievements and milestones. It also pays tribute to the current individual watch families — Pilot, Portuguese, Ingeniuer, Aquatimer, Da Vinci, Portofino — with their own fascinating stories dating back to the mid-1930s, as well as the men and women behind the masterpieces: the engineers, designers and watchmakers. The work ends with a comprehensive list of calibres.
The book answers satisfyingly burning and broad questions such as how IWC as a manufacturer of perfect yet simple pocket watches and wristwatches has managed, by integrating increasingly large complications, to secure a permanent place for itself in the world of haute horlogerie over the last 25 years, or why the company is so famous for its Ingenieur collection, and how the Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar achieved such success.
The book is not merely a written account, it is a graphic retelling based on a host of historical facts that have been brought together in one volume for the first time. Archival photos accompany the historical portion of the book, while beautifully shot photos of the present-day factory and the numerous watches are featured in the rest of the book.
The man who penned this comprehensive volume is Manfred Fritz, a German journalist and editor-in-chief of a daily newspaper in Germany. He is an authority on watches, having written about timepieces for more than three decades, chief among them IWC’s creations. He has also supported the work of the company as a publicist for many years. Fritz’s preoccupation with watches and timekeeping has led him to publish a number of books about watches, among them the Die Grande Complication von IWC (The Grande Complication of IWC), in 1991, a book that details the intricacies of IWC’s most complex masterpiece.
Fritz spent three years doing research before embarking on writing the book. At the press event held recently at the IWC manufacture in Schaffhausen, Fritz revealed what he thinks is most remarkable about IWC.
“IWC has always remained true to itself throughout the years. The identity of the brand established by F A Jones and the characteristics and values are as important now as they were before. In short, IWC today is a continuation of the old IWC, but with more advanced, efficient means to make exceptional products.
“Despite changes in ownership, the brand has remained authentic, and its products have always been a reflection of that. The watches combine very high quality with state-of-the-art technology. They are all very distinctive, and enjoy very high prestige and worldwide recognition,” he said. He attributes this to IWC always having “very good heads in the technical department”.
Fritz added that what has been consistent throughout IWC’s storied history is the strict adherence to quality. “In this factory, something was always clear and certain from CEO to apprentice: the notion of quality first. This is very important to describe and understand the brand,” he said.

Book within a bookThe book on IWC is truly a unique work in that it does not merely recount the narrative of the manufacture and its products. Housed within the story of IWC are works of literature, poignant stories of the six different product families of IWC with equally evocative illustrations.
Said Georges Kern, CEO of IWC Schaffhausen, at the official press launch of the book in Schaffhausen, “When we thought about the book, we wanted to do something special. We are true believers in combining art. We made a movie with John Malkovich when we launched the Pilot Spitfire watch, made a theatre piece with Kevin Spacey when we launched the Da Vinci, had a multimedia project with Cate Blanchett when we had our 140th anniversary. We thought, how could we be creative in the book, to include an art element? We decided to incorporate an unconventional element, transport readers into a fictional world, besides the true story from Manfred.”
World-renowned best-selling Brazilian author Paulo Coelho was invited to write the stories. He had a profound admiration for the brand, having been an owner of IWC watches for the past 15 years or so (his favourite is the Aquatimer). But being a free spirit, one who has never adhered to anyone’s dictates in writing his stories, he refused to accept the proposition initially.
“I accepted, first because IWC was a result of a dream. I’m always fond of people who follow their dreams,” said Coelho, who was at the launch. “Second is because it was a challenge. I never write books based on a subject or on demand; I write out of passion. But in life you have to accept challenges, as Jones accepted them when he came to Schaffhausen. He managed, and he went through a very difficult time. So I said I’m very proud to associate my name with this man who created this watch a long time ago.”
Coelho added that a watch and a book are similar in that behind them are the feelings and emotions of the creator. “The magic of storytelling is that you’re talking about something you feel, and you share with someone else. To do that you can’t just show the tourbillon. It’s complicated — just try to say a simple sentence that’s going to provoke the same tourbillon in someone else. The art of storytelling is the art of translating your inner tourbillon that is going to provoke the tourbillon of the person who’s reading.
“Writing every story, I saw the differences of these six different watch families. Each one of them has its own quality, virtue, different way to approach time. Diving into each watch I discovered a lot of things I didn’t know before.”
Coelho translated the emotions of each watch family to craft contemporary short stories of life. Coelho’s lyrical writing called for equally sensual and expressive visual language, and that IWC found in the work of Enki Bilal, a renowned French graphic novelist whose work is often set in the future.
Speaking through an interpreter, Bilal talked about why he accepted the proposal. “The three letters of IWC, which do not reflect the normal name of watch companies, was one element that intrigued me. When I heard Paulo would write the book, I knew there would be many elements that would be exciting, with something a reader has to discover, something hidden. I did not want to illustrate Paulo’s writing — that would have been complicated. So I took another angle and basically did free interpretations of his writing. I also wanted to pay homage to the mechanics of watchmaking,” he said. His illustrations are mostly close-ups of faces, both of people and watches.
In this manner the manufacture, in IWC Schaffhausen. Engineering Time since 1868, has produced a truly singular work of art that no other watch brand can (or would dare to) replicate (for fear of looking unoriginal). It points to, yet again, the fact that the pioneering and inventive spirit the company was founded upon continues to fuel everything IWC does today.

IWC Schaffhausen. Engineering Time since 1868 is available in English, French and German for 250 Swiss francs from July 1 via www.iwc.com and in retail outlets. Reservations can be made at the publisher’s website, www.benteli.ch.

This article appeared in Options, the lifestyle pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 806 , May 17-23, 2010