Decked Out

Navigating at sea demands a precision timekeeper, and IWC was by sailors’ sides first

‘Crucible’ is an overused word, as much as ‘icon’. But in the rarefied (oh, there’s another one) world of watches, the expansive cleanliness of IWC’s Portugieser lends itself every which way; especially the chronograph and all its necessarily legible counters

If you want to be pedantic, every mechanical watch in the world is a sailing watch. The pressure to produce a portable timepiece, or ‘chronometer’ accurate enough to navigate the high seas led horologists of the 18th century, such as Yorkshire’s own John Harrison, to invent many of the features that are still whirring away inside your Rolex or Omega. Features like the circular oscillating pendulum, for example, first found in Harrison’s H4 pocket watch, and now present in all modern mechanicals as the tick-tick-ticking ‘balance wheel’.

Despite the best bureaucratic efforts of London’s Board of Longitude, Harrison, H4 and his three preceding clocks secured their hard-fought £20,000 prize, in proving that precise comparison between local and‘home’ time was a far-superior method in reckoning one’s east-west progress than stargazing. That the head of the board was the ‘Astronomer Royal’ gives you some idea of the resistance he encountered for decades.

Nevertheless, Harrison’s clocks are still ticking strong at longitude’s ground zero, the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. By the 1830s, every merchant navy captain setting sail from east London’s docks had a handheld chronometer pocket watch, waiting for the observatory roof’s bright red time ball to drop down its pole at 1pm every day, to finely adjust its accuracy.

Today, the idea of an oceangoing watch stretches a fair few nautical miles beyond the British Empire’s basic need not to lose its dominance of valuable trade routes, let alone countless souls. Weighing anchor and cruising into the blue has continuously inspired horological experimentation such as regatta countdown timers or tide indicators, which – just like motorsport, scuba diving or mountaineering – come with a baked-in thrill factor, irresistible to chequebook-waving landlubbers. (Would two of Switzerland’s biggest aforementioned brands’ otherwise ordinary-looking water babies be anywhere without the endorsement of a certain Royal Naval Commander Bond?)

The movements powering every IWC watch are manufactured in-house at their historic home of Schaffhausen, by the Rhine river. Its torrents no longer power the ateliers’ lathes via paddles, racks and pinions but zero-carbon sustainability still comes to bear in adapting the 50-something, and genuinely iconic workhorse ‘Valjoux 7750’ movement of the 70s, with upped power reserve and column-wheel transmission sophistication; AKA ‘Calibre 69355’

Arguably, IWC was first on deck and – literally – by the side of its captain, in the 1930s. Two Portuguese wholesalers (though not sailors per se) had realised that a handheld chronometer would be handier strapped to the wrist, as per the wholesale switch happening on civvy street post WWI. Not to mention infinitely more readable, no matter how choppy or soggy it was on deck.

Back in 1939, the International Watch Company of Schaffhausen on the Rhine made highly precise pocket watches, powered by hand-wound mechanics with gorgeous, swooping bridgework and oversized, pendulous balance wheels. In other words, perfectly poised to acquiesce to Messrs Rodrigues and Antonio Teixeira of Lisbon, and their local market’s noble seafaring reputation.

Paradoxically the first Reference 325, as IWC records denote, was delivered not to Portugal but instead to a Ukrainian watch wholesaler, L Schwarcz in Odessa, on 22nd February. The first proper Portugieser only arrived in Lisbon three years later – something watch-industry historians reckon had something to do with the rather inauspicious year of launch; Portugal having declared its neutrality during WWII.

Up to 1981, IWC sold just 690 Portugiesers. All cased in broad-faced stainless steel measuring an unheard-of 41.5mm across, not including its large crown, which offered extra purchase when winding-up the capacious spring barrel inside the pocket watch movement.

The mainsprings of IWC’s self-winding automatics are still wound up via a clever pawl-winding mechanism dreamt up by technical director Albert Pellaton in the 50s. The closest you’ll get to perpetual motion, every time your wrist movement swings the internal rotor, two hooked arms nudge the toothed barrel encasing the mainspring, tooth by tooth

All of the above probably explains its low sales. But it also explains skyrocketing sales come 1993, when IWC’s genius boss, Günter Blümlein decided to mark his marque’s 125th anniversary by bringing it back to life.

Blümlein passed away on 1st October, 2001 aged only 58, and the mind boggles at what else he might have achieved if it wasn’t for such a tragic, early blow. Charismatic and well-loved, he was instrumental in the renaissance of the mechanical watch in high-end guise following the quartz crisis of the 1970s and 80s. Sleeves rolled up, Blümlein invested in other names  like Jaeger-LeCoultre and Germany’s A. Lange & Söhne, simultaneously preserving so many crafts on the cusp of extinction, through apprenticeships and training.

IWC’s most famous post-quartz rebirth was its military pilot heritage, articulated via the RAF’s standard-issue Mark 11 and, ahem, the Big Pilot bomber chronometer it made for the other side; Switzerland staying neutral along with Portugal, mind.

But in the Portuguese (renamed for anglophone collectors) Blümlein predicted not only the return of the mechanical, but the early-00s phenomenon of the oversize watch. Blümlein pipped to the post the era’s two other burgeoning beefcakes Panerai and Audemars Piguet with plus-42mm diameters, with historical provenance thrown in for good measure. Now under Richemont Group’s umbrella, IWC saw in the new millennium with an all-new Reference 5000 manually-wound movement, boasting a whopping seven days’ autonomy thanks to a return to authentic pocket-watch proportions. It might have been 1993 for the relaunch, but 2000 truly smashed a bottle of champagne, setting sail an ongoing flotilla of retro-engineered complications like 1995’s split-seconds chronograph stopwatch capable of timing two consecutive events, and a showboating tourbillon carrousel tumbling through a round dial window (ill-advised for actual showboating).

Thanks to the Portugieser’s timeless style appeal, not least modern watchmaking’s increasingly anti-obsolescent, ever-reparable technology, we’ll always have a connection to those salty seadogs of the 18th century… and a reminder of Britannia’s shorter-lived rule of the waves.

All Photography STEVE HARRIES