Monday, July 22, 2013

Kurt Klaus: Watchmaking is still the same!

As a premium brand in the international luxury watch segment, IWC has committed itself to the manufacture of top-quality timepieces. The website proudly states that IWC was founded in 1885 and that it now employs over 650 staff, including 180 watchmakers.

Standing in the form of a shop display filled with new IWC watches, one would be under the impression that the company history was paved with nothing but everlasting success and great designs.

However, like all other Swiss watchmakers, the reality was completely different- especially during the turbulent 70s.

Of course, it is easy to fall into a trap of generalization and by so, to "invent" historical events. This is why a report from someone who was not just an insider but actual 'actor' is a priceless testimony for both watch historians and watch enthusiasts.

A recently published interview with legendary IWC watchmaker Kurt Klaus gives a credible and authoritative recollection of the seventies and eighties.

Klaus started his career with IWC in 1957. Back then, IWC was under the 'rule' of Albert Pellaton. Pellaton was "Mr IWC" - a designer, head engineer, inventor and production manager. During the 1960s, IWC was on a quest to improve timekeeping of mechanical watches and to their credit, people in Schaffhausen were leading the Swiss pack.

However, Klaus remembers the 70s as a period where IWC was brought to it's knees by the advancement of battery operated watches. Out of 350 watchmakers and staff, 250 lost their job. The working week was reduced to just 4 days and the company was on the verge of collapse and bankruptcy. IWC stayed in business thanks to their contract with Porsche and the aviation industry. Or as Klaus puts it: "amongst other things, we also made watches".

In his spare time Klaus decided to continue work on mechanical pocket watches and complications. At that time, Albert Pellaton passed away and IWC lost it's technical director. Klaus remained the last and only engineer at IWC!

The management accepted his proposal for a new watch with a moon phase - based on a pocket watch design. In order to play safe, IWC set the production run to just 100 pieces, but even that seemed like almost unsellable quantity. The new model premiered at Basel fair in 1976 and to everyone's relief, IWC sold the entire lot by the end of second day.

According to Klaus, these were the most difficult days of Swiss watchmaking and IWC in particular. The recovery was slow and painful, but thanks to a small number of watch aficionados who preferred the traditional "ticking" watch over the accurate, but heartless battery operated 'novelty'.

In 1985 Klaus completed the design of the IWC Da Vinci perpetual calendar which was then regarded as 'something you can not get from a quartz watch'. As a reward for a successful design, Klaus was put in charge of a small but deducted team of watchmakers who re-positioned IWC's presence and led the renaissance of Swiss mechanical watchmaking. The next model on repertoire was a minute repeater. "This is how IWC became to be known as an engineering brand" said Klaus.

Future of watchmaking?
"I am an optimist. While we now use better materials and have advanced manufacturing facilities, the watchmaking itself is the same as it was 60 years ago, when I fist started. It's still the same".

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