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It’s IWC’s time to soar

Creative director Christian Knoop takes us through the brand’s 2019 novelties launched at SIHH, and its plans to break into new markets

We call ourselves engineers in watchmaking, and the engineering side has always been part of the brand history.

Much like the hands on a watch, the horological calendar keeps spinning, trying to keep up with itself. Watchmakers develop a new timepiece, present it, rush approved prototypes into production and then to market. It’s a never-ending cycle, with all these processes occurring simultaneously for different models.

It’s also a cycle Christian Knoop is well versed in, having served as IWC Schaffhausen’s creative director since 2008.

“Yes, the last and first few weeks of every year get crazy as we assemble all the pre-collections for SIHH and make sure that we have sufficient watches to show,” he says. “And then there’s the presentation itself…”

The Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie Genève is the brand’s biggest showcase every year, and the watchmakers at times work through the festive season to finish showpieces. “Journalists and the public see only a fraction of the watches that have to be manufactured,” Knoop explains.

We call ourselves engineers in watchmaking, and the engineering side has always been part of the brand history.

“For every novelty, we typically produce 20 pieces, so the different countries can present to retailers. We had 20 references for the Jubilee celebrations, and built almost 600 watches for SIHH.

“These are all watches in a kind of prototype, pre-series state, which only experienced watchmakers can assemble. This makes it very stressful.”

The team started working on its 2019 novelties three years ago. “That’s the typical timeframe we need to create a new collection.”

Come that stressful period, however, and Knoop’s job is largely done. Then things are in the hands of the product managers and watchmakers. At that stage the designers can’t influence what is shown in January, although his role as creative head encompasses a lot more than the timepieces.

IWC put aviation at the centre of its SIHH 2019 presentation, driven home not too subtly when Matt Jones landed a Spitfire aircraft spectacularly on the site of its glittering gala. The British pilot intends to fly around the world in a Silver Spitfire this summer, with IWC as the main sponsor of the project. It’s fitting, then, that the brand used the occasion to unveil its new Spitfire, Top Gun and Le Petit Prince models. “We’re exploring a new angle of storytelling,” Knoop explains.

“This is a strategy we established after last year’s 150th jubilee activities. We’re not completely redoing entire collections. We looked at the ranges and put one collection in focus. We also kept products that are successful or iconic, and added others with new looks, functions, movements and the like.”

The new Spitfire line celebrates the unique engineering of the British fighter aircraft it’s named after by sporting only calibres developed in-house, while the Top Gun range sees the introduction of IWC’s first all-black pilot’s watch. It also features the brand’s first pilot’s watch sporting a case crafted from ceratanium, a material IWC created taking the best qualities of titanium and ceramic — being lightweight and scratch-resistant. One of the models is presented in a sand-coloured ceramic, another first for the manufacturer.

This year’s models named for writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s most famous work includes the Swiss watchmaker’s first aviation timepiece with a constant-force tourbillon, and the first case to be made from hard gold.

“I think it’s a decent collection,” he says. “The main collection is around 15 watches.”

That’s beside the special editions — not announced yet but presented to retailers at the fair — that will be released throughout the year.

Knoop says innovation remains a key concern, illustrated by the production of new materials such as ceratanium. That said, the brand is more concerned with mastering the materials it’s known for than finding new ones. “I personally believe titanium and ceramics hold a lot of potential for us. You saw us evolving from the first titanium watches, which were grade 2, to watches made from grade 5 titanium in 2008.”

That’s set to continue. “We call ourselves engineers in watchmaking, and the engineering side has always been part of the brand history,” he says. “The founder himself, Florentine Ariosto Jones, brought the American system of watchmaking to Switzerland 150 years ago. He achieved a unique combination of that American system — which is very process driven, using the latest machine technology and making use of quality control and all these aspects — and combining that with Swiss craftsmanship. This is a unique formula, which still sets IWC apart from our competitors.”

He credits this engineering tradition for the invention of the Pallweber movement, the Calibre 82 automatic movement and the perpetual calendar tourbillon — all introduced in the Jubilee collection.

This spirit of doing things differently extends to the watchmaker’s new headquarters, designed with visitors in mind. The Manufakturzentrum on the outskirts of the Swiss town of Schaffhausen allows visitors to get up close and personal with the brand and the manufacturing process like never before.

“Christoph Grainger-Herr, our CEO, has a background in architecture and personally conceptualised the overall architectural idea. We, as an internal design team, we as involved in every design aspect, from the finishing, materials and colours to signage, displays and custom experience stations.”

Even the watchmakers’ coats got a makeover. IWC was inspired by the uniforms of its F1 partner Mercedes AMG to give it a younger, sportier feel with contemporary touches. He says the new coats are also more comfortable. “And they better represent the dynamic young people who work here around the clock.”

The new building also brings all the different departments and processes under the same roof for the first time in years. It’s laid out over two floors, one for movements and the other for cases.

Beyond watchmaking, the brand remains determined to capture the land of its founder, the US. “I’m convinced we have the right products to be successful in the US,” says Knoop. “We have a very strong portfolio of sports watches and casual pieces that should do well there. I think especially the very masculine pieces with timeless design and sporty qualities will work perfectly there.

“I just have to make sure people know us, and this is actually what we’re struggling with at the moment — we have very little brand awareness in the US. This is our focus; on the product side we’re ready.”

The game plan relies heavily on an online strategy, bolstered by enlisting brand ambassadors such as Bradley Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Dev Patel, Adriana Lima, James Marsden, Karolina Kurkova and Sonam Kapoor, all of whom attended the watchmaker’s SIHH gala.

The Swiss watchmaker is ready. Let’s hope America is too.

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