When you think of watch making many will imagine a small workshop somewhere in the backstreets of a town with a small, almost elf-like person toiling away making magnificent creations.
That was the case a few decades ago, but today in 2019, it’s a very different story.
IWC Schaffhausen, the Swiss watch brand has come a long way since 1868. In it’s 150 plus years, IWC has changed hands numerous times; from blue-blooded Swiss families to the car instrument company VDO, after which the Richemont Group purchased the IWC business in 2001.
IWC has always resided in the small Swiss town of Schaffhausen about one hour north of Zurich. The brand’s head office is located amongst the cobblestoned streets of the small Swiss town – a modest set of digs for one of the world’s biggest and more prestigious watch brands.
We catch up with IWC’s CEO Mr Christoph Grainger-Herr three days out from his biggest week of the year – SIHH – and he’s as cool as a cucumber. He alludes to some of the highlights planned for the IWC Gala dinner, but is careful not to let the cat out of the bag.
Christoph was previously responsible for IWC’s aesthetic and the design of its trade fairs. Later moving away from the drafting table to work across product and sales and eventually rising to the top job after gorgeous Georges Kerns’ departure in 2018.
Chris’s office mixes IWC memorabilia with rich mahogany and his two carbon fibre BMC racing bicycles. An avid cyclist, Chris says that cycling in Switzerland isn’t so much fun when it’s -2 degrees, windy and snowing. While the others are laughing I’m totally fixated on an original silver Nokia 8810 neatly framed on his office wall. Chris explains that the Nokia 8810 was the very last mobile phone that you could fix entirely at home. Every part was removable and repairable. However, today finding the parts isn’t easy as these phones fetch over $2,000 on eBay.
IWC’s watchmaking facility was originally located in the head office building before the structure was entirely converted into the current-day offices and IWC Museum. Bursting at the seams due to consistent growth, the brand moved it’s 200 watchmakers, designers and engineers to a brand new state of the art facility a few kilometres just outside of Schaffhausen.
Under the watchful eye of Christoph Grainger-Herr, the new building was constructed in just 21 months. An imposing combination of glass, black frames and stainless steel, the building serves as a monument to the brand’s past 150 years and looks toward the next 150.
The new IWC Manufakturzentrum combines traditional watchmaking with state-of-the-art manufacturing methods and technologies. We stand in the snow like bewildered fanboys out front, jostling for the perfect photo when in reality its design is quite stunning from any angle.
The manufacturer’s lobby is grand, standing at 9 meters high. Gorgeous Georges makes another appearance on the lobby wall next to pictures of past owners and founders. Georges Kern’s contribution to the business can’t be forgotten, having spent 15 years pushing and shaping the direction of what the IWC brand is today.
To make the tour experience more authentic we’re asked to wear white zip front coats. Reminiscent of a team of doctors making their rounds in a futuristic hospital we proceed into the first level of the facility. It’s here where around 1,500 watch components are produced.
Complex components are also produced here such as bottom plates, bridges and oscillating weights, as well as small parts including switching levers, springs and latching elements. Some parts manufactured here are so small that they are barely visible to the naked eye.
Plasma cutter machines work between 18-24 hours a day with robotic arms feeding in the raw materials and removing the finished components. Oil is constantly poured over the machining process to reduce friction and heat during the cutting process.
The level of precision and detail required is why most of the steps involved in producing movement components are automated. Imagine doing this by hand? Watches would be 10 times more expensive.
On the flipside, assembling these pieces is far too complex and delicate for machines alone, therefore they require watchmakers to bring these components to life by hand.
Inspecting all the individual components in a variety of metals is impressive but it’s when you see the watchmakers at work that you really begin to appreciate what you’re wearing on your wrist.
IWC work on a line concept that has been developed for assembling the movements, breaking the assembly process down into multiple sub-processes thus allowing a specialist with specific expertise to tackle each individual step. A movement person does movements, a dial assembly person does dials only, and so on.
Before entering the workshops we’re reminded that even tiny amounts of dust or dirt can impair a movement’s performance. For this reason, the components are assembled in a clean room atmosphere. Operating theatre shoe covers are mandatory for guests, whilst IWC staff swap their street shoes for white Birkenstocks when in the glass-enclosed workshops.
According to IWC, fifty thousand cubic metres of air is circulated every hour through the workshops. The pressure in this environment is above atmospheric pressure, making it even harder for dust particles to find their way in. What I wouldn’t give to have this technology in my dusty Bondi Beach apartment.
We stand quietly over the team carefully putting together perpetual calendar movements for the IWC Portugueser models. Each workstation has Apple iPads which allow the watchmakers to double check each step of the process according to their well-documented manuals.
As the case and movement are passed down the line, the previous work is double checked to ensure that the process has been followed and it’s working correctly. Doing so ensures the number of faulty and or defective units is almost zero. Additionally, defects with movements can be traced back to the exact workstation to ensure problems are isolated and not across an entire batch of watches.
Machine engraving and etching is also used to engrave case backs. This highly advanced technology ensures excellent process reliability and allows new possibilities of engraving designs.
Guests are offered the chance to try some of these techniques, thus proving how difficult learning the art of watchmaking is. In some cases watchmakers will spend up to one year learning how to do just one step in the IWC watchmaking process.
IWC has paid special attention to the tour experience by allowing guests to get up close to the watchmakers and even experience the watchmaking process themselves.
Our jet lag may have been in full flight, however, that didn’t stop us from getting on the tools and dismantling and reassembling an IWC chronograph movement. Miraculously I completed this task and received a certificate to which I immediately proclaimed ‘this is going straight to the pool room.’ Sadly my reference to the 1990’s classic movie The Castle went over the nice Swiss German teacher’s head.
If you’re a watch lover or simply just an engineering nerd, then the IWC Manufakturzentrum is pure heaven. It’s reminiscent of a Formula 1 team’s factory or pit garage. Spotless and every gizmo perfectly placed on shelves and in their correct spots. It’s a thing of beauty.
It’s when you get to experience and see behind the scenes of how your watch is made that you take on a whole new appreciation for the industry.
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