French is known as the language of love, but it’s also the language of luxury, especially when it comes to high-end watchmaking… But in an industry full of French speakers, IWC Schaffhausen stands out as a potently German-Swiss watchmaker – and it’s their Germanic culture that informs their drive to do things differently, IWC CEO Christoph Grainger-Herr tells DMARGE.
Switzerland, the centre of the global watch industry, is a baffling and unique little country. One of its defining traits is how it’s divided into four different linguistic and cultural regions: German, French, Italian and Romansh (a language that’s only spoken in Switzerland) – a reflection of the country’s location in the middle of Europe, sandwiched between great powers.
While German speakers make up the majority of the country, it’s the French-speaking part of Switzerland – the Romandie – that’s home to the vast majority of watchmakers. The Vallée de Joux, Neuchâtel, Geneva… This is the heart of the Swiss watch industry, and it beats with a French rhythm.
The Swiss talk about something they call the Röstigraben (literally, the “rösti ditch”): the cultural boundary between German and French Switzerland. Having lived in Switzerland myself, I can attest that while it might not be a tangible boundary, it’s a very potent one, and the watch world sits very firmly on the French side. The Germans might be known for being precise, orderly and efficient, but in Switzerland at least, it’s the French speakers that dominate the notoriously exacting and perfectionist watch industry.
Yet the French-Swiss don’t quite have a monopoly on luxury watches. Indeed, one of Switzerland’s best-known and respected luxury watchmakers, IWC Schaffhausen, is as Germanic as they come… And if you ask Christoph Grainger-Herr, the dynamic CEO of the 155-year-old brand, it’s precisely that Germanic character and status as somewhat of an outsider that makes IWC stand out from the pack.
“I think that [our] functional design spirit is very Teutonic, Germanic, however you want to call it… There is this close link,” Chris told me during an interview at Watches & Wonders Geneva earlier this year.
“Of course, we have a close association with all of the southern German car industry and engineering that has always been right by Schaffhausen. That whole part of Europe, from Stuttgart down, is an entire area where engineering dominates.”Christoph Grainger-Herr
“We’re not coming from a métiers d’art, Calvinistic angle like the Romandie is. We’re coming from a kind of fine engineering, precision engineering angle – which brings in different people [and] different mindsets,” Chris explains.
It’s interesting to consider that connection to southern Germany’s big car makers when you consider IWC’s long-running partnership with Mercedes-AMG – which is based only a few hours’ drive away across the border near Stuttgart.
“I always think back to myself. You know, I’m from an area in Germany where Dieter Rams was two villages along, you know. Hans Zimmer was from the village next door, and so was Günter Blümlein, the gentleman who ran IWC, A. Lange & Söhne and Jaeger-LeCoultre back in the day… This informed a way of thinking, of a reduced, functional, long-living design, respectful of its users, reduced to the essential.”
Chris isn’t being egocentric here when he talks about his influence. He’s unique in the world of luxury watch brand CEOs as he comes from a creative background: originally a designer and architect by trade, he first joined IWC when he was commissioned to create a museum for the brand. He never left, making his way up the ranks until finally becoming CEO in 2017.
Grainger-Herr’s background as a designer has had a marked effect on the watches IWC has produced since his tenure, which have been marked by an increased emphasis on design. Just think of IWC’s collaboration with Pantone on their ‘Colours of TOP GUN’ releases – or the high-profile re-release of the Ingenieur this year, paying homage to the 1976 model designed by the legendary Gérald Genta.
Modern IWC has been a brand defined by its association with military tool watches – but under Grainger-Herr, the brand has embarked on an exciting new design-led journey that’s shedding some of that militaristic character and instead focusing on pure, quite Bauhaus principles.
“You know, [our watches] are not overflowing with decorations. There is a sort of epicureanism with them, sure, but also a solution-based kind of approach that informs our watchmaking – which has done so since the very first IWC watches.”Christoph Grainger-Herr
Chris, of course, is referring to IWC’s genesis – which, unlike many watch brands, wasn’t a particularly romantic origin story, but rather quite a practical one. In 1868, American watchmaker and engineer Florentine Ariosto Jones founded the International Watch Company in Schaffhausen for three main reasons: one, because there was abundant and cheap hydroelectricity generated by the nearby Rhine Falls; two, because Swiss labour was cheaper and more skilled than American labour at the time; and three, he didn’t need to pay as much tax.
But as any Swiss will tell you – French, German or otherwise – there’s nothing wrong with being canny in your business dealings, and we’re glad Jones made the leap to start making watches in Switzerland, as almost two centuries later, the business he founded makes some of the coolest watches on the planet.
“I think this kind of pragmatism, in a sense, and this approach is still what drives our watchmaking today… [and] it is very differentiated from many of the other bands,” Chris suggests.
Something else that informs IWC’s unique approach to watchmaking as well as Chris’ impact on the business is how he actually designed IWC’s Manufakturzentrum, their beautiful and very modern new factory on the outskirts of the town of Schaffhausen where IWC now make all their watches. There’s probably no other watch CEO in the world who can boast such a claim…
Chris explains that his (and IWC’s) love of and commitment to functional design underpins the design of the factory itself, with the innovative factory devised to complement as well as inspire the watches being made within.
“I always bring things back to the fact that we are in a non-essential business that makes an emotional product for people to fall in love with, and that has to resonate with the entire organization, start to finish.”Christoph Grainger-Herr
“I don’t want to have a front-of-house / back-of-house kind of idea where you have a face for the brand, and then behind closed doors, you have standard offices and industrial buildings and everything’s super generic… I want there to be total consistency between what you see in our online communication, advertising and PR and then when you come to our offices and factory, and the place that ultimately where our colleagues think up and make these watches – that should be completely consistent with everything else. That’s the challenge,” he says.
“Architecture has such a huge impact on how you feel how you’re lifted and elevated, or depressed. Stressful environments [like] hospitals, railway stations – they make you antisocial and aggressive. Whereas if you create a building that is a calm and positive place, people tend to feel good, they behave accordingly and can be more creative.”Christoph Grainger-Herr
“With the Manufakturzentrum, we wanted to first create a space for IWC that allows for watchmaking in the 21st century,” he elaborates. “All the traditional manufacturing buildings the way they’re set up? They’re not really suited to modern manufacturing processes. You need flexibility, an open plan, media available everywhere… It’s a completely different requirement today.”
“Then number two, I wanted to make sure it was really laid out in a sequential way. It’s actually the only [watch factory] where we really start with a rolled bar of metal and we ended up with a finished watch movement and finished watch case. And every step relates to the step before and the step after in a spatial, visual way.”
“That also means if there’s some coordination to be done between the workflows, people can talk to each other directly. They don’t have to go and find the property manager upstairs, downstairs, over to another building… They’re just there with each other, they can sort things out,” Chris explains.
“And then it needed to also represent the brand. So ultimately, we went for something that is a bit of an exhibition pavilion, with modernist architecture, a little bit sort of residential feel because I wanted this kind of world exhibition vibe. They’re always where you have the best of engineering, the best of art and design, being displayed to showcase to the world.”
“It felt appropriate for what we’re doing because it’s somewhere between art and design.”Christoph Grainger-Herr
“I wanted the cleanliness of the engineering blended with a bit of warmth and a bit of welcoming… There are beautiful views of the environment, we’ve designed it in such a way that you don’t need shade all day, the blinds can stay open, there are big airy spaces, and it feels quality, you know? It doesn’t feel like somebody tried to build a factory as cheaply as possible. It feels like a place you enjoy spending time in… And then finally, it needed to be a visitor experience where people can get a really good glimpse of who we are and how we do stuff,” Chris rounds off.
Having visited the factory myself only a few days after speaking with Chris, I was totally impressed by the thoughtfulness – and how Germanic – its design was. Unlike the centuries-old workshops that dominate the watch manufactures of the Romandie, the IWC Manufakturzentrum is bright, logical and buzzing. It’s kind of got the same energy as an Apple Store, except with less frustrated customers and more friendly-faced watchmakers.
Despite being so ultra-modern, there was definitely a sense of Gemütlichkeit – a German concept that has no easy English translation but is best understood as a sense of cosiness, good cheer and well-being. It didn’t feel intimidating like some luxury watch factories or boutiques are. It felt quite honest. Serious, dedicated, beautiful, but honest. The same can be said about IWC’s watches, too.
I asked Chris, what do you think is IWC’s big point of difference compared to other luxury watch brands? For him, the answer is obvious, and the brand’s German-Swiss identity is key to that answer.
“I think that our starting point is not coming from simply this idea of watches being status symbols. We are coming from a fascination for certain product expression, which is talking about that engineering spirit; about the understated functional expression; about a certain reduction in design, and is sort of a no-nonsense kind of approach to watchmaking, in a sense.”Christoph Grainger-Herr
You can make all the jokes you want about the Germans or Swiss being no-nonsense… But I actually think this is all part of what makes IWC the brand that it is. Chris continues:
“But then, at IWC, it’s always combined with something very emotional. It’s always connected to a story. It’s connected to a feeling; it’s connected to an atmosphere that resonates with people differently. And I think in the end once people are attracted by something, they’ll connect with a brand and then it very quickly becomes a relationship. And I think that is a different starting point.”
“That’s why with the new Ingenieur, for example, you’re not coming to from the perspective of ‘ooh, it’s that status symbol I’m looking for’. You’re coming to it because it speaks to you on an emotional level.”
“For me, this is one of the nicest things, because it brings it together with people who find joy and passion in the products that they have. I think that is something we should foster more in the watch world. All of the rationalizations, talking about investment value, that’s fantastic, but let’s not forget what we’re doing, which is making emotional products that bring joy,” he concludes.
Coming from a Germanic background and having lived in German-speaking Switzerland myself, I think one of the most charming things about Germanic culture – particularly in Switzerland – is how it’s a culture that values pragmatism as well as passion. They take things seriously, including being emotional and artistic.
Chris Grainger-Herr and IWC might take watches seriously, but they take watches seriously precisely because they’re such an emotional, personal thing… And no matter which side of the rösti ditch you find yourself more drawn to, that’s something we can all appreciate.