BQ Newsletter

Green watch duty

Wednesday 8 February 2012 10:00

Josh Sims

Some manufacturers like their timepieces to shout ‘style’ while others take an understated approach and are better for it.

That IWC’s new collection is called Top Gun may be a somewhat tongue-in-cheek name for five new pilots’ watches, but that they are pilots’ watches will be enough to get fans of the brand all a-fluster. That’s because IWC might well lay claim to being makers of the definitive pilots’ watches – outsized, offering maximum legibility, supremely reliable to allow use for navigation – since the 1940s.

Only, these new Miramar models now come with grey ceramic cases, matte anthracite dials and textile straps. They are about as stripped down, utilitarian and unshowy watches as the market currently offers. “But IWC has always been apart from that (fashion) world; we have a provincial touch,” the company’s CEO Georges Kern has suggested.

“We’re not Paris, Milano or New York. We make no-nonsense watches and try to represent solid values. Certainly the industry has seen excessive watch designs and blingy watch brands and they are now looking very dated...”

Indeed, IWC’s long history is partly that of the outsider, such that it may be able to make a somewhat surprising claim to be an American or Italian brand, rather than a Swiss one. It was the unlikely named Florentine Ariosto Jones, living in Boston, who was convinced that he could do a better job than that offered by the then fledgling but progressive American watch industry, launching his own company 144 years ago this year.

Jones, in fact, had never been to Switzerland – but he did know about their manufacturing techniques, using old machines and cheap labour. His idea for a competitive advantage was simple – employ the same workers but use advanced machinery to make a more advanced product for sale across the US and, later, Europe.

From the start, the scale of the operation lent itself naturally to the new company’s grandiose name: International Watch Company. But not everyone was ready for Jones: many of the cottage industry watchmakers in Switzerland regarded his newfangled equipment as a threat rather than an opportunity.

Certainly Jones was ready to embrace anything that suggested it may be the world of tomorrow – the European business was saved, and enhanced, by the industrialist Heinrich Moser who made a deal that allowed Jones to make use of Moser’s factories in the small town of Schaffhausen, a name now emblazoned across the dial of many IWC pieces (though if you ever discover one that reads “New York” instead, as very early pieces did, you may have just found your retirement fund).

But what Moser was really offering was, for 1868, altogether more exciting than work space – electricity. Moser had his own hydrostation. Jones, as it turned out, did not stay in the watch industry for long, selling his business to Swiss interests and returning to the US. Yet he left an indelible legacy – modern watch manufacturing. Fittingly, in recent years IWC has opened a watch museum dedicated to documenting its efforts in this field; it can count among its ground-breaking moments the first anti-magnetic watches, the first made from ceramic and also from titanium, and the first mechanical depth-gauge. As its former creative director Guy Bove (now designer for Chopard) once noted, “we might not make the hottest watches in fashion, but then we do make watches their owners will still be wearing in decades to come.”

Certainly, in watch circles IWC is also recognised as having in its portfolio what most companies in the industry can only long for – a flagship design beloved of connoisseurs and collectors. And it’s not even the Mark series of pilot’s watches with which it is perhaps widely associated, though it does date to the wartime era. When, in 1939, two watch importers in Lisbon asked IWC to produce two special models in celebration of Portugal’s seafaring heritage – think Vasco da Gama, Fernando Magellan and Bartolomeu Dias – the result was more than expected.

First, the styles were oversized timepieces with pocket-watch movements in the spirit of navigational instruments, and a radical departure for watch design of the time. Secondly, it promoted a new category of watch – capable of withstanding the extreme conditions often found at sea. Thirdly, and most importantly for land-lubbers, it gave birth to IWC’s Portuguese line, recently updated and relaunched to include a hand-wound and a Grand Compllication with a minute repeater – a grandfather clock for your wrist. Not that IWC is one of those 21st Century companies coasting on a 20th Century archive, with its modern watch-making comes modern business.

Those who might regard luxury goods as divorced from concerns for the wider world may care to know that, although, like its understated watches, this understated brand does not shout about it, IWC is also the only premium watch company to be carbon neutral. Not for them its name emblazoned over a yacht or some Hollywoodtype paid to wear its watches, rather the company has, for instance, maintained a long-term relationship with the likes of the Cousteau Foundation – promoting its work through celebratory watch launches and a percentage of sales as a charitable donation – and eco-explorer David de Rothschild’s Adventure Ecology organisation.

The company is the first to admit its soft environmentalism gives the brand a competitive advantage; that it is a marketable point of differentiation. But its behind-thescenes activities are as green as those that public-facing – the company subsidises employees’ public transport costs, for instance; pays them to drive a car with reduced emissions; supports them in the greening of their homes. “We’re a business and we still have to deliver – but we can do so in a meaningful way,” Kern has stressed.

“We can’t be beholden to a corporate way of thinking that is always about cost, cost, cost. And I think companies, be they in the watch industry or not, that don’t invest in something of social worth are going to face problems.”

Corporate responsibility may be appropriate for a business whose headquarters now stands on the site of a former monastery. But it is even more appropriate for a one that set out to be at the forefront of its industry and,in both new ways and old, remains a leader – and not just in the air.