IWC's ex-head of research retired years ago but he still has a hands-on role.
HAVING WORKED in the watch industry for more than 50 years, I have seen it go through radical changes. I joined IWC after completing my apprenticeship in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. I have since familiarised myself with every model manufactured at IWC since the earliest days and joined the development department in 1970.
Heritage is extremely important to all watch houses and IWC has always remained faithful to its traditional mechanical watches. It was a great pleasure to have been able to design the Da Vinci movement, an automatic chronograph for IWC, and it remains one of the most popular models even now. But watchmaking itself has changed dramatically in the past five decades.
Today, production of most of the parts is industrialised. Generally speaking, individual components are produced on state-of-the-art machinery. They are then hand-finished and assembled in several steps by various watchmakers - again by hand. Only complicated watches and specialities are assembled by a single watchmaker from start to finish.
As in the past, the ideas themselves are born in the minds of the watchmakers and designers. These days, however, we no longer work on drawing boards but with computer-assisted designs. Three-dimensional models of various parts are rendered, which we can then convert into two- or three-dimensional drawings and animations. Of course this allows us to push horological technologies even further.
This is not to say that the training of future artisans is not important. When quartz watches took over the market in the 1970s and 80s, it looked as if the writing was on the wall for watchmakers. Lots of companies had to close and their people were out of work. But IWC continued training its own watchmakers throughout that bleak period. And that stood us in good stead later when trained craftsmen were in short supply. Since the renaissance of the mechanical watch, interest among young people in watchmaking as a profession is again at a very high level.
At the start of an apprenticeship with IWC, which takes four years, students complete an introductory course in precision mechanics. Effectively, this means learning standard machining skills such as turning, drilling, milling, sawing, filing, grinding and polishing. In the process, they make some of their own tools. After this, they study various types of clockworks, with the focus on functions and settings. Then they work on the pre-assembly and assembly of a pocket watch movement all the way through to the gear train.
IWC receives hundreds of applications for the apprenticeship per year, but only five finish their training with us. Most stay on immediately after they gather more experience, but it takes about one and a half years to get to 90 per cent of the standard we expect of our veteran watchmakers.
Even though I'm retired, I still work in the factory every day to master my skills as a watchmaker. To become a master of this art form, the journey is a never-ending one.