For a brand that was once described by the Financial Times as the creation of “a butch, luxury sports-watch brand, offering the take-it-or-leave-it proposition of large watches for real men”, IWC Schaffhausen is now perceptive to market trends.
“The whole market is moving, for many brands, from sport elegance to elegant sports,” says CEO Georges Kern. “A little smaller, a little flatter, a bit more elegant … it is less rough, less hardcore than in the past.”
Last year, IWC created a midsized collection for its Portofino line in a move that set the industry abuzz, but which made perfect sense to Kern, who saw it as a much-needed response to consumer needs in Asia. It is no secret that consumers in Asia prefer smaller dials, and the Portofino is one of IWC’s most popular watch collections here. The Portofino is already popular for its discreet elegance and understated luxury, and the new midsize version, at 37mm with subtle diamonds around the bezel, saw brisk sales within the first year of its launch.
It comes as no surprise then, that after IWC proclaimed 2015 as the Year of the Portuguese at Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) in Geneva, the Portofino will be taking centre stage at Watches&Wonders.
At this year’s fair, the Portofino collection is extended to include new colours and two new complications. Unveiled for the first time at Watches&Wonders is the Portofino Hand-Wound Monopusher, IWC’s first model that features a single push-button chronograph. The new complication will be the brand’s second in-house chronograph in its Portofino collection. Unlike classic chronographs with push-buttons at 2 o’clock and 4 o’clock, the chronograph push-button is integrated in the crown. The multifunctional button starts, stops and resets the chronograph, and is meant to make the technical feature more user-friendly.
The monopusher is available in white gold with a slate-coloured dial and grey alligator leather strap, or in 18ct red gold with a silver-plated dial and brown alligator leather strap. At 45mm, the watch is on the large side, but the thin bezel and lugs give it a clean look. The large size is in account for the in-house 59360 calibre, which offers an impressive eight-day power reserve.
Also based on the same 59000-calibre family is the new Portofino Hand-Wound Day and Date. A natural extension to the collection, the timepiece houses the newly developed IWC-manufactured 59220 calibre, and is available in stainless steel with a silver-plated dial and black leather strap or in 18ct red gold with a slate-coloured dial and brown leather strap. Aesthetically pleasing, a large date box at 12 o’clock displays the date, while an additional display at 3 o’clock shows the day of the week.
To round off the Portofino presentation, IWC is also injecting new colour into the collection with two new versions of the Portofino Automatic 37, one with a blue dial and blue leather strap, and another model featuring a silver-plated dial and raspberry-coloured leather strap. “We need to set trends,” Kern says of the new colours. “We launched brown dials with the Saint Exupery, and suddenly a year later everybody had brown dials because it was beautiful.”
Since 2011, IWC has partnered with Italian high-end shoe manufacturer Santoni to produce fine handmade leather straps exclusively for IWC watches. “They are hand-painted four times. You don’t have these colours with the other brands,” Kern says. It is these details, he adds, that change the product.
“It’s just a round watch,” says Kern, pointing at the Portofino Automatic 37. “But the game of colours – the grey slate, the rose gold, the copper – a bit of diamond, the moonphase and the amazing strap …suddenly you look at it, and it’s an amazing watch.”
For Kern, Watches&Wonders could not have come at a better time. “I believe it’s important to be in Asia,” he says. “The Asian market is a major contributor to the luxury watch industry, and the Chinese market influences the watch industry.”
The fact that the Chinese market is encountering a slowdown does not raise any alarm bells for the brand. Kern has seen IWC through a number of challenges – from the crisis in Ukraine and the nuclear disaster in Japan to the Mers outbreak in Korea and the Swiss franc decoupling with the euro – and he believes resilience lies in having a strong foundation. “The reality is that we wake up every morning and there’s a new problem,” he says. “In such an environment, which is indeed not very stable, where you have social [and] political troubles, what you need to do is to build a sustainable brand with true values.
“You know Schaffhausen is good because it’s ground solid, eastern Switzerland, [with] no funky stuff. It’s [about the] engineering. It’s a small village out of town with 30,000 inhabitants, and people love it. People love the idea that some guys in Switzerland are producing watches in a real way, and you need this in a stable world.”
When Kern joined the Richemont-owned IWC in 2002, the brand was still relatively obscure, located at the cusp of Switzerland along the borders of Germany and set apart from the rest of the Swiss horological world that occupy the Jura Mountains to the west. In his 13-year tenure, Kern has transformed Schaffhausen from a niche brand to a globally recognised name.
The brand was established in 1886, when Boston engineer and watchmaker Florentine Ariosto Jones brought advanced American techniques to the small village of Schaffhausen, combining local skilled craftsmanship to provide manufactured watch parts to the United States. From the 1980s to the 1990s, IWC (as it is now known) became the benchmark for top-quality movement engineering, From being the first manufacture to produce avant-garde cases in titanium and ceramic, to presenting real solutions like the patented Pellaton automatic winding system, IWC led the industry into a new era of luxury watchmaking. These days, Kern calls the brand a “safe bet”.
“When you buy a product, you want to make sure you’re not making a mistake,” he says. “You spend a lot of money, and I think consumers want a safe bet. You want to buy a Mercedes, a BMW or an Audi. That’s a safe bet. IWC has all these roots, and we offer security in a way, this assurance to the consumer that we are doing the right things.”