SINGAPORE (June 4): Things turn technical quickly with Walter E ­Volpers. The head of product management (technical) at IWC Schaffhausen was in Singapore for a whirlwind one-day visit after ­Tokyo. On tour with him were a few choice pieces from IWC’s highly anticipated Jubilee Collection, developed to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the International Watch Company (IWC) in 1868 by Florentine Ariosto Jones, a 27-year-old watchmaker who journeyed across the Atlantic by boat from Boston to Schaffhausen to combine the modern engineering methods of the Americans with the craftsmanship excellence of the Swiss.

The Jubilee Collection was originally intended to include 28 watch references across five product lines — the iconic Portugieser, Portofino, Pilot’s Watch and Da Vinci as well as the new Tribute to Pallweber — and had grown to 29 models in response to heightened demand, Volpers tells me when we met at the IWC boutique in Marina Bay Sands in February on his first visit to Singapore.

The unprecedented scale and magnitude of developing this limited-edition collection, which comprises several grand complications, including a constant-force tourbillon and perpetual calendar as well as several new movements and open casebacks, certainly came with its fair set of challenges — the biggest being the condensed lead time.

“We started developing the collection 11 to 12 months ago. To design a watch and bring it to market usually takes 24 months, and we only had 12,” says Volpers. “Being the 150th anniversary, we couldn’t postpone it. The other challenge was that we had a lot of new movements [in this collection] and a new case construction — to have them all ready on time,” he explains.

Volpers gives me an exclusive preview of a few star pieces and I fall instantly in love with the minimalist aesthetic of the IWC Tribute to Pallweber Edition “150 Years”. The hours and minutes are digitally displayed on the beautifully lacquered dial — just like the revolutionary Pallweber pocket watches did using rotating discs in 1884 — but IWC is offering it as a wristwatch for the first time in this tribute piece.

Josef Pallweber was an Austrian engineer who invented, and patented, the first pocket watch with said digital display in 1883. He subsequently licensed the patent to IWC, which produced 20,000 Pallweber pocket watches for only a short period thereafter, making them among the most collectible of early IWC pocket watches. 

The simplicity of design in the Tribute edition belies the complexity beneath. Five years in the works, the Tribute is powered by the new IWC-manufactured 94200 calibre that drives the patent-pending digital display via three rotating discs — one for the jumping hour and two for the jumping minutes. Where toothed cogs moved the discs in the historic Pallweber pocket watches, the impulse that advances the single-minute disc is now supplied by a separate wheel train with a barrel of its own. A release mechanism that establishes a connection to the watch’s main wheel train unlocks the train every 60 seconds and then immediately locks it again. After 10 minutes, the single-minute disc moves the 10-minute disc forward by one position. Every 60th minute, the hour ring jumps to the next digit. Precision is guaranteed by the fact that the flow of power in the main wheel train is uninfluenced by the separate wheel train in the display discs. This also enables a high 60-hour power reserve.

Another highly technical star of the Jubilee ­Collection is the Portugieser Constant-Force Tourbillon Edition “150 Years”, which combines for the first time a constant-force tourbillon with a simple moon-phase display that only needs to be adjusted by one day after 577.5 years. Powered by the new IWC-manufactured hand-wound 94805 calibre with a power reserve of 96 hours, the patented constant-force mechanism is designed to transmit a consistent amount of energy to the escapement. As the mechanism is integrated into the tourbillon, which compensates for the negative influences of gravity on the watch’s oscillating system, this ensures an exceptionally high level of precision.

Then there’s the Portugieser Perpetual Calendar Tourbillon Edition “150 Years”, the first IWC watch to combine a perpetual calendar with a tourbillon. This is made possible by the new IWC-manufactured 51950 calibre, an extension of the 51900 calibre with the addition of a perpetual calendar.

A new IWC movement is also found in the Da Vinci Automatic Edition “150 Years”. The 82200 calibre is a robust automatic movement with a Pellaton automatic winding system, and its components that are subject to particularly hard use, such as the cam or the pawls, are made of virtually wear-free ceramic. Its skeletonised rotor offers a view of the movement through the open caseback.

“The calibre 82200 is like a small brother of the calibre 52000 because it also has a Pellaton winding system, which allows the rotor to charge the watch in either direction, and it has some zircon oxide components, like the caliber 52000,” says Volpers.

From the Portofino line comes the Hand-Wound Moon Phase Edition “150 Years”, which combines a classic Portofino Hand-Wound Eight Days with a moon-phase display, thanks to the ­IWC-manufactured 59800 calibre — previously only used in the Ingeniur collection. This calibre allows a deviation from the actual cycle of the moon by just one day after 122 years.

For fans of the popular Big Pilot’s Watch, the Big Pilot’s Watch Big Date Edition “150 Years” is the first Big Pilot’s Watch with a date display featuring large numerals at 12 o’clock.

Strict design codes

Each element of the watch and every step in the creative process is attended to with meticulous attention and care, ensuring all IWC watches adhere to the brand’s strict design codes. From the proportions and placement of the IWC logo to the consistency in the colour tones of the dials, the attention to detail is exacting. Then, there are the signature elements that always stay the same, such as the big crown on the Big Pilot’s Watch. Together, these form a distinctive design DNA for the brand that is not only coherent but also cohesive, crafting a strong identity for IWC in a crowded marketplace.

Take the new blue or white lacquer dials of the Jubilee Collection, for example. The special paintwork of the cadrans laqués (lacquered dials) is comparable with a high-quality piano lacquer, and designed to look “like the enamel dials of the early 1900s”, says Volpers. After being stamped and embossed, the brass blanks for the dials are coated with up to 12 layers of lacquer and flat-polished in a long and complex process. They are then varnished with a brush; the high-gloss varnish gives the dials an elegant sheen. If the dial has recessed features such as a date window or subdials, these are also lacquered at the sides in another ­machining step. The final coat of lacquer is then manually polished by hand.

Why not just employ the art of enamelling rather than simulate a similar look? “Because the process [of enamelling] is not so modern anymore,” says Volpers. “Of course, there are companies that do enamel dials for watches, but the art of enamelling is not so industrialised today. And we wanted to showcase the spirit of engineering and industrialisation that IWC is known for, but with the look of the past,” he explains.

According to Volpers, another big challenge in delivering the Jubilee Collection was working with different suppliers to produce these dials. Company protocol calls for IWC to work with four dial suppliers “for security reasons” — two suppliers work on each model reference so that there is always a backup in case something goes wrong and one supplier is unable to deliver for some reason.

“How do you get the suppliers to work together in an industry that is known for secrecy and rare collaboration?” Volpers asks rhetorically. “We had to get them to deliver the same white and blue [tones], so it’s really tricky to get them to work together. But we managed perfectly and it came out very well,” he says.

As head of product management (technical), Volpers works closely with the creative director and design team. He does not create the designs himself, but is involved in the creative process right from the start.

“For every launch, we have a kick-off where we analyse the sales, analyse the benchmark and position the collection where we see fit. These are the guidelines we usually follow. Then, we go to the design team and communicate the requirements — the complications, chronographs, materials and so on. The creative process is very interactive,” Volpers explains.

On average, 25 to 35 designs are created for each watch, and even up to 80 drawings for more complicated ones. “Paper is really patient,” he jests.

Three different prototypes are then made before the watch goes into production: the 3D print, functional prototype and final prototype.

“First, we do a 3D print to test the ergonomics, and then a technical prototype is made of the real material to get a sense of the weight and how the dial shines against the case material,” shares Volpers. “And we check if everything looks proportional: Do the pushers look symmetrical? Is the crown too big or too small? You can’t see this on paper. In 3D, you may see that it works, but in real life, with the real material, it may not. Then, you make more changes. It’s a combination of both science and gut feel.”

These processes and collaborations between the different production departments will get significantly smoother once IWC completes its big move to its new manufacture in Merishausen this June.

The new 13,500 sq m space is said to be the biggest investment in the history of IWC, and will bring together production areas that were previously spread across different locations, thereby optimising production process workflow while making room for increased capacity and future growth.

The production departments for cases and parts for movements gradually began relocating from Neuhausen to the new facility in October 2017, and the department that assembles the IWC-manufactured calibres moved from Baumgartenstrasse to the new premises in January this year. Once completed, the Merishausen site will provide workspace for about 400 skilled employees. The official opening ceremony is scheduled for June, along with an open house day for the people of Schaffhausen.

“Besides the benefits of cost reduction, the new manufacture reduces lead time, which allows us to be more agile in reacting to market needs,” says Volpers.

Blue is the new black

Blue dials have come to be synonymous with IWC, with the brand producing 120 watch references with blue dials since 1967. And the trend appears to have caught on industry-wide of late.

“Blue is the new black,” announces Volpers. “Yes, we have a history of developing blue dials and there are many brands riding this blue wave now. Blue is a really nice colour for a watch, very contemporary. It matches perfectly with a suit, jeans, blue tie; it goes very well with many colours.”

Sporting a navy blue suit himself, he wears the IWC Tribute to Pallweber that I have been ogling throughout the interview. His favourite, though, is the Pilot. “I’m a Pilot guy. For me, it’s the Big Pilot’s Watch Annual Calendar Edition ‘150 Years’.”

The 44-year-old was born to a Colombian mother and Swiss father in Bogota, Colombia, and “exported” to Mexico when he was three months old. He grew up in Mexico City and later lived in Venezuela for four years. He spent the next 22 years in Switzerland, where he completed his tertiary education.

Prior to his current role, Volpers was head of supply chain management (movement parts) at IWC for five years. The Swiss national speaks German, English, French and Spanish, and has somehow managed to retain the Colombian accent because throughout the interview, all I can think about is how he sounds like he could be Sofia Vergara’s cousin.

Volpers, an avid diver who is also into motorbiking, clearly embodies the adventurous and pioneering spirit IWC is known for. His inner geek emerges when he gets all technical about watches and goes into the minutiae with such passion.

It’s charming, I say. He laughs and replies, “Yes, I love my job!”

Jamie Nonis is a lifestyle journalist with an appreciation for all things beautiful

This article appeared in Issue 833 (June 4) of The Edge Singapore.

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