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An acolyte of excellence

Petrina Fernandez
Petrina Fernandez  • 13 min read
An acolyte of excellence
SINGAPORE (July 23): Entry to the Watchmaking Hall of Greats is hard won, with only the most noteworthy luminaries extended an invitation. The majority of them are historical figures, but among the living legends whose portraits hang in this fantasy hall
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SINGAPORE (July 23): Entry to the Watchmaking Hall of Greats is hard won, with only the most noteworthy luminaries extended an invitation. The majority of them are historical figures, but among the living legends whose portraits hang in this fantasy hall are the likes of Philippe Dufour, Jean-Claude Biver and Kurt Klaus.

The last is the 84-year-old ambassador of IWC Schaffhausen who has clocked in over six decades, and counting, at the Manufacture. He is revered in watchmaking circles for his illustrious contributions to the industry, particularly the invention of the IWC perpetual calendar. His complication, assembled from a meagre 90 components, guarantees accuracy of calendar functions for over half a century and proves ingenuity truly lies in simplicity. This feat of enduring precision was appropriately named Operation Eternity.

Numerous collectors have had the pleasure of meeting this remarkable gentleman, who travels the world as a watchmaking missionary to spread the gospel of IWC’s relentless quest for excellence. It is a subject he speaks of with authority, having pursued this Holy Grail himself throughout his career as a watchmaker at the Manufacture. This duty to quality was inherited from his mentor, technical director Albert Pellaton, who was renowned for his inflexible stance on the matter. Pellaton was sparing with his praise. “Yes, it is good, but it could be just a bit better,” he was known to say, and when work was done within the permitted miniscule tolerance of error, “You don’t have to make full use of the tolerance.”

Klaus had known from the outset that working with Pellaton would be no walk in the park. The aspiring watchmaker from St Gallen, in northeastern Switzerland, trained formally and was working in the Grenchen municipality at the foot of the Jura mountains when he decided to look for a permanent job in 1956. “Not in Grenchen!” his then girlfriend and future wife famously insisted. Klaus credits her for the trajectory his life took, for her directive put IWC in Schaffhausen in his sights. He applied, and was invited by Pellaton himself, inventor of the 85-calibre automatic movement that features a winding system named after him, for an interview. Klaus was offered a job but along with the return of his stellar transcripts was a stern caveat: “You should know that being a watchmaker at IWC means going a step further than this.”

I meet Klaus, slightly hunched and furrowed, but quick in step and smile, at the retrospective IWC 150th Anniversary Exhibition at luxury shopping mall ION Orchard in Singapore. Across the concourse it occupies, two booths are executed in the brand’s distinctive industrial style. One hosts a reception area comprising a semi-equipped watchmaker’s workbench, a black-and-white mural of the Manufacture, as well as a larger-than-life Pallweber movement with rotating numeral discs spelling out the company’s founding year of 1868. The other accommodates star pieces from the 27-piece Jubilee collection designed to commemorate the occasion. These are tied together by a showcase of 10 historical models from the IWC archives in Schaffhausen.

Klaus arrives early to look at the pieces before the launch and guests are eager to speak to and have their photographs taken with him. The celebration continues with a rollicking cocktail party later that night, which sees him gamely swaying to the liquid rhythms of the live band, examining the nouveau cuisine stations and shaking an endless succession of hands thrust at him.

Our interview takes place the next morning at The Four Seasons Singapore, where he is staying. He despises being handled with kid gloves and is ferociously independent, travelling without an aide. English is not his first language, but he is articulate and composes his replies thoughtfully. The conversation digresses occasionally with answers not always matching questions, but they go off on such delightful tangents that I am loath to rein it back to the subject at hand. I later discover that he had forgotten his hearing aid, but the interview was pleasant enough to negate that accident.

To understand the reverence that surrounds Klaus is to be acquainted with the scale and incredulity of his accomplishments. He tweaked almost every complication produced by the Manufacture during his time to refine its design or operation. He developed a calendar with a moon phase display for a Lépine pocket watch and improved the split-seconds mechanism, the world time module and the mechanical depth gauge — all of which carry his signature. But it was the quartz crisis of the 1970s that unexpectedly elevated him to reverence. Most brands dismissed the relevance of mechanical watches in an era of the cheaper and more precise quartz-powered timepieces, but IWC’s unusual propositions at the annual Basel Watch Fair over the decade played a part in turning the tide.

The 1970s were particularly tough for Klaus. The rising popularity of quartz saw most of the engineers at IWC leave, Pellaton had passed away and Klaus found himself alone. IWC had never produced complicated watches before, but he began playing with a mechanism on a pocket watch movement, a moon phase with a simple calendar. It was produced in a trial run of 100 pieces for the 1977 Basel Watch Fair and sold out in record time. He continued developing complications on pocket watches until sales director Hannes Pantli approached him a couple of years later to say, “Stop with the pocket watches, they are going out of fashion. Do the same in a wristwatch.”

At the 1985 fair, IWC unveiled the Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar, a bold, roundcase wristwatch with articulated lugs that housed a crown-operated perpetual calendar module, invented by Klaus. Perpetual calendars were already on the market, but his take — the complication’s “new generation” — serialised its production. “We never wanted to make unique pieces,” he had said in an earlier interview. “For IWC, the watch industry is important, not the individual watch, so I tried to make [an easy-to-use] calendar module for industrial production.”

The wonder that greeted this instrument of unprecedented precision revived an interest in fine mechanical timepieces. IWC had until then built a reputation for simple but high-quality watches, and this triumph heralded an era of exquisite complications for the company while immortalising Klaus in watchmaking history.

He gently taps the watch he is wearing. “This is a souvenir of the work I did in the 1980s, when I developed the perpetual calendar,” he says. “The launch of the Da Vinci, it was nothing special. It was a success for IWC then, but not for me. I made it, but nobody was talking about my work until 22 years later, when the CEO wanted to revive the Da Vinci collection. Our designers created the new rectangular Da Vinci in 2008, but it did not have a movement. A new chronograph was developed for the new case, but it did not fit, so we thought of using my calibre temporarily until the new movement was ready. It required some modification, but it worked, and was produced in a limited-edition release of the Da Vinci named the Kurt Klaus edition. This watch was the first piece that was produced — it is numbered as the model’s first unit.”

The platinum watch was presented to him on his 80th birthday, celebrated at the Manufacture on the same day that former CEO Georges Kern marked his last day at the company and his successor Christoph Grainger-Herr, his first. “Georges had promised me that when the very first new Da Vinci watch was made, I would receive it. He and Chris presented this gift to me together, so it is very special; not just the watch itself, but also the sentiment behind it.”

Tinkering over seemingly impossible problems is a particular strength of Klaus’, whose patient and strategic experimenting invariably yields results.

“This is what I like,” he confesses. “For me personally, the fascination is in making a complicated mechanism. I like studying how I can do it, how I can make this function. I often say the Deep One diver’s watch with an integrated depth gauge was the most difficult to develop. I thought it was impossible. We needed one indicator to read the deepest depth a diver achieves — and for that reading to still be visible when he resurfaces — while another would rise with him to read current depth so he could time his ascension accurately. But placing these two axes with the two hands was complex. It took a year of very hard work to solve. We only managed it eventually because the case engineer and I worked together on the solution.”

Success lies in this collaboration between engineering and design, a philosophy Klaus would find to be true time and time again. It was so with the Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar, as well as the Portugieser Perpetual Calendar Double Moon.

“That [the latter] wasn’t my idea,” he says. “I had to transform the calendar into a bigger movement. It was just a reconstruction, there was nothing new to invent. I made the usual moon phase indicator and the designer came to me and said I needed to create a more interesting display on the dial. We had made the same moon phase for over a hundred years, he told me. Could we do something new? He had come up with the idea of two moons. I said it wasn’t easy, but after I thought about it, I came back with the technical solutions. It was a very special product when it was launched, with a moon each for the northern and southern hemispheres.”

A movement is not just an instrument, and is more than just functional. Pellaton’s exhaustive attention to detail instilled in Klaus a devotion to aesthetics equal to that to the mechanics — not a single scratch was permitted, whether or not the movements were visible to the eye in the finished piece.

At the Dubai Watch Week last November, Klaus was invited to be on the panel of a discussion about engineering versus design, but he refuted the premise, explaining that engineering and design complement each other and have to be developed in tandem.

“You could have a fantastic mechanism, but if it doesn’t look good, it will never be a success,” he continues. “I always say watchmaking is a craft. It is today what it was when I started 60 years ago because it is an art. All our movements are assembled by hand, by qualified watchmakers. What has changed completely is the production of the parts — the movements and cases. Over 60 years ago, when I started, our movement parts were produced by automatic machines. The tools were moving mechanically, cam discs were manufactured automatically.”

This was, of course, a legacy of IWC founder Florentine Ariosto Jones, who combined the craftsmanship of watchmaking with state-of-the-art machine technology and hydropower from the magnificent Rhine Falls to industrialise the manufacture of watches. The infrastructure he implemented allowed IWC to manufacture over 10,000 watch movements a year in components; by 1914, annual production had risen to 25,000.

“When I finished working on the Da Vinci, I tackled the minute repeater, and this was when I got my first computer,” recollects Klaus. Ever ahead of the curve, he had heard about a new computer system that aided design and was curious about its implications on watchmaking. “I said I must have it because to make all the drawings by hand was hard work. I got a computer and from then on, I never again drew by hand; everything was done on screen and printed out. This was the first step of the age of the computer in watchmaking, although the parts were still produced by the same old machines. Next came the first computer-controlled milling machine, with an operator electronically cutting out the designs I had digitally drawn. Soon after that, it was possible to connect the design computer to the production machines.

“While the technology has advanced, this might be a disadvantage. When I made the perpetual calendar, I worked alone mostly. It was a grand complication and our competitors couldn’t follow because it was too difficult. But with these fantastic computers, everyone is competing at almost the same level, although I would like to think we are still ahead.”

Klaus, whose favourite timepiece to work on was the Portugieser Tourbillon Mystère Rétrograde — “It was nice to create and is fascinating on the wrist, rotating slowly and so quietly” — wears a watch as a form of self-expression, as well as to tell the time. “I have to dig out my iPhone otherwise,” he says of the accessory occasionally spotted in his hand to photograph things that catch his eye or amuse him.

“Time is nothing to me,” he says. “It is just a sequence to measure. It is something from here to there; there is no eternity. I am retired or semi- retired. (Although he officially left IWC as a watchmaker in 1999, he still has a desk there.) When I am not travelling for work, I can do anything. I have more time than ever before. Time for me is no longer important because I have it in abundance.”

At his 79th birthday celebration, which occurred while he was touring Asia for IWC, he was told to make three wishes, two of which he had to declare and a third he had to keep to himself. According to accounts of the event, he did not have to think long. “First, I’d like to live to a hundred,” he said. “And second, even at a hundred, I want to have a completely clear mind.”

Sixteen years shy of possibly fulfilling that first wish, he seems to be doing well in both respects. As for his third wish, that, like the workings of the mind that pioneered solutions to seemingly impossible problems, remains a mystery.

A jubilant display

The retrospective IWC 150th Anniversary Exhibition celebrates 10 historical pieces that travelled from the company’s archives in Schaffhausen, as well as 27 new limited-edition pieces that form the commemorative Jubilee collection. Of the latter, 24 comprise references from the Portofino, Da Vinci, Portugieser and Pilot’s Watch families.

The remaining three timepieces are wristwatches that take their cue from the highlight of the heritage display: the hand-wound Lepine Pocket Watch Pallweber III from 1886, a silver case housing a white enamel dial with jumping numerals on rotating discs. It is also honoured in the IWC Tribute to Pallweber Edition “150 Years”, a guillochéd 18-carat red-gold pocket watch with a white dial lacquered to mimic the enamel of the original, jumping numerals on white hour and minute display discs, and a red-gold chain.

Also on display at the historical showcase are the Portugieser FA Jones 2005, Grande Complication 1991, Da Vinci Rattrapante 1995, Ingenieur 1955, Special Watch for Pilot’s 1939 and Yacht Club 1967, among others. Each contributes to the brand’s illustrious narrative; the last, for instance, introduced the blue dials that would come to be iconic of IWC. Elements of these inspired codes can be found in the new collection.

Petrina Fernandez is a senior writer for Options at The Edge Malaysia.

This article appeared in Issue 840 (July 23) of The Edge Singapore.

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