If I were to give you five seconds to name one model the following brands are known for the most, you would probably say: Rolex = Submariner; Omega = Speedmaster; IWC = Mark XX. That’s because each brand developed key models that have always been regarded as the quintessential references in each one of these respective categories. Rolex spent decades fine tuning the Submariner, just like IWC has been refining the pilot watch since the 1930s and has, in a way, made it its speciality. IWC has a history that goes back to the 19th century and developed several collections that have become iconic in their own right. Now regarded as a luxury brand, IWC makes some of the most robust tool watches on the market and their core collection—pilot watches—is what the brand is the most known for.
The Creation of IWC
If you are familiar with the story of Henry Ford and how he conquered the world of car manufacturing, then you would know that his success is due to the fact that his factories could produce a massive amount of cars in a record amount of time. Ford developed a novel manufacturing process in which each worker would assemble a small part of each car and the cars would come to them instead of having the workers come to the car. I’m mentioning this because the creation and early success of IWC is a similar story. It all started in 1868 when American entrepreneur and watchmaker Florentine Aristo Jones created the International Watch Company in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. Jones brought the American manufacturing spirit and paired it with the Swiss expertise in watchmaking.
IWC’s manufacture was set up near the Rhine River from which continuous power could be drawn to operate the heavy machinery necessary to manufacture watch parts. Jones’ goal was to manufacture vast amounts of movements of the highest quality for pocket watches that he would sell on the American Market. He managed to do so by simplifying the design of movements so that they would be easier to mass-produce and cheaper to make. As far as I know, IWC could manufacture up to 10,000 pocket watches a year which was impressive at the time. His approach, regardless of how successful it ended up being, wasn’t highly regarded by the Swiss.
Jones eventually returned to the United States and IWC was taken over by the Rauschenbachs family of industrialists in Schaffhausen, particularly Johannes Rauschenbach. Under his leadership and later that of Ernest Jakob Homberger—who managed IWC on behalf of the Rauschenbachs once Johannes passed away—marked the birth of two of the brand’s most iconic collections: the pilot watch and the Portugieser. The name of the latter comes from the fact that a Portuguese importer ordered a batch of large wristwatches equipped with IWC’s high-precision pocket watches caliber. The name stuck.
The First IWC Pilot Watch and the Mark XI
When Ernest Jakob Homberger was at the helm of IWC, he was inspired by his sons’ keen interest in aviation to develop the brand’s first pilot watch: the reference IW436 from 1936. Aviation was booming at the time and the development of air forces across Europe required the creation of capable and easy-to-use pilot watches. Before pilot wristwatches, one had to use a pocket watch which, as we can easily imagine, was not easy to use while flying a plane. Pilots needed large watches they could strap outside their flight jackets. IWC was not the only brand to have developed pilot watches (I would refer you to this article to learn about iconic WWII pilot watches,) but IWC was one of the first brands to specifically develop a watch for pilots.
The reference IW436 boasted anti-magnetic properties and was capable of handling drastic changes in temperatures. It came with a large black dial, a full set of Arabic numerals, a small register for the running seconds at the 6, and internal bezel used to track flight time, as well as luminescent paint. Following this success, IWC responded to the British Ministry of Defense’s request for a military pilot watch and created the famous Type XI in 1948. The latter was resolutely more modern, however it displayed the same quality that made the IW436 popular: a legible dial, a robust movement protected against magnetism, and a case that could withstand the rigorous use in a cockpit.
Continuing the Tradition with the Type XII and XX
It took IWC 46 years to release a successor to the Type XI. The story goes that many collectors and fans of the brands could no longer acquire good quality vintage Type XI’s and, after long internal deliberations, the brand decided to create a modern version—enter the reference IW3441 released in 1994 and known as Type XII. This new version was the first to be equipped with an automatic movement, a screw-down crown, and a sapphire crystal, all of which fit in a 36mm case. (Probably my preferred IWC pilot reference.) Then, in 2022, IWC released the IW328201 also known as Type XX, a long-awaited successor to the Type XII. (There were more models in between which I’m not listing here otherwise I would be writing a Wikipedia entry.) The Type XX comes with a case of 40mm in diameter and is the first IWC pilot watch to be equipped with an in-house caliber.
While Rolex is most known for the Submariner, Omega for the Speedmaster, IWC is better known for its pilot watches. After all, the brand was a pioneer in developing watches for pilots before that Governments would commission popular Swiss and British brands to create capable watches for their pilots during World War II. Just like we no longer need dive watches and chronographs, we certainly don’t need pilot watches. However, we watch people collect watches because we like how they look, their history and heritage, and what they represented several decades ago and still represent today. It seems that anyone who’s into pilot watches should know about IWC and the Type XI, XII, and XX and perhaps add one to their collections.Featured image: www.professionalwatches.com