A Week On The Wrist: The IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Edition ‘Tribute To 3705’
A cult classic from the ’90s is back in black(er).
IWC has announced an homage watch that pays tribute to the ref. 3705 “Fliegerchronograph Keramik,” a piece from the 1990s that today stands as a legitimate cult classic. It was not terribly popular at launch, it was only offered for a few years, only around 1,000 were made, and when the watch was discontinued, it seemed destined to fade into oblivion.
However, as with so many cult classics (from Nick Drake records to The Big Lebowski), in recent years the 3705 has become increasingly popular – and the very features that made it non-mainstream to the point of obscurity at launch have put it in demand. Prices have been steadily rising, and with the original 3705 avidly sought after by IWC fans, and fans of vintage and near-vintage watches as well, IWC decided to make a new version of what was never an old favorite, but what is now a new rising star in the vintage world: The Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Edition “Tribute to 3705”
The original Keramik ref. 3705 was sold from 1994 to 1998 and launched at the same time as the steel ref. 3706 which, thanks to its case material, had a much broader appeal. Ceramic watch cases were, after all, a rarity back then, and “ceramic” does not have reassuring connotations. Ming vases are ceramic; the good wedding china you’re not allowed to break out except for company is ceramic; grandma’s Hummel figurine collection, one of which you broke and for which sin you paid dearly, is ceramic. “Ceramic” for most non-materials scientists, in the ’90s, meant in short something that would break if you looked at it cross-eyed, and that probably conspired to help keep the new material from becoming an immediate success.
These preconceptions were probably a bit unfair, but then life is unfair impartially to both the quick and the inert. And its ascent in popularity tracks with the public gradually accepting ceramics in watchmaking.
Why should anyone trust a ceramic watch case? Well, ceramics are a huge family of materials, and the technical ceramics used in watchmaking – and in other industries, like the aerospace industry and the automotive industry – are quite a bit tougher than your hand-me-down teacups. The family is so big that most definitions are more rules of thumb than anything else. Ceramics are (usually) non-metallic, hard, brittle, corrosion-resistant, and (often) poor conductors of electricity. You can compare and contrast with metals and metal alloys which are (as a rule) shiny, ductile, good conductors of electricity, and relatively malleable.
Ceramics and metal alloys offer advantages and disadvantages. Ceramics, thanks to their hardness, are almost impossible to scratch, which has led to their widespread adoption for bezels. They’re lighter than metal alloys commonly used for watchmaking, and they’re pretty inert chemically, so they’re hypoallergenic as well. The downside is that if you ding them hard enough, they don’t dent or bend — they shatter.
The failure mode of metal alloys, on the other hand, is deformation, not fracturing. But metals scratch more easily, weigh more, and may (depending on the metal) produce allergic skin reactions. You pays your money and you takes your chances. The good news, if you’re interested in ceramics, is that although industrial ceramics are brittle, they’re still pretty tough. Brittle does not necessarily mean fragile, and it takes a fairly energetic impact against a pretty unyielding surface to crack a ceramic watch case.
So while it’s true that you can find some pictures floating around on the indolent currents of the internet, depicting ceramic cases doing their best impression of Humpty Dumpty after the great fall, the world is at the same time not awash in such images – nor is there a great hue and cry rising from every quarter of the Kingdom Horological that ceramic cases, bezels, and what have you, play falsely on the hopes of watch enthusiasts. They seem to hold up pretty well.
Still, watchmaking is nothing if not the pursuit of heightening the pros and diminishing the cons. And IWC has, for its Homage To 3705, come out with high-tech (materials) guns blazing.
Before looking at the Homage, it’s worth looking fondly back at the original and at what makes it so attractive, even if it is with the benefit of hindsight. The 3705 is one of those fascinating hybrids: A watch very much of its time, when the mechanical renaissance was already well underway and brands had begun to seriously vie for bragging rights in innovation. It was, by the standards of its day, a somewhat large watch, at 39mm x 15mm, and inside was the Valjoux/ETA 7750 – this was long before IWC began to seriously invest in rebuilding its legacy in movement manufacturing from the pre-quartz era, and the 7750 was one of the very few available options if you wanted a reliable self-winding chronograph movement.
I first saw the 3705 several years after it had already gone out of production, but I thought it was a very handsome watch. The all-black trend was still in the future, and the 3705 had a very attractive combination of ceramic and metal case elements. The case itself was black zirconium oxide (IWC was an industry pioneer in ceramic watch cases, going all the way back to 1986), but the crown, pushers, and caseback were stainless steel, and the two-tone effect was pretty eye-catching, in a rather technical fashion – certainly not something you saw every day.
The other charming element, if you are charmed by these things, was the use of a soft-iron inner case to protect against the effects of magnetism. Nowadays, this is something of an anachronistic solution, but then so are watches with mainsprings and gears, and I liked, and still like, the whiff of props and silk scarves, and pilots scrambling for dawn patrol that a soft-iron case conjures. Silicon and paramagnetic alloys certainly offer more up-to-date ways of coping with magnetic fields, but if all we cared about were the latest advances in materials science, we’d be reading The Proceedings Of The International Congress On Multisyllabic Alloys (or something).
The 3705 was, and is, classic IWC. Spare, devoid of anything smacking overtly of design or, god forbid, aesthetics, it was a watch that had precision in performance on every level written all over it – a watch to not so much admire idly as to strap on, and get on with the business of leading your presumably extremely interesting life.
Let me say right off the bat that I found the Homage To 3705 exhilarating, immediately. It is not only an homage, and a very respectful one at that, but it is also close enough to the original that I felt immediately transported back to the 1990s and some of my first personal encounters with IWC watches. The Homage is so strikingly similar to the 3705 that it feels as if it’s from IWC’s catalog from two and a half decades ago – as replete with sternly pragmatic details and as devoid of unnecessary (and unwanted) flourishes, gewgaws, and gimcracks as any aging and cantankerous retro-grouch could possibly wish.
Now for all that it’s a Proustian madeleine for me (horologically and in some other respects as well), it is not in fact identical to the original. It’s a bit larger – 41mm x 15.3mm – and quite noticeably the palette here is all black. This is a hint that the case material is different as well. The 3705 is made of a technical ceramic. The Homage, on the other hand, is made of Ceratanium – this is IWC’s name for a particular titanium alloy, which has a surface layer of ceramized metal.
“Ceratanium” is a portmanteau word – a combination of “ceramic” and “titanium.” However, the material IWC starts with has no ceramic material in it at all. It’s a pure metal, which is first machined to shape in the conventional fashion, and then given its final bead-blasted finish. The last step is where the ceramic part comes in. Once the case has been machined and finished, it goes into a high-temperature furnace. The heat causes a chemical reaction to take place in the surface of the case exposed to the atmosphere, which transforms it into a ceramic. The ceramic surface layer is not a coating – it is a part of the underlying titanium alloy material, and since it’s not an applied surface (like a PVD coating), it won’t chip or flake off the substrate.
IWC hasn’t, as far as I know, disclosed the composition of the alloy, but one possibility is that it’s partly niobium – there is a patent for a titanium alloy containing niobium from 2001, which says that heating the alloy to around 1500º Fahrenheit produces “a durable black surface layer consisting substantially of an oxide of niobium,” but that’s just (semi-informed) speculation.
Ceratanium seems to be a pretty good solution to getting all of the benefits of titanium in particular and a metal case in general, to travel along with the benefits of ceramics. You get all the scratch resistance of ceramics, but since the body of the case is substantially the original titanium alloy, it should be more or less immune to cracking or outright shattering.
The other major difference between the original and the Homage is the movement. The 3705 used the 7750 movement – an unquestionably reliable and sturdy one, and one of the great success stories of 20th-century watchmaking. The Homage, however, uses the IWC caliber 69380.
While the basic architecture of the 69380 is related to the 7750, there are a plethora of differences. Most significantly, the 69380 uses IWC’s own dual-pawl winding system and also uses a column wheel instead of the lever and cam system found in the 7750. The jewel count is higher in the 69380 as well – 33, as opposed to 25 in a stock 7750 – and the power reserve is slightly longer, at 46 hours versus 42 for the 7750.
One thing I’m delighted to say is unchanged from the 3705 to the Homage is that soft-iron inner case. So-called soft iron antimagnetic cases are not pure iron – they’re nickel-iron alloys, which work by providing a preferred pathway for magnetic field lines. The magnetic field, in other words, finds it easier to flow through the inner case than through the movement. The innards of the Homage are themselves an homage to the 3705 – both the movement, and the armor it wears.
Seeing the Tribute for the first time was overwhelming. The last time I saw a 3705 was back in 2016, when we had one in the office from a collector, and before that, I’d seen it only once or twice in the entire time I’ve been covering watches. It loomed large in my memory and left an indelible impression five years ago (as it did when I’d seen it first in the early 2000s), but it was one of those watches I’d assumed would remain what it was then: a rarity, not often talked about and even less often seen in person.
The Tribute is, of course, not an exact replica of the 3705. It’s different in a lot of key respects: size, the movement, the case material, and of course, the use of Super-LumiNova instead of tritium. But despite the differences – which, by the way, are immediately obvious when you look at the two watches side by side – it somehow feels like the 3705 and vividly evokes the spirit of the original.
This is not the first Ceratanium watch from IWC that I’ve had a chance to handle and put on – the first IWC Ceratanium watch was the Aquatimer Perpetual Calendar Digital Date-Month Edition “50 Years Aquatimer” from 2017, and there have been others since. It’s a cool material in both senses of the word – light, tough, with a semi-matte sheen that reflects enough light to give the watch a pleasant visual texture, but absorbs enough to keep the stealthy feel of the original. What you don’t have in the Tribute is the steel-on-black, mixed material look of the original. However, absolute fidelity to an original in an homage watch can be a double-edged sword. The combination of steel and ceramic in the 3705 was a result of the technical limitations and constraints of watch case technology in the 1990s, and while it had as a consequence an interesting visual effect, I think it would have been a little cheesy to duplicate it in the Homage, when a better technical solution now exists.
I’ve spent a great deal of time talking about the Homage in the context of the original, which after all it is meant to not only evoke but, in many respects, duplicate in its details. Of course, you can and should look at the Homage, and at any homage watch, in terms of how well it works on its own, and where it situates itself not only with respect to the past, but also with respect to modern mechanical horology.
As a watch, rather than an homage, I think the Homage is a resounding success – albeit I can’t, honestly, disentangle the Homage entirely from the nostalgia it evokes. As a daily wear timepiece, at least over the course of the week or so during which I had it, it is at least as satisfying as the original, and indisputably better technically. This seems to be my month for looking at respectful updates to original models, albeit the Omega Speedmaster is a regular production watch while the Homage is a limited edition. (And I do wish the Homage were a regular production watch, though I’d rather have it as an LE than not have it at all.) Still, the Homage To 3705 is as successful as the original 3705 in daily use as you could possibly want. It’s instantly legible, the chronograph serves its purpose unpretentiously and precisely – and with smoother and more consistent pusher feel than the original, thanks to that column-wheel control system.
It’s also a watch that I wore with greater peace of mind than I would have worn the original. While ceramic is a perfectly viable alternative to various metals as a case material, it still, for me, has a small, admittedly irrational, air of fragility about it. The technical superiority of Ceratanium is hard to ignore. This is not to say that Ceratanium is, in any sense, the ultimate case material – there are far too many alternatives nowadays, including any number of hardened titanium alloys which, if not necessarily as hard by the numbers as Ceratanium, are certainly tough enough to offer substantially the same practical benefits. But it’s still mighty nice to look at your watch and know that its case is more likely than most to shrug off the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
For me, wearing the Homage is a reminder of a very different time in the history of watchmaking, and in the history of IWC. The 3705 (and the 3706, in steel) always seemed to represent one possible take on making a watch whose design was intended, not to be aesthetically pleasing as such, but rather, to be as legible, functional, and durable as a watch could be made to be, within the existing budget and materials constraints of its time. That a tool watch should reflect budgetary constraints on the part of the manufacturer has never seemed problematic to me – after all, a tool is not a tool if only the one per-centers can afford it, and a gold-plated hammer with a pernambuco handle is not so much a tool as it is either an exercise in kitsch (and a bad one, at that) or an incitement to revolution.
The Homage, on these criteria, edges a little away from pure tool watch. First of all, it’s a limited edition (1,000 pieces) which automatically puts air quotes around it in a way you wouldn’t find with a regular production model. Secondly, there’s the price – $11,900, which is a reasonable premium for a limited production (and presumably high-demand) watch, but which is certainly not anywhere near the price category generally associated with tool watches meant to be widely used and offer wider appeal. It’s worth considering, however, that the original 3705, assuming you can find one, is now selling for somewhere in the vicinity of CHF 20,000 if not more (one that belonged to Günter Blümlein, the architect of the resurrection of Lange & Söhne and a key figure in the mechanical renaissance, went for quite a bit more than that, in 2018).
If what attracts you to the 3705 is less its collectability and roots in the past, and more its bare-bones, form-follows-function design (which gets harder and harder to find every year, as brands seem to find greater profit in upcharging for what are essentially illustrations of tool watches, rather than tool watches), then I think the Homage To 3705 is worth serious consideration. It’s a terrific watch.
That said, it is for me, and maybe for some of you out there as well, inescapably reminiscent of some rose-tinted version of The Good Old Days. It’s what a certain segment of the watch enthusiast community really wants a watch to be, and for all that it relies on nostalgia for a specific watch, made by a particular company, during a particular era for its appeal, it has so much of the appeal of the original in itself as to carry the day in terms of being a convincing exercise in its genre on its own. Still, it’s also a watch that connects the dots to its past, and the history of IWC, in an awfully appealing way – as much a time machine as a machine for telling the time.
The IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Edition “Tribute to 3705:” case, Ceratanium, titanium alloy with ceramized outer surface, 41mm x 15.3mm, water resistance 6 bar/60 meters. Convex sapphire crystal with double antireflective coating. Hands, rhodium-plated with Super-LumiNova. Movement, IWC caliber 69380, column-wheel automatic chronograph with IWC double-pawl winding system, running at 28,800 vph in 33 jewels, power reserve 46 hours. Limited edition of 1000 pieces worldwide; price, $11,900.
Original ref. 3705 kindly provided for this article by AnalogShift.com.
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article gave the diameter as 42mm and the water resistance as 30 meters. The actual diameter is 41mm and the water resistance, 60 meters. Our story has been updated.
Available only through IWC.com.