Founded by American watchmaker Florentine Ariosto Jones in 1868, the International Watch Company — or IWC, as it’s better known — is one of Switzerland’s most well-known watch manufacturers.
It’s also one of its most different. While most Swiss watch companies located their factories in the west of Switzerland, IWC built to the east in Schaffhausen. While others focused on the traditions of watchmaking, IWC constantly pushed the boundaries of innovation.
A director of the Boston-based watch manufacturer E. Howard & Co., IWC’s founder Florentine Ariosto Jones viewed the Swiss watch industry as a lucrative business opportunity. In the early 20th century, Switzerland’s watchmaking industry offered a unique combination of affordable labor and incredible attention to quality. Jones, a veteran of American watchmaking, saw the chance to produce watches in Switzerland specifically for the international market. At first, he did what other watchmakers did and set up shop in the western, French-speaking region of Romandy. Jones’ attempts were unsuccessful as local watchmakers approached his venture with skepticism, concerned that it could hurt their future job prospects. In Schaffhausen, Jones found his opportunity, and an enthusiastic partner. Industrialist Johann Heinrich Moser, who had built a hydroelectric power plant in the area, joined IWC as its first partner and quickly turned Jones’s manufacturing plans into a reality.
In 1885, IWC released the Pallweber — a pocket watch named after the Austrian engineer Josef Pallweber. The Pallweber was the first pocket watch to use a digital display, with two windows to note the hour and minutes display, and an analog seconds subdial. While the Pallweber was a success, its innovative display never went on to replace the typical analog watch dial.
IWC rapidly expanded throughout the early 20th century, introducing many of its most iconic watches during the pre-war period, such as the iconic IWC Portugieser, which was first manufactured in 1939.
World War II proved to be IWC’s biggest disruption. After the war, with Germany in ruins and much of Eastern Europe occupied by Soviet forces, the suppliers that IWC had relied on were largely unavailable. So the company branched out, contacting new suppliers in Western Europe and the United States, and altering its focus from traditional pocket watches to wristwatches. IWC introduced its Caliber 89 movement shortly after the war — a movement that would remain in use well into the 1990s.
IWC grew at a steady pace throughout the post-war period, recording its best ever year of sales in 1973. While other Swiss manufacturers panicked during the Quartz Crisis, IWC began to offer many of its models, including the recently released Da Vinci, with Beta-21 quartz movements.
To remain competitive with emerging brands in Japan, IWC also expanded its design focus. It hired Ferdinand Alexander Porsche — best known for the iconic Porsche 911 — as a product designer, and introduced new watchmaking materials such as titanium.
The 1960s and 70s were a productive period for IWC. It introduced the Aquatimer — one of its most popular sports watches — in 1967. It updated the popular Ingenieur in 1976 with a Gérald Genta design and a large, sporty steel case. In the late 1970s, IWC added another iconic watch to its collection: the Portofino. Staying true to its roots as a pocket watch manufacturer, IWC launched the 9721 calibre in the late 1970s — an impressive pocket watch movement with a moonphase display and calendar.
Since the late 20th century, IWC has continually refined its wristwatches by introducing a range of new materials and movements into its new models. IWC has also re-launched many of its most popular models (including the Aquatimer) and introduced new models, such as the Big Pilot’s Watch and Pilot’s Watch Chronograph.
From the rugged looks of the IWC Pilot’s Watch to the iconic dial of the Portugieser, IWC has a watch to suit every taste. Below, we’ve profiled some of the brand’s most popular models, from sports watches to dress and heritage models.
Contrary to popular belief, IWC’s most famous model wasn’t ever designed or manufactured in Portugal. Instead, the IWC Portugieser gets its name from its first customers — two Portuguese businessmen that contacted IWC in search of precise marine chronometer wristwatches.
To accommodate their request, IWC used its 74-calibre pocket watch movement and created its most iconic design. The first Portugieser went on sale in 1939 and became one of the most well known watches of the 20th century.
IWC first showed the world the Aquatimer at the 1967 Basel Watch Fair, impressing customers and critics alike with a stylish sports watch capable of descending more than 200 meters below the ocean’s surface.
Since its launch, the Aquatimer has been redesigned and refined over time. Notable Aquatimer models include the Ocean 2000 & 500 — two civilian watches based on IWC’s early 80s military watches, which were constructed in titanium for mine clearance divers and military frogmen.
Inspired by a diver’s helmet, legendary Swiss watch designer Gérald Genta decided that the functional parts of a watch — the screws and bores that allowed it to operate — didn’t need to hide inside its case or out of sight.
The result was the Ingenieur SL — an innovative watch that went on sale in 1976, inspired by the antimagnetic IWC Ingenieur of the 1950s. In 2005, IWC relaunched the Ingenieur, mixing the raw engineering of Genta’s 1970s Ingenieur SL with the sleek style of the original.
Introduced in 1988, the Portofino used a design adapted from IWC’s Lépine pocket watch and sported a name in honor of the famous Italian resort town. Available with hand wound or self-winding movements, mechanical versions of the Portofino sport an eight-day power reserve.
From the simple and elegant Portofino Automatic to the eye-catching Portofino Hand-Wound Monopusher, the Portofino is one of IWC’s most impressive dress watches. Understated and stylish but not short of presence, the Portofino blends vintage looks with modern technology.
IWC launched its first pilot’s watch — the Special Pilot’s Watch — in 1936. Designed to assist in recording take-off times, the first Pilot’s Watch was such a success that it spawned a successor four years later in the form of the Big Pilot’s Watch 52.
Today, IWC’s Pilot’s Watch range includes a variety of stylish tool watches from 36 to 46mm in diameter. The Pilot’s Watch Chronograph mixes the tool watch styling of the original IWC Pilot’s Watch with a 79320-calibre chronograph movement and day and date complications.
Since its earliest days in Schaffhausen, IWC has developed a diverse portfolio of watches and built a reputation as a very different brand from its competitors. The current IWC range blends the brand’s long history with modern styling and some of the world’s most well-known designs.