Since IWC was founded in 1868, it has always been an advocate for industrialisation. When American engineer, watchmaker and founder Florentine Jones built the factory in Schaffhausen, near the Swiss-German border, his goal was to bring together American expertise in mechanisation with Swiss precision. Despite that, the brand is no stranger to haute horlogerie. Innovations such as the Pallweber system (1885), Pellaton winding system (1950) and crown operated perpetual calendar (1985), as well as super complicated timepieces such as the Il Destriero Scafusia (1993) and the Portuguese Tourbillon Mystère Rétrograde (2010) among others, are proof of IWC’s technical mastery.
Some 147 years later, this careful balance between innovation and tradition remains. A visit to its newer Neuhausen facility reveals a wide selection of sophisticated machinery capable of doing electrical discharge machining (EDM) and CAD/CAM (computer-aided design and manufacturing) that help build components from the tiniest of movement parts to bracelets and cases.
IWC is one of few watch manufactures that build its own cases from scratch. Working only with steel, gold, platinum or titanium for its cases, the process begins with the unpolished metal rods and preformed blanks. They go through a turning and milling process that shape them into their desired forms, complete with all the necessary angles, apertures and grooves. All cases, even the simplest ones, are composed of several parts. These shaped components, comprising things such as case rings and case backs, are then placed on racks and fed into machines to be engraved. Up to eight case backs can be placed within the machine at any one time, with two being manufactured concurrently in a span of just six minutes.
The CNC (computer numerical control) machines are also responsible for the production of plates, rotors and bridges. Most movement parts are made of brass that is put through a galvanisation process before being rhodium-plated. These parts are either finished by hand or undergo a mechanised spark erosion process to achieve their shape.
Pad printing, a specialised technique that transfers a 2D image (such as letters or numerals) onto a 3D object (such as a sapphire crystal watch glass), is also done in-house at the Neuhausen factory. The process involves picking up paint from a printing plate via a flexible conical-shape silicon pad and pressing it onto the surface to be printed. With these printers, IWC is able to efficiently create intricately decorated graphics like that on the rear side of the IWC Portugieser Sidérale Scafusia, where more than 500 stars recreate the majesty of the night sky.
Once the various case components are cut, printed, engraved and checked for imperfections, the metallic parts are given proper surface finishing, even on places that are not visible from the outside. They go through a pre-assembly process before the cases are put through a water-resistance test and sent to the Schaffhausen facility together with the other movement parts.
Although modern machinery guarantees unprecedented accuracy, hand-crafting remains a significant factor in the movement production processes. This practice is seen at the historical Schaffhausen facility located just a short distance away from Neuhausen, where movement and case assembly is done, and where the brand’s most complicated timepieces are made.
Unlike at Neuhausen, where a lively and audible mechanical buzz fills the spacious rooms, the mood at Schaffhausen is a little more austere. Closed doors and off-limits areas keep highly confidential renderings and documents away from prying eyes. After all, this is where 20 watch movement projects and up to 50 watch case projects are being worked on at any one time in the year. These range from brand new developments for serial production (like its three new base calibres) to complex complications that are offered only in limited numbers.
During the assembly process, the movement’s winding mechanism, train and escapement are put together by hand and the watch goes through precision adjustments to ensure that it runs accurately. Responsible for this important task are the technicians, who make sure the balance spring runs true and flat — a task that no modern machine has the means of perfecting.
Highly skilled watchmakers in the Complications department add on complications such as the perpetual calendar or split-seconds mechanism to the basic movement, while the Specialties department takes care of the tourbillons and minute repeaters. Composed of a team of five specialised watchmakers, they put together the 657-part Grande Complication movement, the inner mechanics of the Portugieser Tourbillon Mystère Rétrograde (which demands a full week to put together) and the Ingenieur Constant-Force Tourbillon (which requires two days).
The final assembly process sees the movement, dials and watch hands assembled, encased and fitted with crowns. Each watch is then put through a 10-day test, which stimulates the day to day usage of a watch, to determine its accuracy. After this, the timepiece undergoes a last inspection that ensures its robustness, accuracy and reliability.