Few names in horology inspire as much admiration as Klaus, who at the age of 83 is still celebrating a lifetime as part of IWC
A chat with IWC watchmaker Kurt Klaus
International Watch Company. Not the most imaginative name, perhaps, but since its launch in 1868, the company that came to be known as IWC Schaffhausen, after the Swiss town where it is based, has prided itself on its innovative spirit - from the original factory’s hydropower plant, driven by the Rhine, to the invention of several world horological firsts. And to mark its 150th anniversary this year, one of its most famed and respected engineers was recently in Dubai to share some of his career highlights.
As far as luminaries in the watch world, they don’t really get bigger than Kurt Klaus. He’s spoken about in reverential tones by enthusiasts the world over, having spent half a century working as IWC’s head of research and development. Despite retiring 17 years ago, he hasn’t stopped. He still has an office at the company’s headquarters and travels the world as brand ambassador for an organisation he evidently cannot fathom ever being apart from.
For Kurt Klaus, a family man and great-grandfather who will turn 84 in October, a lifetime spent with one company is completely natural. “It was just how things were at IWC,” he smiles. “Many people started their careers there and worked all the way up until they were 65.”
A meek, humble and gentle man, he won’t brag about his accomplishments, but they speak for themselves. He was instrumental in bringing both IWC and A. Lange & Söhne back from the brink of certain death in the wake of what’s referred to as “the quartz crisis” (that period during the 1970s and 80s when mechanical wristwatches were almost universally ditched in favour of highly accurate, reliable and inexpensive digital and quartz movement items). In 1985, he was the main designer behind IWC’s Da Vinci perpetual calendar, which has become the company’s most celebrated model.
“My main task during the quartz crisis,” he recalls, “was to make IWC’s watches more accurate. The quartz watches we were making at that time were changing rapidly, and changing the image of IWC too, but when it came to mechanical timepieces, there wasn’t really anything revolutionary about them. They told the time, the date and that was about it. The biggest innovation up until then had been the automatic winding system designed by Mr [Albert] Pellaton. Complications hadn’t even been considered but we knew we had to do something different.”
Looking back, it’s almost impossible to appreciate just how revolutionary his Da Vinci was. The original had been a lozenge-shaped quartz model, a total child of the 70s that now looks cool in a retro way. But the mechanical version was completely different in design, unapologetically taking the wristwatch back to the 1930s with an elegant case that, underneath its round face, featured hitherto unseen engineering. It was a perpetual calendar chronograph, with a module designed by Klaus, built on a Valjoux 7750 chronograph base.
But it was Klaus’s perpetual calendar mechanism – the first ever made in which every calendar indication, including the moonphase, was coordinated via the crown – that had everyone in a stew. To set the watch, all its wearer needed to do was pull out the crown and advance the day indication. Everything else would follow suit. It was a technical achievement that cannot be underplayed and, in an era when mechanical watches were at their least popular, it was a brazen statement of intent from IWC. It had implicit faith in the future of mechanical timepieces.
“IWC is known as the engineer of the watch industry,” quips Klaus. “Everything we do is engineered. And today a wristwatch for a man is like diamonds and jewellery for a woman. There is a fascination surrounding them, especially those watches with complications. I have maintained very good contacts with IWC collectors – they are almost like a club – they meet every year to discuss their watches. It’s more than what their watches look like; these people are interested in what’s inside.”
Can he see another “quartz crisis” on the horizon, with the advent of the smart watch? He thinks not. “I see some IWC clients who wear Apple watches during the day for fun, but a mechanical watch when they’re out for dinner in the evening. It is a luxury not everyone can afford, so the world does need quartz watches and smart watches but, having said that, I see increasing numbers of young people not wearing a watch at all, just using their iPhone to tell them the time. But as these ones get older that fascination with mechanical things tends to take a hold. A mechanical watch is a luxury, something people save up for and never sell, handing it down through generations. That will always be the case.”