Kurt Klaus, master watchmaker at IWC Schaffhausen, talks about innovation and the future of IWC
Swiss watch manufacturer IWC Schaffhausen has been producing timepieces of lasting value, since 1868, with a clear focus on technology and development. As one of the world’s leading brands in the luxury watch segment, IWC crafts masterpieces of haute horlogerie at its finest, combining supreme precision with exclusive design. To top it all off, the company also gained a reputation based on its passion for innovative solutions and technical ingenuity.
Speaking of which, one of the key leaders in the world of IWC’s technical mastery is none other than its master watchmaker, Kurt Klaus. Born in 1934 in St. Gallen, Switzerland, Klaus has been interested in technology and mechanics since his teenage years, and unsurprisingly decided to become a watchmaker, starting his career at IWC back in 1957. Even though Klaus is most famous for his perpetual calendar, there has hardly been a major horological development during his time that he did not make an important contribution to.
During the 1970s, he developed a calendar with a moon phase display for a Lépine pocket watch. Furthermore, after the launch of the iconic Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar in 1985 during the Quartz Crisis, his signature could be found on the likes of the Grande Complication, the Il Destriero Scafusia (the world’s most complicated mechanical wristwatch at the time of its debut in 1993), the 5000 automatic caliber, the split-seconds mechanism, the world time module and the mechanical depth gauge. On top of all that, Klaus also helped to adapt the perpetual calendar to the Portugieser and contributed to the development of the perpetual calendar with a digital date and month display.
Theoretically, he retired back in 1999, but his work goes on. He remains as a consultant and roving ambassador for IWC Schaffhausen, and also shares his experience to the brand’s younger generation of engineers. Needless to say, to this day, the charming Swiss is regarded as one of the most popular personalities in the watch industry. DA MAN: Looking back, what was it that drew you to watchmaking in the first place? Kurt Klaus: I’ve always had feelings for small and micro-mechanisms, even when I was a boy. For that reason, I chose watchmaking and started to learn the craft back in 1951 in Switzerland. I spent four years studying micro-mechanisms and watch movements and, after that, I began working as a watchmaker. DA: When you started working at IWC back in 1957, did you ever think that you’ll work with the company for this long? KK: Yes, I did. I was born not far from Schaffhausen in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. After
“I’ve always had feelings for small and micro-mechanisms, even when I was a boy”
completing watchmaking school, I wanted to come back home. IWC Schaffhausen was the only watch manufacture in this part of Switzerland, so I went to them and asked: “do you need a young watchmaker?” Mr. Albert Pellaton, who was the brand’s technical director at that time, hired me and told me I could start work immediately. At the beginning, I was tasked with repairs and the assembly of movements. I felt at home at IWC Schaffhausen. It was a very good feeling. I never wanted to leave in all my 60 years working here.
DA: Are IWC’s cases and movements designed in parallel? KK:
Yes, absolutely. When I was developing the IWC perpetual calendar back in the 1980s, I worked very closely with an in-house designer who drafted the plans for the brand’s cases. We sat together every day for four years and eventually became the best of friends. The collaboration between the movement engineer and the case designer is very important. The best mechanisms cannot be sold when they don’t look good. Until today, people are still taking about the first IWC Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar. That was good design. DA: Apart from the Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar, what would you consider one of IWC’s greatest accomplishments during your time with the brand? KK: In 1990, five years after the debut of the IWC Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar, IWC unveiled its first Grande Complication, which featured a perpetual calendar, a chronograph and a minute repeater. During its launch, a good friend of ours in the West of Switzerland commented that a watch cannot be defined a Grande Complication if it wasn’t equipped with a tourbillon and a split-seconds chronograph. Upon hearing that, Mr. Günter Blümlein, who was IWC’s CEO at that time, told me: “Let’s show them”. That was when I started working on a new Grande Complication with a split-seconds chronograph and a tourbillon mechanism not on the front but on the back side of the watch. We named that watch the Il Destriero Scafusia, which translates as “Warhorse from Schaffhausen”, and presented it in 1993 for IWC’s 125th anniversary. With 750 parts, it was the most complicated wristwatch in the world at the time of its unveiling. DA: Out of all the watch mechanisms out there, which one do you like the most and why? KK: This. [Showing the Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar
“We named that watch the Il Destriero Scafusia, which translates as “Warhorse from Schaffhausen,” and presented it in 1993 for IWC’s 125th anniversary”
from 2017] It was a complication that I developed during a very difficult period known as the Quartz Crisis, when nobody really believed that mechanical watches would continue. Perpetual calendars were not new at all, but IWC’s perpetual calendar featured an innovative construction which allowed wearers to operate the calendar mechanism using the crown. This was a new start and success for IWC in the production of complicated mechanical watches. DA: Speaking about success, what do you think about IWC right now? KK: When I started at IWC, the company had around 313 employees and I was one of them. Then, during the Quartz Crisis, the number went down to 150. Today, we have around 800 employees in total. I can tell you that IWC, right now, is at the top – you see the success in all our watches. On top of that, we now have a new manufacturing centre to produce, in-house, not only movement parts, but also the cases of all our watches. DA: As a watchmaker, how important is innovation in a watch? KK: Innovation is very important. It was what Florentine Ariosto Jones (F.A. Jones) founded IWC upon when he came from America. His vision was to produce mechanical watches with the help of machines and, to me, that was our very first showcase of innovation. Today, the IWC perpetual calendar remains the best example of the company’s innovative spirit because we managed to produce, industrially, a mechanism that was considered a piece of art. Moreover, we also have innovations in material. For instance, IWC managed to develop, in-house, at our historical headquarters in Schaffhausen, the first watch case in titanium when case factories in Switzerland saw it as an impossible task back then. A watchmaker needs to innovate every single day. DA: Will the designs of IWC evolve in the future? KK: After my retirement, I was working for 10 years with a team of young engineers and watchmakers who just joined IWC from school. While I do not work with them anymore, I still follow what they are doing and I can see that they are embracing the same ideas as I did back in the day. However, today, with new technologies, I am very happy to think that IWC’s designs will continue to evolve. I see a very good future for the brand.