An ap­point­ment with IWC’s most re­spected watch­maker, the 83-year-old Kurt Klaus; and five very dif­fer­ent pieces of wear­able tech

Few names in horol­ogy in­spire as much ad­mi­ra­tion as watch­maker Kurt Klaus, who, at 83, is still part of the IWC fam­ily. Kevin Hack­ett meets him

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In­ter­na­tional Watch Com­pany. Not the most imag­i­na­tive of names, per­haps, but since its launch in 1868, the com­pany that came to be known as IWC Scha ausen, a er 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 the com­pany’s 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 go, 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 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 says with a smile. “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 IWC back from the brink in the wake of what’s re­ferred to as the “quartz cri­sis” (that pe­riod dur­ing the 1970s and 1980s 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,” re­calls Klaus, “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 1970s that now looks cool in a retro way. 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, given its re­lease in an era when me­chan­i­cal watches were at their least pop­u­lar, it was a brazen state­ment of in­tent from IWC. It demon­strated the brand’s 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 smart­watch? 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 smart­watches, 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,” says Klaus.

“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.”

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