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Experiences

Forever Classic: IWC's Portofino

Text — Michael Friedberg Date2014-09-30T03:00:00

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IWC Portofino

IWC’s renowned Portofino line reflects classic design in its simplicity. Producing a watch where “less is more” is never simple and can reflect true aesthetic achievement. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote:

Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.

Historically most 19th century watches hid their complex mechanisms in cases with pure dials and hands. The classic pocket watch usually had straight hands pointing to plain indices or thin numerals. There was an absolute purity and utility to their design. During its early decades, IWC likewise produced classic watches: often with simple, even spare, enamel dials.

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Today’s Portofino line is a product of this classic purity. Yet these watches distill the best of tradition and, simultaneously, create beautiful watches with an aura of romance.

Possibly it all began with the classic IWC wristwatches of the 1940s and 1950s, the simple and well-engineered ones with the legendary calibre 89 manual movements. Those three-hand watches, telling hours, minutes and seconds with round dials, possessed a clarity that demonstrated there was nothing further to take away.

However, the first IWC watch called a “Portofino” evolved from a pocket watch. In the 1970s, IWC developed a simple pocket watch that had thin Roman numerals and classic Breguet-styled hands, as well as a moon phase indication on its dial.

In the early 1980s, IWC’s design head, Hanno Burtscher, met with Kurt Klaus, then a young watchmaker for IWC, one evening in a local tavern. They casually discussed converting a classic moon phase pocket watch, Reference 5250, into a wristwatch. The designer scribbled a drawing on a napkin. Its design was as simple as the watch itself – straight lugs extending from the case and making the pocket watch become what today is known as Reference 5251, a wristwatch. The end result was a new pocket watch for the wrist.

IWC Portofino

The mid-1980s was a period of transition for IWC.

IWC Portofino

In 1984, Reference 5251 was launched and quickly became known as the “Giant Portofino”. It was a bold move to have a classic wristwatch that was oversized in an era where quartz wristwatches predominated. The Giant Portofino was produced in limited quantities, undoubtedly due to its atypically large size.

The mid-1980s was a period of transition for IWC. The “quartz crisis” of the mid-1970s stifled, if not killed, the entire mechanical watch industry. However, in the mid-1980s there were signs that the Swiss watch could be reborn. In IWC’s instance, a new and perceptive leader, Günter Blümlein, revitalized IWC’s product line. He encouraged Kurt Klaus to develop a new perpetual calendar and he created a new sports watch line, Porsche Design, to appeal to a younger clientele. Moreover, he wanted to produce a classic line, reflecting the heritage of the traditional Swiss watch but as a modern product.

The Giant Portofino gave birth to that classic line. IWC decided to produce an entire line of Portofino watches reflecting its design elements. However, these would be in more traditional sizes and then would be expanded to many models in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These new Portofino watches were smaller: normal in size for that era, but diminutive by today’s standards. They all reflected the same pure and classic design: round watches with straight lugs, simple dials that had classic indices and hands.

The picturesque coastal town Portofino was a romantic resort that in the 1950s became a favorite spot for the rich and famous, radiating the charm of “la dolce vita”.

The name for this new Portofino family of watches was undoubtedly chosen because of the romance evoked by its namesake town on the Italian Riviera. The picturesque coastal town Portofino was a romantic resort that in the 1950s became a favorite spot for the rich and famous, radiating the charm of “la dolce vita”. There was timelessness to Portofino, just like the classic watches now being produced. They were timeless in their design: they were made now in the 1980s, but their design could have been from the 1950s. Great design always transcends time.

Many Portofino models were shown in IWC’s catalogs in the late 1980s. Most noteworthy was Reference 3513, a classic automatic watch with a date that was 34mm in diameter. Since the quartz era still existed, a companion model, Reference 3331 also was produced with a quartz movement. By 1990, another model was introduced that was even simpler: it was Reference 3514 and the date was entirely omitted.

A Portofino chronograph was also produced in 1988, Reference 3731, which had a 35mm case size, undoubtedly to balance the somewhat larger chronograph movement. But to keep matters small, IWC also produced, this time in 1993, an “ultra-thin” Portofino that was only 32mm in diameter. Even a Portofino perpetual calendar became part of the family.

IWC Portofino

The paramount challenge with any classic product, especially a successful one, is how to develop, enhance and improve it without losing its essence.

IWC Portofino

Numerous ladies’ models also were part of the Portofino line. These included References 6751, 9251 and 4531, as well as a Reference 8441 with diamonds. Many of the men’s models had many different dials, sometimes with more than 20 choices and even a “military style” black dial with white Arabic numerals.

What tied all these watches together was a classicism and simplicity of design. They truly were a family that could be identified as such. They bore a “family resemblance” that perhaps can best be explained by the German philosopher Wittgenstein. He postulated that things which may be thought to be connected by one essential common feature actually may be connected by several overlapping similarities, with no one common feature.

The Portofino family was, and indeed is, a best seller of IWC and discreetly so. The paramount challenge with any classic product, especially a successful one, is how to develop, enhance and improve it without losing its essence. IWC successfully accomplished this with several new models over the past two decades.

The especially popular but small Reference 3513, the basic Portofino automatic with date, evolved in the mid-2000s to a larger model, Reference 3533 at 38mm. That model more recently became Reference 3565, now at 40mm.

Sentimentally, the rare Giant Portofino remained heart of the entire [Portofino] family.

The classic Portofino chronograph similarly evolved to a larger model, Reference 3783 at 41mm. That model then grew to today’s Portofino chronograph, Reference 3910 which is 42mm. But as these models grew in size due in large part to changing consumer taste, IWC also produced a new “mid-size” 34mm Portofino, Reference 3564.

Sentimentally, the rare Giant Portofino remained heart of the entire family. When IWC decided to celebrate its 140th anniversary in 2008, it produced a “vintage collection” of new models based on their iconic predecessors. For the Portofino line, IWC introduced Reference 5448, a 46mm Portofino model with a moon phase indication. That perhaps served as inspiration for today’s contemporary 45mm “8 day” Portofino models, Reference 5101 and, with large date, Reference 5161.

While the Portofino models have grown in size since 1988 to the present, the same soul, and indeed the same classic and pure design, exists in every one. There probably have been more model variations of the Portofino over the past 26 years than any other watch family of IWC. This is a testament to the value of classicism and the sustaining beauty of simplicity. It reflects the everlasting value of a perfect design. And it demonstrates that these pure concepts can evolve to meet contemporary taste.

IWC Portofino

It was once said of an artist that he “took a line for a sprint”. Similarly the IWC Portofino family is as pure as a line – and has been taken for a time-tested sprint.

Explore More Articles
Collector Hans-Conrad Stamm

As an airline pilot, Schaffhausen-born Hans-Conrad Stamm travels the world. But his passion is for collecting watches made in his hometown

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The evolution of the diver’s watches from IWC continues.

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For over 60 years, IWC has been training generations of watchmakers in its own workshops. Candidates need to be deft with their hands and have a flair for technology. After completing their training, most of them remain loyal to the company in northeastern Switzerland for many years.

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Experience the secret talents of the IWC watchmakers.

The Time is Right

The parallels are endless: technology, innovation and cutting-edge design dominate both businesses, and they’re both defined by time. The MERCEDES AMG PETRONAS Formula One™ Team tries to beat the clock in FORMULA 1 motor racing; at IWC Schaffhausen, we are the clock.