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Craftsmanship that keeps watches running for generations

Given regular servicing, a quality timepiece will go on working reliably and precisely for many, many years.

IWC_Perfectionists
Perfectionists in their element

Every new in-house movement created by IWC in Schaffhausen involves around 20 specialists from various departments, sometimes working together intensively for years. With the help of state-of-the-art computer technology, the design engineers generate solutions whose elegance can be quite simply breathtaking.

Haute_Horlogerie_quer
All wound up

Before a mechanical watch movement can start moving, it needs an energy source to drive it. That energy source is the mainspring. And while there are some who enjoy engaging with the machine, lovingly winding it by hand, others take pleasure in the automatic mechanism, which will keep the watch running indefinitely, simply from the movements of the wearer's arm.

IWC Oils
Time That Runs Like Clockwork

Depending on the stresses and strains to which they are exposed, around 50 points in the movement are treated with oils and greases developed especially for use in wristwatches.

Test Lab

At IWC Schaffhausen, new watch models are put through a gruelling test program involving up to 50 separate stages that include long-term immersion in warm salt water and being locked away in an environmental chamber. All this guarantees that they will be equipped for everyday use – and much more – when they finally reach their future owners.

Sound_check_engine_AMG_972x426
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HALF_WAY_TO_THE_MOON_Trucks_972x426
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Experiences

Hand-Wound

Does anyone still wind his watch by hand?

Text — Manfred Fritz Photos — Images provided by B. SINGER / GETTY IMAGES Date — 24 May, 2011

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For once, let us start with an altogether shocking final reckoning: if someone owns, say, a Portuguese from the IWC Vintage Collection or perhaps even one from the Jubilee series of 1993, and reverentially winds it by hand every day, consuming an average of 15 seconds of precious time in the process, it means that by the end of the year he will have spent a full one-and-a-half hours doing so. Extend this period to ten years, and we are on 15 hours. In a society where the speed of life accelerates continuously, the self-help gurus of finely tuned time management would wag an admonitory finger and shout, “Stop, time thief!”

Do you still wind your watch by hand? Or do you let the earth’s omnipresent pull do the job? One thing is sure: back in the late 1940s, without the influence of gravity pulling the rotor in an automatic system down to its lowest point with every movement of the wearer’s arm, IWC’s former Technical Director Albert Pellaton could have experimented forever. But his ingenious IWC pawl-winding mechanism – the same system held in such high esteem and constantly improved by the company today – would never have worked and watches would have remained what they always were: hand-wound.

Watch connoisseurs are no longer divided by the question as to whether to wind their watches by hand or to leave this particular job to gravity. But there is still one significant difference, as any “hand-wound” devotee will tell you

There is something inevitably judgmental about that statement. Are old ways of doing things really inferior and new ones necessarily better? It is a fact that ever since winding systems were automated in the 1950s, the idea of winding a watch and forgetting about it has been regarded as a significant advance.

That, then, says it all about the automatic alternative to a hand-wound movement. Or perhaps there is one other thing: we normally move our hands about 3000 times a day from the resting position. We gesticulate, write, read newspapers, drive cars or bikes, pour out coffee, put on our coats or take off our shoes. And every time we do so, the rotor in our watch moves and winds the mainspring slightly. In fact, we generate more than enough kinetic energy to keep the watch on our wrists fully wound virtually all of the time. And even if we supply more kinetic energy than needed, it causes no harm: one end of the spring is attached to a clutch device that allows it to slip along the inner surface of the barrel when a certain frictional point is exceeded. Nevertheless, enough tension is stored to ensure that the movement keeps running while we sleep.

So why even bother talking about hand-wound watches? At this point, it becomes more of a question of philosophy, or of horological principle. The history of the mainsprings that drive watches is one of long and continuous improvement. The road from the hand-forged, helically coiled steel springs for large clocks, which were manufactured using carefully preserved techniques, to the much smaller mass-produced springs used in pocket and wristwatch movements was a long and arduous one, frequently punctuated by the occurrence of a broken mainspring. For although carbon steels were hard, tough and, within limits, elastic, they did suffer from fatigue and would simply snap after a certain number of tension cycles. Besides, until the middle of the 19th century and the invention of the crown-winding mechanism, winding a mainspring was a complicated business. The small key inserted either through the dial or the inner dust cover to the winding stem frequently went missing. And if you didn’t have a steady hand, you could easily scratch the case with the key.

—Mechanical movement, hand-wound; 46 hours power reserve when fully wound

Portofino Hand-Wound IWC Vintage Collection Ref. 5448

Men who refused to go with the technological mainstream, who opposed progress and all its attendant convenience, people who were self-willed and thought independently were, as the copywriter tells us, non-conformist and therefore “dangerous”

—Mechanical movement, hand-wound; 46 hours power reserve when fully wound

Portuguese Minute Repeater Ref. 5449

As regards mainspring technology, virtually everything has changed since those days. Both automatic watches and hand-wound models have profited equally. Firstly, in terms of the materials used: today, top-quality watches have springs made of Nivaflex®*, a cobalt-nickel-chromium alloy with the addition of molybdenum, tungsten and a small proportion of iron. The material is virtually non-magnetic but sinfully expensive and is rolled out of a wire into bands – depending on the type of watch in question – of more or less 1 millimetre in height with a thickness of slightly more or less 0.1 millimetres. Every movement needs a specific spring tension if it is to perform at its best.

Modern mainsprings are practically unbreakable and designed for a daily use of at least 20 years. In metallurgical terms, they are little short of miraculous and, in this respect, most comparable to the balance spring. Apart from this, they are no longer wound helically onto the barrel arbor but formed into an “S”-shape before being inserted into the barrel, which results in a constant torque. Of that, more anon. The spring really is indefatigable. The energy it develops, incidentally, is equivalent to 0.000.000.005 horsepower. This calculation – by no means a simple one – was once made at IWC using a 98-calibre pocket watch movement.

It certainly is true that most of the wristwatches in the present IWC collection are self-winding. Some of them have extremely long power reserves of up to seven days (with the stronger and longer mainsprings needed to make this possible), which enable the owner to wear a different watch now and again without having to reset the time or even the calendar after doing so. We need think here only of the Big Pilot’s Watch or the Portuguese Perpetual Calendar. All very wonderful. And the cases in which IWC’s service department have to deal with problems resulting from a shortage of energy, because the wearer is unwilling – or unable – to get more movement, are few and far between. This notwithstanding, it is still possible to acquire a restricted number of other IWC watches where the owner is obliged to provide the energy they require by winding them on a daily basis.

These are not, of course, watchmaking antiques but high-end products that pack many centuries of related experience

This type of watch is typified by its own family of movements, the 98000 series, which consists of half a dozen different variations on the theme. It is based on the 98-calibre family of movements, manufactured without interruption since the 1930s, which made pocket-watch technology accessible to wristwatches in the form of the Portuguese watches. The 98000 family (which has an identical gear train layout) nevertheless took a number of style cues from the original Jones movement, like the three-quarter plate made of nickel silver and the elongated index designed for precision-adjustment of the spring’s effective length. These are not, of course, watchmaking antiques but high-end products that pack many centuries of related experience.

Or should we perhaps consider a few examples of legendary IWC hand-wound movements from the past? Each of them can be described as “simple”, “reliable” or “robust”. This applies to such celebrated pocket-watch/pocket-wristwatch movements as the 52-, 73-, 97- and previously mentioned 98-calibre movements, or to the 87-, 88- or 89-calibre wristwatch movements, to name but three of each type. Automatic mechanisms are not suitable for pocket watches because the latter do not get sufficient movement to generate the necessary energy – although there have been attempts to remedy this in the past. But anyone fortunate enough to be the owner of a Mark 11, a Hand-Wound Portuguese, a rare Il Destriero Scafusia or one of the many simply 98-calibre watches of the 1950s and 1980s will know exactly what we are talking about.

Incidentally, there is in the IWC archives a remarkable full-page advertisement on the subject of automatic versus hand-wound movements with the astonishing headline: “This man is dangerous. He winds his watch by hand.” On the one hand, it was extremely smart advertising for the automatic Yacht Club, which was just coming onto the market. At the same time, it paid tribute to the hand-wound alternative with the legendary 89 calibre, which at the time was making a phenomenal comeback. Men who refused to go with the technological mainstream, who opposed progress and all its attendant convenience, people who were self-willed and thought independently were, as the copywriter tells us, non-conformist and therefore “dangerous”.

It was a nice little story whose logical conclusion no one need accept today. From a technical viewpoint, of course, there are several arguments in favour of hand-wound movements. For a start, they have far fewer wearing parts.

Portuguese Tourbillon Hand-Wound Ref. 5447

Beginning the day with the ritual of winding your watch has much in common with the act of creation

But there may well be another – real – reason for preferring a hand-wound movement, and this is where, for a moment, it gets very special. As described above, the force that drives the watch’s gear train is the mainspring. This is coiled around the barrel arbor either manually, with a few turns of the crown, or with numerous smaller movements of the rotor transmitted through a wheel train. By contrast with an automatic watch, the spring in a hand-wound movement is fixed to both the arbor and the inner surface of the barrel, which means we can immediately feel when it is fully wound. As the tension in the spring is released, it causes the barrel to rotate. The teeth running round the edge of the barrel drive the going train. These extremely slow rotations, of which there are only a few as the spring winds down, are translated into increasingly quicker movements. Now, every spring – even the most modern – has a torque that is not even throughout the tension cycle. If we imagine it as a curve, the first two-thirds of the cycle are relatively horizontal (when the spring is distributing energy at a generally even rate), but there is a distinct tail-off during the final third. The spring loses tension, the amplitude of the balance diminishes and the watch starts to run slow.

Watchmakers always try to keep the spring’s torque within the optimum range. With an automatic watch that is worn constantly this is no problem. However, if it is left to rest for an extended period of time, the tension may be attenuated to the point that the spring’s negative torque begins to make itself noticed. The watch’s accuracy, then, is crucially dependent on when and for how long it is worn. If the wearer swaps watches frequently, a watch winder could be a worthwhile investment.

For a watch with a hand-wound movement, this is unnecessary. Many watchmakers will argue that a hand-wound, used properly, is more accurate. In other words, that it can be modified more accurately to suit its wearer. Always assuming that one follows the good advice buyers of a hand-wound watch were always given: be sure to wind the watch at the same time each day and, on no account, rewind it in between. Because the initial torque – i.e. that of the fully wound spring – fails to develop its full tension for a brief period (on account of the small lever). However, if the watch is always wound at the same time, this tiny error becomes insignificant and a constant overall torque is achieved over a period of 24 hours. During a day/night cycle it is always within the safe area and with a total power reserve of 36, 40 or even 46 hours never reaches the spring’s end torque. A watchmaker can set the movement precisely to suit this consistent process and the individual habits of the wearer. By way of digression, the armed forces have always abided by this principle: pocket watches – not infrequently from IWC – can be found aboard the ships and submarines of many a national navy, and serve as a reliable source of the time. A senior officer, usually the first Officer of the Watch, is responsible for winding it every day at exactly the same time.

But there is another completely different – perhaps even more beautiful – aspect to the hand-wound watch. Beginning the day with the ritual of winding your watch has much in common with the act of creation. You are providing the watch with a necessary supply of time – effectively a store of kinetic energy. And these few seconds are an ideal time to think briefly about how you plan to use that time, in other words the day ahead. As human beings we have – and need – rituals to structure our lives. Winding a watch is one of the most gratifying.

Which brings us neatly back to the calculation with which we started. How many days a year do we spend being poorly “entertained” by our televisions, waiting for a delayed flight to take off, surfing the Internet or simply sitting in traffic jams on the motorway? A lot of them. Compared with that, the 91.2 contemplative minutes spent winding up your watch every year would appear to be time well invested.

*IWC Schaffhausen is not the owner of the Nivaflex® trademark.

Well-known hand-wound watches from IWC

Before the development of Albert Pellaton’s first IWC automatic movement, which made its breakthrough with the 85-calibre family in the 1950s, practically all of IWC’s watches were fitted with hand-wound movements: the pocket watches for obvious reasons, but also movements renowned for their ruggedness, such as the 64, 83, 88 and 89 calibres, or the tonneau-shaped 87 calibre. At the same time, the company was making numerous special ladies’ watch calibres such as the 92, the 93 “Baguette”, the 41 or the 51.

Explore More Articles
IWC_customer_service_972x516
Craftsmanship that keeps watches running for generations

Given regular servicing, a quality timepiece will go on working reliably and precisely for many, many years.

IWC_Perfectionists
Perfectionists in their element

Every new in-house movement created by IWC in Schaffhausen involves around 20 specialists from various departments, sometimes working together intensively for years. With the help of state-of-the-art computer technology, the design engineers generate solutions whose elegance can be quite simply breathtaking.

Haute_Horlogerie_quer
All wound up

Before a mechanical watch movement can start moving, it needs an energy source to drive it. That energy source is the mainspring. And while there are some who enjoy engaging with the machine, lovingly winding it by hand, others take pleasure in the automatic mechanism, which will keep the watch running indefinitely, simply from the movements of the wearer's arm.

IWC Oils
Time That Runs Like Clockwork

Depending on the stresses and strains to which they are exposed, around 50 points in the movement are treated with oils and greases developed especially for use in wristwatches.

Test Lab

At IWC Schaffhausen, new watch models are put through a gruelling test program involving up to 50 separate stages that include long-term immersion in warm salt water and being locked away in an environmental chamber. All this guarantees that they will be equipped for everyday use – and much more – when they finally reach their future owners.

Sound_check_engine_AMG_972x426
Sound Check

How the engineers at Mercedes AMG in Affalterbach, southern Germany, create the right engine sound.

HALF_WAY_TO_THE_MOON_Trucks_972x426
HALF WAY TO THE MOON

For the MERCEDES AMG PETRONAS Formula One™ Team, following the Grand Prix circus means transporting 30 tons of material in 10,000 individual parts and at least 60 employees to venues on five continents. Of course, they have to ensure that everything arrives there on time what calls for a system and improvisation in equal measure.

Grande Complication Dial Explained
Small World

Time moves the world. The IWC Portuguese Grande Complication is an understated, beautifully designed way of summarizing time as the motor of all change: a time machine that shows a tilted globe on the dial.