Date — 2014-10-24T11:07:55
When Kurt Klaus celebrated his 79th birthday a year ago, he was once again back in Asia. It is a region where the watchmaker, inventor and tireless IWC brand ambassador has for many years enjoyed almost heroic status. At a small celebration back then, he was told that, in accordance with tradition, he could make three wishes. He had to declare two of them openly; the third he could keep to himself. Klaus did not have to think long: “First, I’d like to live to be a hundred. And, second, even at a hundred, I want to have a completely clear mind.” As instructed, he kept the third wish to himself.
For Kurt Klaus, who turns eighty on 26 October, the wishes he made a year ago have partly come true: “I’m a happy man and I’m content with my life.” And the fact that he is now regarded as something of an old hand at a company founded in 1868 is something he is pleased to acknowledge. But the story of his time in Schaffhausen, now exactly 57 and a half years, is not over yet.
His desk is still at the company’s head office. Just a few days ago, he returned from yet another of his trips abroad as a watchmaking “missionary” that have taken him, among other places, to China and Korea. When Kurt Klaus travels, he not only uses his fascinating knowledge of classic watchmaking to promote this intriguing profession, he has also been a part of the world of watchmaking for longer than most others and has played a significant role in some of its most important developments. He is therefore qualified to convey a genuine passion for this traditional craft to lovers of fine timepieces in new and distant markets. People listen to what he has to say.
Above all, his creative contribution, namely “Operation Eternity”, has made him immortal. Although this particular achievement lies some 29 years back, it has lost none of its breathtaking brilliance. In 1985, he wrote watchmaking history as the inventor and design engineer of IWC’s autonomous perpetual calendar. He made significant improvements to a complication which over decades had made its way from large clocks to the microcosm of pocket watches and, finally, wristwatches. He liberated the owner from the need to make the corrections that were usually required and made the complication suitable for everyday use. For the first time ever, the synchronization of the calendar indicators, including an extremely accurate moon phase display, were complemented by a four-digit year display. To the astonishment of the watchmaking world, the calendar was constructed so that it would go on functioning correctly for more than 500 years. This endowed the watch, felicitously named the Da Vinci, with a positively philosophical dimension.
IWC Schaffhausen can be proud to have employees like Kurt Klaus. Without their watchmaking expertise, their willingness to take on the biggest challenges and never to give up, it would not be possible for us to take a tradition founded in 1868 into the future. His exemplary commitment to the company is an inspiration to all of us at IWC, and for that we are grateful.
—Georges Kern, CEO of IWC Schaffhausen
Klaus needed no more than 90 parts to transform an idea that was unprecedented in its scope into a functioning complication, remaining true to the principle that, for the user, it is simplicity that is truly ingenious. In the aftermath of the quartz crisis, the calendar/chronograph movement opened the door to an important period of success for IWC. For a time, it was synonymous with the name IWC and assumed iconic status as a symbol of the renaissance of the mechanical watch. In Schaffhausen, where the company had hitherto been proud of its reputation as a manufacturer of simple watches of the highest quality, it heralded an era of timepieces with major complications.
Even after his official retirement at 65, he continued to give a significantly larger design department the benefit of his experience for another 10 years. But the company’s management had recognized that his role as a brand ambassador with a genuine enthusiasm for IWC, media spokesman and teacher of watchmaking was a trump card that had to be played, particularly in distant markets. As a result, his travels have increased enormously.
In 2007, Georges Kern, CEO since the turn of the century and the man behind IWC’s relentless advance to global watch brand status, expressed the appreciation felt for Klaus in fitting style: unveiled at the same time as the new Da Vinci family with its own chronograph movement in a tonneau-shaped case was the Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Edition Kurt Klaus, featuring the technology of the original model and his portrait on the reverse side. It was initially launched in an edition of 500 watches in gold as well as 50 in platinum and 50 in white gold. But worldwide demand for the special edition was so large that this tribute to one of the most significant figures in IWC’s pantheon of illustrious watchmakers was reproduced with another 1,000 watches in red gold and 3,000 in stainless steel. For all his modesty, Klaus can’t help but feel proud of this honour. He subsequently contributed to the development of the most advanced successor yet to the watch that featured his original calendar/chronograph movement: the Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Digital Date-Month, which was unveiled in 2009 and incorporated many of his ideas. The elegance and functionality of this patent-protected design has remained unsurpassed to this day. In the meantime, IWC has turned the autonomous perpetual calendar into one of its hallmarks, with Klaus leading the way in his typical bold and inspiring way.
I’m a happy man and I’m content with my life.
IWC CEO Georges Kern expressed his praise for this exceptional talent thus: “IWC Schaffhausen can be proud to have employees like Kurt Klaus. Without their watchmaking expertise, their willingness to take on the biggest challenges and never to give up, it would not be possible for us to take a tradition founded in 1868 into the future. His exemplary commitment to the company is an inspiration to all of us at IWC, and for that we are grateful.”
Today, Kurt Klaus is free of operative duties and administrative ties and looks forward to his regular trips abroad, whether to Harbin, Hong Kong or Tokyo, where he meets informed collectors and brand connoisseurs to exchange thoughts and ideas. For guests, his every appearance is an opportunity for a lively encounter with the values of haute horlogerie embodied by IWC. This is something he can sense, and it motivates him.
But his greatest happiness in life is the gift of his family; his wife, whom he met back in St. Gallen, their three children and three grandchildren. “I’m even a great-grandfather,” he adds, chuckling. All of them will be celebrating his birthday with him as indeed will IWC: the Museum at the headquarters in Schaffhausen is staging a special exhibition to honour his life and work.