Photos — David Willen Date — 29 August, 2013
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.
Mario Dunst’s job requires fine motor skills, a good eye, a well-developed ability to think spatially, and infinite patience. He takes countless tiny individual parts and from them assembles a mechanical movement, adjusts it, positions the dial and hands and then secures the finished movement in its case. Mario is in the fourth year of his apprenticeship as a watchmaker, and one of twenty trainees at IWC Schaffhausen, who are learning this demanding vocation from scratch.
“This is definitely not a career for people with a lot of nervous energy,” laughs Raphael Frauenfelder. He trained as a watchmaker in Schaffhausen from 2001 to 2005. As he explains, it’s absolutely essential that the individual candidate be able to sit still and concentrate on a tiny detail all day long. Like most of the trainees, Frauenfelder took on a voluntary project to round off his apprenticeship and spent countless hours producing a “skeleton” watch. “When you skeletonize a watch, you cut everything out of the movement that isn’t needed to keep it running,” is how he sums up the challenge. The task is demanding, but the results are – literally – a revelation. It’s not often that you have the chance to actually see the complex functions of the escapement and balance, or the way the components in a mechanical movement interact with one another. “Skeletonizing a watch doesn’t require any special equipment. You just take the individual parts like the plates and bridges, a vice, a fretsaw and files, a loupe and plenty of light, of course. It’s all manual,” recalls Frauenfelder. Because he wanted to make a skeleton watch he could wear on his wrist rather than put in his pocket, he simply went ahead and designed his own case. The fact that the end result is very similar to a Portuguese is explained rather by his fondness for this iconic watch line.
This is not a career for people with a lot of nervous energy.
After his apprenticeship, Frauenfelder went to Grenchen for further training as a watch technician. As a project manager specializing in industrialization, his main focus today is on continuously improving the manufacturing process at IWC, and seeing new products through to the assembly stage. “It’s a fascinating job, but I have to admit that I sometimes miss the mechanical aspect of it all,” he says, still a watchmaking engineer through and through.
For David Moragon, too, it was clear from an early age that he would go for a technical vocation. “In the end, I somehow stayed with watchmaking,” he recalls. Like his colleagues, he too learned all about the ins and outs of a mechanical movement. He’s fascinated by the autonomy of mechanical watches. “ Even now, I still find it incredible how you can wind up a movement and suddenly everything starts moving,” he says enthusiastically. Like Raphael Frauenfelder, David Moragon decided to skeletonize a movement towards the end of his
apprenticeship with IWC. “The difficult thing is getting the framework of bridges and plates perfectly balanced. When the watch is fully wound, certain forces act on the slim bridge supports. You have to take the structural factors into account if you don’t want things to deform.” After his apprenticeship, Moragon gained experience in a number of departments at IWC. In the service section, for instance, he overhauled movements up to one hundred years old. After a brief period in precision adjustment, he was appointed head of the final assembly department, where he is now responsible for installing the hands, casing up and attaching the strap/bracelet.
Markus Bühler, on the other hand, was a rather unusual case as an apprentice at IWC. The son of a carpenter from St. Gallen, he first followed in his father’s footsteps, until back problems forced him to look for another career. As a result, he applied to IWC Schaffhausen for an apprenticeship as a watchmaker at the relatively ripe old age of twenty-eight. Despite this, the personnel department were clearly impressed by his talent and he was taken on. Bühler too has remained in Schaffhausen. His first job was making prototypes in the
development department, which gave him the chance to use his talent for coming up with and developing clever ideas. He went on to do further training as a machine tool technician.
Today, Bühler is head of the Industrialization Department at IWC. “When we’re developing a new watch, we give the designers our input on feasibility before they’ve even put pen to paper,” explains Bühler. There’s nothing he loves more than defining and optimizing the assembly process, or taking new models through to series production. The fact that he’s always up for a challenge is clear from the project he took on as an apprentice: he converted a pocket watch movement with a calendar and moon phase into a tourbillon movement, a job that took him over four hundred hours. And because he couldn’t find the right kind of case, he decided to make his own. It was a marine chronometer case made of sapele wood with a gimbal suspension. “It was the most complicated and labor-intensive design I could imagine at the time,” he grins.
Schaffhausen’s watchmaking apprentices continue to make a name for themselves. Apprentice Mario Dunst, for example, took a 6497-caliber movement, and created an ingenious automaton in the shape of a small boat. Of eighty-three works submitted for the 2012 Cartier competition, he took the very impressive second place.