Twenty-five years on: the unveiling of a masterpiece of complication

by David Seyffer

Share:
IW377011

Basel, April 1990. Exactly 25 years ago, IWC presented the “Grande Complication”, Ref. 3770, at the world-famous watch and jewellery show. Coming 122 years after F.A. Jones founded IWC and precisely five years after the launch of the Da Vinci Ref. 3750, it was another technical milestone for the Schaffhausen-based company. It was IWC’s first Grande Complication designed for the wrist. With this watch, IWC unequivocally claimed its place at the pinnacle of haute horlogerie. But not only that: the model was also a clear and eye-catching statement in favour of the mechanical watch and the company’s belief in the future of classical watchmaking.

Manufacturers like IWC Schaffhausen, who dedicate their time and energy to the high art of watchmaking, aim to design and produce complicated movements in-house, and to have them assembled by their own master watchmakers. In the meantime, however, the connotations of the term “complicated” could hardly be more different. If the word “complicated”, used of a person, calls to mind a difficult type of individual, a “complicated” movement in watchmaking is something particularly intricate and technically sophisticated. Used of a timepiece, “complicated” means that apart from showing the time of day it has other complex mechanisms, known appropriately as complications. And a Grande Complication brings together various outstanding achievements of the art of watchmaking. Only during the second half of the 19th century were such models – in the form of pocket watches – first produced individually. The French term “Grande Complication” denotes the pinnacle of achievement in watchmaking for any mechanical pocket watch or wristwatch. It is an explicit indication of a complex mechanical movement that, apart from displays for the hours, minutes and seconds, has additional complicated mechanisms.

These include sub-assemblies such as a perpetual calendar, minute repeater or a chronograph. These are mounted outside the movement, usually between the dial and the plate. There is no official stipulation as to which mechanisms should be included in a “Grande Complication, but most watchmakers would not be satisfied if it did not feature a perpetual calendar and a minute repeater.

The French term "Grande Complication" denotes the pinnacle of achievement in watchmaking for any mechanical pocket watch or wristwatch.

IWC collectors know that a few IWC pocket watches with minute repeaters and chronograph mechanisms were sold as early as the years between 1910 and 1920. But until the 1970s that was an exception. Before that, the Schaffhausen-based manufacturers had focused on the production of high-quality and extremely precise pocket watches and wristwatches. Then, in the 1970s, following the advent of the so-called quartz crisis, there was a radical change of strategy at IWC. Counter to the general trend towards quartz watches, IWC decided to concentrate on the production and sale of high-value, complicated pocket watches that would sell on the collectors’ market. In effect, it was a counter-revolution to the arrival of quartz. Master watchmakers in Schaffhausen, such as Kurt Klaus, designed exclusive pocket watches for the few remaining collectors of top-quality timepieces. The first of these watches was the Reference 5500 open-face pocket watch with a calendar and moon phase, which was unveiled in 1977. Other fruits of their efforts were pocket watches with a strike train, such as the Ref. 5412 (hunter) and Ref. 5226 (open-face) five-minute repeater, which IWC advertised in a catalogue dedicated to pocket watches.

One of the model featured here, the Jaquemart repeating pocket watch in 18-carat yellow gold, Ref. 5225 was an automaton, with figures on the dial that struck the time. They are made of stamped, hand-chased 18-carat yellow, white and red gold. The Ref. 5412, Ref. 5226 (open-face) and Ref. 5225 had an IWC 952 calibre as the basic movement with a five-minute repeating module. The strike train chimed out the time in hourly and five-minute intervals on two gongs. Thanks to an “all-or-nothing” strike train, based on the system pioneered by Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747–1823), it was impossible for the mechanism to announce the wrong time due to a failure to push down the strike train lever completely. In the same catalogue, published in 1981, IWC also presented a heavy Grande Complication pocket watch, the Ref. 5480). The movement comprised no fewer than 1300 individual parts. On the dial were the displays for the hours, minutes and seconds, the day, date and month with a perpetual calendar and a seconds chronograph. All this was rounded off by a minute repeater. Connoisseurs soon recognized the watch’s unique status. But at a time when many producers were following the trend towards cheap quartz watches and the Swiss watch industry was in dire straits, many of them acknowledged IWC’s courage in including such a magnificent specimen in its range.

Grande Complication pocket watch
—Grande Complication pocket watch - Ref. 5480
Hanno_Burtscher
—A design sketch by Hanno Burtscher of the Ref. 3770

One thing is clear: in the early 1980s, IWC had a totally different vision from that of other manufacturers. In the future, complicated mechanical watches would grace the wrists of individuals with a penchant for tradition and innovation. There would be no compromises. From now on, it would make mechanical watches as of old combined with designs that would appeal to a new generation of watch lovers. The result was the IWC Da Vinci Ref. 3750 of 1985. It was a resounding success, and with some justification the renaissance of the mechanical watch can be dated from this design from Schaffhausen.

It was a late summer afternoon in 1985 when Günter Blümlein – then CEO of IWC – met members of management for lunch at the Gerberstube Restaurant in Schaffhausen. Prior to this, they had analysed and interpreted the results achieved at the Basel Watch and Jewellery Show. They were euphoric, above all, about the success of the Da Vinci. And it was here that Blümlein made an announcement of historic proportions: he had decided Schaffhausen should produce a Grande Complication designed to be worn on the wrist. Kurt Klaus’s existing perpetual calendar calendar module and the chronograph would be combined with a minute repeater. At this point, IWC’s engineers set to work with a vengeance, developing and designing this new mechanical masterpiece. Two young and innovative watch designers, Giulio Papi and Dominic Renaud, who had founded their own company in 1986 (Manufacture d’Horlogerie Renaud et Papi SA) assisted them. IWC’s own designer, Hanno Burtscher, set about giving the new watch its form and shape. From the tiniest screw through to the complicated platinum case, everything had to be designed in Schaffhausen and the production of the watch meticulously planned. Finally, this enormously complex and prestigious project was officially documented in book form. “The Grande Complication from IWC” by Manfred Fritz was published in 1991 and meticulously documented every aspect of the work on the watch in a large-format volume with high-gloss pictures.


Grand Complication_3770
— - Ref. 3770

Counting from the germ of an idea in 1983, it took seven years of intense development work before the watch was ready for production. In 1990, the first wristwatch-size Grande Complication from IWC was unveiled at the Basel Fair. Despite the complexity of the technology involved, it was intended for everyday use and featured an automatic movement, chronograph, perpetual calendar and completely redesigned minute repeater. These were all housed in a 42.2-millimetre case with a repeating slide conspicuously located on the flank for the last-named complication. When the slide is activated, the watch chimes out the time acoustically. The minute repeater chimes out elapsed hours, quarters and minutes. In the Ref. 3770, the note, chosen for the hour chimes was B-flat, a pitch dedicated to the suns, whose sound makes things appear vivid, dignified, impressive and magnificent. The tone selected for the minutes was the subdominant E-flat. It is a pitch described in musical theory as having a silent majesty that adds something extra-special to moments in time. The listener never tires of it, as it evokes a sensation of indescribable peace.

In 1990, the first wristwatch-size Grande Complication from IWC was unveiled at the Basel Fair

In view of the capacity available at the Schaffhausen-based company, the watch was limited to 50 per year. Assembling the complex watch movement takes between three and four weeks. A single watchmaker alone devoted himself to the job of assembling the 659 individual parts. Of these, 568 belonged to the movement, 25 to the dial and hands, 58 to the case and eight to the strap and clasp.

Overall, the watch had 21 distinct functions: hour, minute and seconds displays, a moon phase, month, day and date displays. It also showed the year, decade, century and millennium. On top of this, it featured a rapid date advance, chronograph seconds hand, chronograph minute counter, chronograph hours counter, minute repeater, quarter repeater, hour repeater and the all-or-nothing piece in the repeater itself. Last but not least, we should not forget the automatic winding function and the perpetual calendar. IWC had pulled off yet another demonstration of its watchmaking expertise. After the Basel fair, the order books were full for the following five years. For the Grande Complication, IWC officially registered no fewer than 12 patents.

Grand Complication
—Ref. 927016 with platinum bracelet
IWC Portugieser Grande Complication
—Portugieser Grande Complication - Ref. 3774

After 20 years as the most prestigious watch in the collection, the model was housed in a new case and transferred to a different family. In 2010, IWC launched the Portugieser Grande Complication, Ref. 3774. There was more room in the 45-millimetre case and, for the first time, the watch was water-resistant to 3 bar. The tones emitted by the minute repeater were as mellifluous as ever. A discreetly engraved globe together with gold appliqués decorated the silver-coloured dial. In the tradition of the Grande Complication, production remained limited to just fifty watches per year. A new engraving on the case back depicts a sextant and is a clear indication of the watch’s inclusion in the Portugieser family.