THE JOURNAL

Tests no one can study for

Our timepieces are put through a battery of tests to make sure they live up to IWC’s high standards. Michael Friedberg takes us behind the scenes of the testing laboratory to meet the people and processes that help our watches last a lifetime.

They are jarred, pushed, pulled and dropped. They are heated, slammed, and dunked. What happens to an IWC watch in a non-descript building on the Rhine is enough to break a watch lover’s heart. Which is fine, as long as their watch doesn’t do the same.

 

The IWC Laboratory is the place where our timepieces undergo extensive testing to see how well they hold up under ordinary – and extraordinary – circumstances. This process is called “homologation”.  With an interior more reminiscent of a schoolroom than the watchmaking equivalent of a medieval dungeon, the simplicity of the IWC Laboratory building belies its importance.

Pusher and crown rig test
— Pusher and crown rig test
Dominic Forster, head of the IWC Laboratory (center)
— Dominic Forster, head of the IWC Laboratory (center)

Survival of the fittest

Upon entering the lab, you’ll see various types of testing machines, with some even resembling science fair contraptions. For example, one tests the wear of automatic rotors for sometimes as long as 3,000 hours at accelerated testing conditions. Other devices produce impact tests, intended to simulate seven years of life. Since light, heat, impact and motion aren’t deemed sufficient, another machine subjects components to magnetic forces up to 600,000 A/m.

 

Every new watch model is tested to its limits. If it can survive the planned threats from IWC’s testing experts, it should thrive well in the real world. All homologation tests are “in the raw”, where whole movements are exposed and dismantled and then the myriad parts, after being subjected to abuse, are checked for corrosion, wear, oiling and precision timekeeping.


Every new watch model is tested to its limits. If it can survive the planned threats from IWC’s testing experts, it should thrive well in the real world

The IWC Laboratory develops and implements testing protocols for the company’s cases and movements to a degree that is certainly unique within the industry. Dominic Forster, head of the IWC Laboratory, has essentially built his own science experiment laboratory. To document test results, a high-speed camera is utilized together with several microscopes, plus a digital light box.

 

The budget for testing machinery can be large: the camera itself costs in excess of 100,000 CHF. Other machines need to be constructed by Forster and his staff because no industry methodologies for testing the vast array of necessary tests exist. However, all tests check that everything occurs within specified standards. To the extent that the industry standards are available, ISO, DIN or NIHS is used; if not, IWC develops its own standards or works within its parent company Richemont guidelines.

Going beyond the limits

Most watch companies check their cases for water resistance. But few, if any, check individual case parts beyond measurement. However, IWC checks repeatedly for tolerances in simulated use. There is even an elaborate machine which activates the pushers on chronographs, done 10,000 times for the reset pusher and 20,000 times for the start/stop pusher. If the pushers can withstand that abuse, they might easily survive on the wrist of the discerning watch collector. Even the screws for the crowns are subjected to tests.

 

Among the more interesting machines is a pendulum, which does look a bit like its ominous namesake in an Edgar Allan Poe short story. It tests the equivalent of a one meter drop of a watch on a wooden floor. Sports watches like Pilots, Aquatimers and Ingenieurs get tested up to 100,000 impacts which simulate sporty activities like playing tennis, golf or downhill biking. Watches as sophisticated as tourbillons are taken apart after testing to inspect the damage.

IWC Portugieser Perpetual Calendar - 2006 (IW502213)
— IWC Portugieser Automatic
Measuring rate accuracy, amplitude and beat error
— Measuring rate accuracy, amplitude and beat error

Producing a watch is not simply designing and making a movement, and placing it into a case. A company like IWC, which strives to attain the highest possible quality standards, relies on people like Forster and his highly mechanized testing laboratory. The machinery, tests and standards –in fact, the lab itself— may well lead the industry.

 

This special laboratory is hidden away from the public, but it is reassuring that every watch has been exhaustively tested under tight controls and by gifted engineers. An IWC watch hasn’t simply been tested: it’s been well-cooked, boiled and kicked around. And that’s good news.

Michael Friedberg has been collecting watches, especially IWCs, for more than three decades. From 2001 through 2015 he was moderator of the IWC Collectors’ Forum and has written extensively about IWC’s history and technical features.


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