The Grande Complication from IWC is truly a dream of a watch. It celebrated its 20th birthday in a new case and joined the Portugieser family. In terms of suitability for everyday use and the wealth of fascinating functions, it remains unmatched. There are watches. And then – much more rarely – there is what you might call a dream of a watch. A masterpiece. A time machine in the truest sense of the word. The difference is apparent on the open-ended scale that measures the “wow” factor.
Taking all the plaudits, the biggest surprise of the Geneva watch show at the beginning of the year was unquestionably IWC’s Portugieser Grande Complication. At first glance, apparently, a completely new watch; at the same time, the newly launched flagship of the famous watch family from Schaffhausen and a magnificent improvement on an already legend-ary icon among watches.
If something within the infinite range of mechanical watchmaking is considered unachievable, it has traditionally presented us with a challenge
“Great” and “complicated” are the two epithets that best describe this paragon of haute horlogerie, because it unites the biggest watchmaking complications of past centuries. Apart from that, the Portugieser Grande Complication brings together the art of great watchmaking with consummate design.
The first Grande Complication created a furore 20 years ago. “The Grande Complication from IWC. Considered impossible, and therefore a historic great.” So ran one advertisement in 1990. Restrained pride, in the face of an unmatched watchmaking achievement awarded no fewer than twelve patents back then. “If something within the infinite range of mechanical watchmaking is considered unachievable, it has traditionally presented us with a challenge,” was the wording of another ad. There is nothing to add to this, even today, but nothing to be taken away. Or, to put it slightly more succinctly and use the title of IWC’s new book, it was a clear case of “Engineering Time”. And at the very highest level.
Two decades on, despite an annual production limit of just 50 watches, the original IWC Grande Complication has proved itself the most successful watch of its kind. Which, almost certainly, has something to do with its suitability as an everyday watch, its reliability and its remarkable ease in use. The wealth of watchmaking features housed within its case is one of which the company has every right to be proud.
For this reason, the watch has also been granted a place in the renowned La Chaux-de-Fonds Watch Museum and, of course, at the IWC Museum in Schaffhausen. Which is also a bit of a pity. For the simple reason that any “GC” that is not reliably carrying out its multifunctional duties on the wrist of its proud owner has somehow missed its purpose. For it is, in the immortal words of Bruce Springsteen, “born to run”. On the other hand, in another well-known phrase: “Tribute to whom tribute is due.” Because the vast majority of watch lovers can only ever hope to see such an exclusive watch “in the flesh” if it is on display.
The intention, of course, was not to lay it to rest within the confines of a museum. Because as an all-round work of art, with progressive functions like an independent perpetual calendar with a four-digit year display, the Grande Complication from IWC remains unmatched in the field of great mechanical complications.
The Portugieser Grande complication unites the finest watchmakers’ art with the beauty of a perfectly realized design
In 2003/2004, it experienced an under-stated relaunch with models in platinum and yellow gold. The striking baton-type hands were replaced by swallow-style hands, which added a touch more elegance. The dial itself – available silver-plated or in black – benefited from a more delicate, contemporary redesign. But apart from this, everything else remained unchanged.
Until 2010, that is, and the year of the Portugieser. For it was then that IWC made its most successful watch line and its spiritual ties with the famous Portugieser seafarers the focal point of all its activities: with a treasure trove of new sailing watches, and with the Portugieser Grande Complication in a 45-millimetre 5N gold case. And what a decision that was! When it comes to cases for its watches, IWC has probably never quite seen eye to eye with the ironically intended maxim, “Clothes make the man”, of its Swiss compatriot, Gottfried Keller. At least only insofar as it unerringly gives preference to substance over outward appearance. That, too, is a part of the brand identity. But with the move of the Grande Complication into the Portugieser family, the collection’s celebrated star has found an appropriate home.
For a certain time, the two models will be produced in parallel, but only within the prescribed limitations of a maximum of 50 watches per model and year. Which means that anyone who prefers the slightly smaller size of 42 millimetres, in platinum or rose gold, has that option. Whatever the choice, he – or she – will be one of the select few privileged to wear this particular watch on their wrist.
The Portugieser Grande Complication is an impressive sight. This is due not only to the larger case, but also to the successful juxtaposition of characteristic Portugieser style cues with the traditional haute horlogerie functions organized around the centre of the dial. Noticeably larger, the dial itself is located under a sapphire glass with anti-reflective coating on both sides and has ample room for the above-mentioned elements to be shown off to full advantage. These include the beautiful, appliquéd Arabic numerals in solid 5N gold, running from 1 to 12, whose harmony and clarity are interrupted by other watch functions only at the “10”.
But the autonomous perpetual calendar’s many complex displays, which include nine hands, a moon phase and a four-digit year display arranged around the centre of the dial, do not detract from the aesthetics either. The age-old -problem of accommodating them on a relatively small dial in such a way that they are still legible and do not clutter the space available has been admirably solved. Talking of the time display: the elegantly shaped feuille hour hand just touches the numerals. And, as befitting, the longer minute hand sweeps across a chapter ring in the classical “chemin-de-fer” style.
The orderly arrangement of the dial was facilitated by a conspicuous feature that clearly distinguishes the earlier Grande Complication apart from its sister version in the Portugieser case. The acoustic membrane found in the earlier model, which was hidden under a sloping flange and amplified the chimes of the minute repeater towards the dial side, is absent in the Portugieser Grande Complication. As a result, the bezel is considerably narrower and much more in keeping with the original style of the sailing watches. The designers have come up with a different solution to the amplification problem and managed to keep it below deck, so to speak. An acoustic bridge plate connected to the stud on which the two gongs are mounted is precisely positioned relative to the solid sapphire glass, which now amplifies the tones without any loss of volume. The result is impressive.
Its suitability for use as an everyday watch combined with the ease of operation has always been a feature that sets it apart
But the designers have also worked wonders with another critical area on the Grande Complication’s case. Its suitability for use as an everyday watch combined with the ease of operation has always been a feature that sets it apart. When it was first unveiled in 1990, the engineers had already solved one particular problem that had adversely affected all repeating watches until then: the aperture for the repeating slide that winds and releases the minute repeating mechanism.
With the help of a sealed shaft, which is pushed down obliquely from the top to the bottom of the case flank when the repeating slide is depressed, and which transmits the movement to the activating lever, it was possible to protect the complicated movement to 1 bar, making it impervious to water splashes. At the time, this was a minor sensation. In the Portugieser Grande Complication, this patented system has been further developed. And thanks to the new -method of transmitting the tones via the acoustic bridge plate, the watch is now water-resistant to no less than 3 bar. For a watch like this model, which is a telling reminder of the legacy left by the Portugieser seafarers and, for this reason, bears a finely engraved sextant on the back, it is a matter of necessity. Because the fact that it may now come into contact with water means it can finally be put to use on the decks that are the domain of choice for passionate sailors.
The Portugieser Grande Complication has inherited the time-tested technology that has set its predecessor apart: the 79091-calibre chronograph movement containing 657 mechanical parts working harmoniously together and powering the following functions: automatic winding; a stopwatch with cumulative timing up to 12 hours; a minute repeater – one of the most advanced and reliable of its kind – designed especially for this watch; and last but not least, the autonomous perpetual calendar invented by Kurt Klaus. Unsurpassed to this day, it provides the owner not only with the date, but the weekday, month and year, the decade, the century and even the millennium in a four-digit display. The calendar is mechanically programmed to advance all the displays synchronously and will require no correction from outside until 2100. Directly connected to it is a perpetual moon phase display that will deviate from the actual lunar cycle by only one day in 122 years. This is equivalent to a difference of 0.00066 days between two full moons.
The complex displays are contained within the discreetly engraved globe on the dial, which is shown at precisely the earth’s constant angle of inclination to the sun of 23.4 degrees. After all, if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly.
One exclusive feature that only becomes evident when
you look more closely is the strap of alligator leather on both sides. It is hand-sewn using knitted 18-carat 5N gold and closed with a new 5N gold folding clasp with the Probus Scafusia emblem. As you would expect of a masterpiece of this magnitude.
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