IWC is one the few watch companies which has the expertise to produce cases in-house. A watch is more than its movement, its dial and its overall design. Its case and metal bracelets are extremely important, functionally and aesthetically. IWC’s use of special materials reflects both engineering expertise and production prowess.
Part I of this series describes IWC’s ground-breaking use in the 1970s and ‘80s of hardened steel, aluminum and titanium as case materials – way before other watch companies used new case materials in series production. Part II, to be published later, tells about IWC’s pioneering use of ceramic (zirconium oxide) and, finally, the development of ceratanium as a unique watch case material.
In the 1970s IWC first began using innovative case materials in production of wristwatches. It produced three models in the mid-1970s with “scratch protected” hardened stainless steel cases, which then was revolutionary for the industry. These watches used a carbide metal case hardened to between 1,000 and 1,500 Vickers. The black metal Edison model (reference 3605) was cutting-edge in design. There also were a second steel-hardened Edison (reference 3604) and a rare, and sometimes overlooked, third model (reference 3405).
A revolutionary move
When the new IWC-Porsche Design models were introduced in 1978, a compass watch (reference 3510) debuted with an aluminum case, using a PVD coating in either black or olive green. The use of this material and colors again was revolutionary.
IWC’s watch/compass combined instrument was claimed as a world first. To accomplish that combination, the watch had to be non-magnetic, which is why an aluminum case must have been chosen.
However, aluminum is a relatively soft metal, and subsequent IWC-Porsche Design compass watches (such as ref. 3511) used titanium for cases. Titanium as a material is much harder than aluminum, but also is relatively light, non-magnetic and non-allergic.
Taking matters into their own hands
When F.A. Porsche first suggested using titanium for a watch case in the late-1970s, IWC searched for a company to produce them. After a lengthy search, IWC found a manufacturer which said they could make the titanium case.
However, the third-party case manufacturer gave up after one and a half years of unsuccessful efforts. This bad news arrived just three months prior to the previously announced launch of the first titanium watches in the US in November 1980. IWC then decided to make titanium cases on its own.
But titanium was difficult to work with, and engineering creativity was needed to produce the world’s first serial-production titanium cases. Manufacturing the titanium case for the Porsche Design watch involved hot forging.
At first, the forms used for the forging process could not withstand the high pressures involved. Sintered steel forms proved to be a solution. Titanium also requires the right speed to remove material during milling, lathing and drilling. The right speed and good cooling liquids are essential to prevent local overheating.
IWC mastered all these problems and also managed to polish the material, which the technical literature at that time said was “impossible”. To eliminate thread erosion of titanium parts, IWC also used nitride hardening.
To view IWC’s case-making facilities is always a treat for any visitor. You see the bars of raw metal being transformed in huge machines, which are continuously cooled with special agents at high-pressure. The milling machines are numerically controlled, and precise tolerances are required. Metals such as titanium become cases by milling, engraving, surface processing (polishing and satinage) and then assembly – all in that order.
Sophisticated case-making is complicated, costly and requires extensive machinery and expert personnel. But controlling the case manufacturing process provides greater quality and better flexibility to meet increased production needs.
A true pioneer
Over the years, many IWC models have used titanium as a case material. After the Porsche Design models, several GST references from the 1990s used titanium – in fact “GST” stands for “gold, steel, titanium”. Several pilots’ watch models have been available in titanium, as are other sports models.
IWC’s pioneering use today of titanium as a case material reflects its overall engineering and production skills. But titanium may not be the pinnacle of IWC case-making success. For that, Part II of this series looks at IWC’s revolutionary use of high-tech ceramics, including zirconium and most recently ceratanium. These materials – and learning about them – are worth the wait. It’s not yet an open and shut case.
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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