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IWC Schaffhausen

The Journal

Five Great Portofino Watches

The beautiful seaside town of Portofino in Italy has charm and an authenticity that evokes the La Dolce Vita lifestyle. Portofino also is the name of a watch line produced by IWC that possesses the same authenticity and special charm. IWC’s renowned Portofino line reflects timeless design with both simplicity and clarity.

The first IWC watch called a “Portofino” evolved simply from a pocket watch. In the late 1970s, IWC produced a pocket watch with thin Roman numerals, classic Breguet-styled hands, and a moon phase indication. Legend has it that IWC’s design head at the time, Hanno Burtscher, met with Kurt Klaus, then a young IWC watchmaker, one evening in a local tavern. They discussed converting the classic moon phase pocket watch to a wristwatch, and a design was scribbled on a napkin. The result was presented as a single reference and “the only wristwatch with a pocket watch movement and a moon phase” in the IWC catalogue from 1981.






In 1984, IWC launched a collection called “Portofino”. Marketing Director Hannes Pantli who was an admirer of Italian lifestyle and fashion wanted to have the classical round dress watches back in the IWC portfolio. The Reference 5251 was launched as the “godfather” of the new family as it were and quickly became known as the “Giant Portofino”. 


It was a bold move to manufacture a classic oversized wristwatch in an era when smaller quartz watches predominated. That watch was produced in relatively limited quantities and, for a watch collector today, Reference 5251, the Giant Portofino, is definitely worth owning. In any collection of five Portofinos, it should be the indisputable first choice.



The Portofino name has been used by IWC for an entire line of watches since 1984, reflecting certain consistent design elements, demonstrating classic simplicity and suggesting pure design. Many of these models were by today’s standards somewhat small. Noteworthy was Reference 3513 from 1987, a classic and refined automatic watch with date that was 34 mm in diameter. 


There also was a 32 mm “ultra-thin” Portofino, as well as a skeleton watch with the movement exposed with intricate cut-outs. A chronograph also was produced starting in 1988, Reference 3731, with a 35 mm case. While these Portofino watches were all paradigm examples of fine Swiss watchmaking I will pass on adding one to my group of five. The reason is simple: there are at least four outstanding contemporary models to own.







The first contemporary model to own is the discontinued “Vintage Collection” Moon Phase Portofino. A modern homage to Reference 5251 but with an 8-day manual wind movement, this model (Reference IW5448) is an excellent example of the Portofino line. Its clean design is refined and its moon phase window evokes romanticism.


For Portofino watches available today, there are numerous offerings, most of which have relatively small but important differences. These include variations in case size, metal, and dial color. Still, these seem to fall into three categories: a basic, hours/minutes/seconds/date automatic watch; a chronograph; and larger references with hand-wound 8-day movements that follow in their tradition of their Reference 5251 and Vintage Collection predecessors. Within these three categories, choosing three watches should be simple, subject to personal variations based only upon one’s preferences and budget.



The first watch then must be the base model, made even more desirable with its special Milanese bracelet. In steel, this is Reference IW356505, with a 40 mm diameter and a relatively thin height at 9.2 mm, presented in 2011. This can be the “do anything, anywhere” watch.  Sophisticated enough for dress yet sporty enough for casual wear, it is both elegant and versatile. And that classic Milanese mesh bracelet provides the perfect elegant pairing with the watch itself.


The second choice then would be a chronograph. All variations of the Portofino chronograph are beautiful and useful, but I personally would select IW391036, with its alluring metallic blue dial with gold hands and indices.  It is the classic chronograph but in a contemporary version with élan.





Finally, like early Portofino predecessors IWC today offers several large models. The Portofino Eight Day Moon Phase, in either steel or gold, would be a perfect fifth choice. I vote for the gold one, since it’s a dress watch but dress watches aren’t supposed to be oversized. As an oxymoron it produces an intriguing blend of size and class. And that moon phase, just like the first Portofino, produces a dial with a sense of romance and a reminder of the astronomical origins of timekeeping.


Of the five selected watches, three are oversized. But all are perfect examples of clean design, finesse and charm. Understandably, IWC’s Portofino family continues today to be a bestseller for IWC, and discretely so. It is no little feat to produce a classic watch without any design gimmicks and then make it a best seller. The Portofinos are distinctive, classic and forever lasting, as are their Italian namesake.



IWC Schaffhausen