For IWC Schaffhausen, the 1970s were a particularly challenging decade. The dollar went into a tailspin, the price of gold skyrocketed, and the rise of quartz watches seemed inexorable. It was a constant struggle for survival. As a junior employee at the time, Hannes Pantli experienced it all first-hand. In this two-part interview, the veteran Sales and Marketing Director looks back on the genesis of the legendary SL collection, his cooperation with watch designer Gérald Genta and the launch of the Ingenieur SL.
Hannes Pantli & the Decade of Change (Part 1)
Shipping and delivery conditions
IWC’S FORMER SALES AND MARKETING DIRECTOR SHARES SOME RARE INSIGHTS INTO HIS EXPERIENCE OF WORKING AT IWC SCHAFFHAUSEN DURING THE TURBULENT 1970s
THE WATCHMAKER’S WATCH
HOW DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR FIRST YEARS WITH IWC?
I joined IWC when I was 30, back in 1972. My first job was in sales. On my first business trip to Scandinavia, I brought with me the entire IWC collection. Only four models had names: the Ingenieur, the Yacht Club, the Aquatimer and the Da Vinci. The other pieces – including surprisingly many ladies’ watches – were marked with prosaic reference numbers.
I quickly understood how highly IWC Schaffhausen is regarded by true connoisseurs. I visited several watchmaking schools in Scandinavia. In the process, I discovered that these young watchmakers were training their skills by assembling and regulating IWC pocket watch movements! The timepieces from Schaffhausen were really “the watchmaker’s watch.”
WHAT ABOUT IWC’S PRODUCT PORTFOLIO IN THE EARLY 1970S?
The Yacht Club formed a crucial pillar. Apart from that, gold watches for men and women featured very prominently in our product portfolio at the time. We also made eye-catching jewellery watches that won much-coveted competitions like the Rose of Baden Baden or the Prix de la Ville de Genève. And then came the perfect storm.
DO YOU MEAN THE QUARTZ CRISIS THAT BESET THE SWISS WATCH INDUSTRY?
Yes, but not only that. Technological progress was elemental to the Swiss watch industry throughout the 1970s. Our top selling points had always been durability and high levels of accuracy. When cheap but incredibly precise quartz watches from the Far East flooded the market, everything we stood for was suddenly worthless. Any quartz watch is more accurate than a mechanical watch. But it would be much too simplistic to put the blame entirely on quartz watches. There were several factors in play at the same time.
— “Golden Rose of Baden-Baden”-awarded IWC models
— Hannes Pantli (far left) receiving international guests
IWC’S ROUGH YEARS
SO, WHAT DID CAUSE THE PERFECT STORM?
The termination of the Bretton Woods agreement in 1971 uncoupled the convertibility of the US dollar to gold. Over the next few years, the US dollar/Swiss Franc exchange rate went through the floor. In the early 1970s, a dollar was still buying you 4.30 Swiss Francs, but by 1978 the rate was down to less than 1.50.
That made our products much more expensive abroad. On top of that, the price of gold reached dizzying heights. Between 1971 and 1974, the cost of an ounce of gold went up threefold.
WHAT DID THIS MEAN FOR IWC?
Looking at our catalogue in the early 1970s, our focus on gold watches is immediately apparent. And that is also why the consequences were so severe. Within no time, our products cost three times as much. A watch that had cost 1000 Swiss Francs until then was suddenly priced at around 3000. Not surprisingly, our sales figures fell sharply.
One of our important clients was the Sultan of Oman, who received me personally on several occasions during my travels
TIME FOR REORIENTATION
WHAT DIFFICULTIES WAS IWC ENCOUNTERING AT THAT TIME?
We did not have enough work, and our production facilities were working way under capacity. And it was not just a question of being able to pay the wages at the end of the month. We needed to utilise our capacity to ensure that the know-how accumulated over the years in developing and producing our in-house movements remained in Schaffhausen.
HOW DID IWC MANAGE TO OVERCOME THESE CHALLENGES?
By being creative and flexible. Back then, I would put together several collections a year for our Middle Eastern markets. Apart from luxury gold and platinum watches, they would also feature accessories like rings, cufflinks, fountain pens and lighters, some of which were set with brilliants. We would sell these sets to various royal houses in the region.
One of our important clients was the Sultan of Oman, who received me personally on several occasions during my travels. These sales might have saved IWC from bankruptcy, but because they involved such small quantities, they did not do much to help the overall manufacture.
— Former Sales and Marketing Director, Hannes Pantli
— Gérald Genta’s Ingenieur SL Ref. 1832
BIRTH OF THE SL COLLECTION
WHERE DID YOU GET THE IDEA FOR THE SL COLLECTION?
With the 8541 calibre, we already had an excellent automatic movement, featuring the highly efficient winding system developed by Albert Pellaton. What we did not have in our range was a watch this caliber would have fitted.
So, we needed new models with cases designed precisely for our in-house movements. On top of that, we wanted to eliminate our strong dependence on gold. That is how we landed on the idea of creating an entire range of luxury sports watches in stainless steel: the SL Collection.
Stay tuned for Part II of the interview when Hannes Pantli talks about the iconic Ingenieur SL and its designer, Gérald Genta.
Hannes Pantli is currently working on his autobiography “Watches and Wonderful Stories”.