Hanno Burtscher: Da Vinci Designer, Renaissance Man

Very few IWC fans, let alone others in the world of watches, have heard of Hanno Burtscher. Yet he has made extremely important contributions to the world of horology and IWC in particular. 

 

Hanno Burtscher worked for IWC in the 1980s and ‘90s when the company was a very different enterprise. Due to the quartz crisis of the 1970s, IWC struggled to survive, reduced its staff considerably, with many employees working fewer hours. It even tried to become primarily a pocket watch manufacturer. 

During that time, IWC did not have a design department with numerous skilled and highly-trained persons designing its watches and relating company products. Instead, back then, the “design department” consisted of one man, Hanno Burtscher.

 

He was not your typical industrial designer but was more an artist. He spent considerable time drawing and painting images of watches. 

—Hanno Burtscher high above Schaffhausen. (Photographer: Urs Bachofner, Published in IWC watch magazin WATCH 1/99. p- 51.)
—Sketches of a wrist watch with pocket watch movement by Hanno Burthscer September 25 1988. (IWC Archiv)

In the early 1980s, Hanno Burtscher and Kurt Klaus were out at a club in Schaffhausen. They got caught up in a discussion regarding a watch movement that Herr Klaus had worked on, the ultrathin Caliber 95 with a moon phase function added. It produced an attractive watch but was not a major seller since the market for pocket watches, let alone mechanical watches, was relatively small at that time.

 

Hanno Burtscher and Kurt Klaus kept talking that evening about how to convert that pocket watch to a wristwatch, utilizing that fine movement and producing a more sellable product. The discussion lasted well past midnight and involved, literally, scribblings on a cocktail napkin at the club. Those scribblings evolved into IWC Reference 5251, which subsequently has become known as the “Giant Portofino.”

 

The significance of the “Giant Portofino,” even though it did not sell in large quantities, cannot be underestimated. It was the first watch by any watch company in years that represented a true conversion from a pocket watch to a wristwatch as a commercial product, produced by a major Swiss watch company. It also became the founding icon of what evolved into the Portofino line of watches by IWC. 

 

Hanno Burtscher, however, is most well-known for his design of the Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Chronograph in the mid-1980s. This was a project that evolved from an idea by Kurt Klaus to produce a mechanical watch that could automatically tell the day, date, month, year, and even century by simply setting the crown. 

This was a revolutionary concept and one that quickly attained the full support of IWC’s then CEO, Günter Blümlein. The development of the mechanism was a project primarily carried out by Herr Klaus himself, before the days of design teams and before an era of computer-assisted design. He believed that since all date functions are interrelated, they all could be combined with a singular setting, and he used a slide rule to make his calculations.

 

No one knew back then how well such a watch would sell, but it was considered an important project. Such a revolutionary mechanical watch deserved a revolutionary case and dial design. 

 

Hanno Burtscher was the person who designed the Da Vinci case and dial. There are different reports regarding how he was inspired. One report indicates that he looked at Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketches, including those showing fortifications in the Port of Piombino. Another report relayed that IWC had received in the early 1980s a vintage IWC watch from Italy with articulated lugs that required service. According to one IWC executive, it was this model that inspired the design of the Da Vinci with special lugs.

—The perpetual calendar by Kurt Klaus celebrated its début in the Da Vinci Chronograph Edition Perpetual Calendar of 1985 (painting by Hano Burtscher May 1984).
—The IWC rattrapante mechanism; Sketch by Hanno Burtscher February 1992 (IWC Archive)

Drawings were made of the proposed new watch, reflecting a painterly artistry. These drawings reveal a watch that for its era had distinctive characteristics: the stepped bezel, pushers with rounded heads and, of course, the distinctive lugs. This was intended to be a watch that was both classical and revolutionary, moving forward in a futuristic way but with great tradition: This design reflected a tradition not just of watchmaking, but also Italian renaissance design.

 

Da Vinci was a fitting name for this special watch, with its special perpetual calendar and chronograph mechanism, and its unique design.

 

The Da Vinci Perpetual Chronograph was, in fact, the beginning of a renaissance for IWC. In the dark ages of mechanical watches, this new model, Reference 3750, created a rebirth for IWC and indeed in many ways the entire Swiss mechanical watch industry. It was the first new perpetual calendar produced in many years, and soon IWC become a leader of a reborn industry. IWC became noted, even more than before, for its engineering prowess. Hanno Burtscher’s distinctive design become an iconic symbol of IWC.

 

In addition to the Da Vinci drawings, Herr Burtscher, very much the artist, also made drawings of several other watches, including IWC Portuguese models. Several of the senior members of IWC have collected original prints of these or the original drawings. There even are a few displayed in offices in Schaffhausen.

Hanno Burtscher, after he left IWC, fulfilled another dream. While continuing to produce artwork, he also became the curator and custodian for the Munot fortress, the imposing medieval fortress that overlooks the City of Schaffhausen. More recently, Hanno Burtscher has retired.

 

Hanno Burtscher is not well-known by many except in and around Schaffhausen, but he made major contributions to IWC during a period when IWC was not as well-known as it is today. He was, and is, an artist, a designer, a curator – in many ways, a true renaissance man. After all, he produced the distinctive design for the Da Vinci Perpetual Chronograph, which commenced the renaissance of today’s IWC. 

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