The Start of a Complicated Era

On Thursday, 11 April 1985, the Basel Watch and Jewellery Show saw the unveiling of a watchmaking sensation. At a time when only a handful of devotees and distinguished collectors believed in the qualities of a mechanical wristwatch and the mass markets favoured the flood of low-cost quartz watches, IWC launched a timepiece that fully embraced classical watchmaking and all its complicated challenges: the Da Vinci Ref. 3750. It was a watch that rose, phoenix-like, out of the ashes of the old watch industry and heralded the renaissance of complicated mechanical watches. Probably no other single watch has come so close to embodying the IWC brand and its values. Its launch was not only a success for the Schaffhausen-based manufacturer but also symbolized the revival of the craft of watchmaking after years of dominance by electronic watches. 

A Timepiece that fully embraced classical watchmaking and all its complicated challenges: the Da Vinci ref. 3750

The launch of the Da Vinci Ref. 3750 needs to be explained within the context of the overall situation in which the Swiss watch industry found itself at the time. During the early 1980s, interest in quality mechanical timepieces had been limited to a few collectors and connoisseurs. Wearers of mechanical watches had unwittingly become an elitist coterie. Certain lifestyle magazines of the time lambasted collectors of such watches for being 'old fuddy-duddies' and sang the praises of the ostensibly so modern, fashionable quartz watches. In the watch trade, sales personnel tried to explain the intricacies and delicate workmanship of mechanical watches to their customers, but their words often fell on deaf ears.

 

Slim quartz watches were all the rage. Small wonder, then, that many manufacturers lost their faith in mechanical watches, went bankrupt and were obliged to sell their famous brand names. Although IWC included watches with quartz movements in its product portfolio, it reassured its clientele that no matter what happened the company would continue to uphold the values of traditional watchmaking. A catalogue published in 1981 openly stated: "It was never IWC's intention to replace high-quality mechanical movements with quartz watches." The inevitable consequence of this self-imposed commitment was the development of highly complicated pocket watches. But what about watch lovers who wanted to wear a complicated watch on their wrists? 

—IWC wristwatch chronograph, Ref. 3710 (1982)
—Da Vinci – Perpetual Calendar (1985), Ref. 3750 01

As early as 1981, there had already been a complicated pocket watch designed to be worn on the wrist: the IWC Ref. 5251 with the IWC 9521 calibre. This beautiful, ultra-large wristwatch with its moon phase display was destined to become the figurehead of the Portofino family in 1984. Nevertheless, CEO Günter Blümlein and Marketing and Sales Director Hannes Pantli had set their sights on the development of another complicated and above all mechanical timepiece for customers to wear on their wrists. The priority assigned to the project can be seen clearly in the launch of Reference 3710 in 1982.

 

This watch, the IWC 795 calibre, was a classic hand-wound, Valjoux 88-calibre movement that had first appeared on the market back in 1947. It was a column-wheel chronograph with a simple full calendar showing the date, day and moon phase display. Only 150 examples were ever made of Ref. 3710, which was housed in an 18-carat yellow gold case (2N) with a white dial. In fact, the watch never appeared in the official IWC catalogues. It was a watch for genuine connoisseurs who longed for an old-fashioned mechanical watch on their wrists and who bought the Reference 3710 virtually without the knowledge of the general public. At about this time, IWC design engineer Kurt Klaus set to work creating a perpetual calendar combined with a chronograph movement. 

Historically speaking, a perpetual calendar was nothing new. Schaffhausen itself was home to Joachim Habrecht's world-famous astronomical clock, which was completed in 1564 and looked out over the town from the Fronwag Tower. Its wheel- and strike trains were powered by weights. The clock is the first documented example of a complicated timepiece made in Schaffhausen. Apart from the time, the clock showed the days of the week, the phases of the moon, the sun's position in the zodiac, the seasons and the equinoxes as well as the lunar nodes and eclipses. In addition to all these features, a black-and-gold sphere represented the waxing and waning moon. Was it possible to miniaturize a masterpiece on this scale for a wristwatch?

 

Watchmaker Kurt Klaus, born in St. Gallen in 1934, had worked for IWC for many years. His calendar modules for pocket watches had demonstrated that miniaturization on this scale was possible and so he took on the challenge of a wristwatch. He gave full rein to his imagination, seeking inspiration during long walks when he came up with mental images of viable solutions. Wristwatches with perpetual calendars were already made in limited numbers by a small number of Swiss maisons. So the idea of developing and manufacturing a perpetual calendar in Schaffhausen's own workshops was not beyond the realms of possibility. The mechanisms made by other manufacturers for watches with perpetual calendars were very aesthetic in design, but their numerous correctors made them anything but user-friendly. The result of almost five years of development work was the IWC 79060 calibre.

—excerpt of an IWC catalogue promoting the Da Vinci. (1998)
—Sketch perpetual calendar for the Caliber 79061 (1983)
It was never IWC’s intention to replace high-quality mechanical movements with quartz watches

But a watch is more than a mere calibre. The question now was how to house the new movement and what form its displays should take. The name given to the watch would also need to be something extra special. In the late 1960s, IWC management had chosen the name 'Da Vinci' for one of its most innovative products of the time. Unlike any other name, it had worldwide connotations with progressive thinking and technical development, as well as art. IWC's head designer Hano Burtscher busied himself with the design issues and started thinking about the visual appearance of the watch. By pure coincidence, Burtscher was also a great admirer of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). In the Codex Atlanticus, a bound collection of drawings, sketches and notes made by the outstanding figure of the Italian Renaissance, he found the inspiration for a fitting case for the watch. The great polymath from Anchiano had worked on plans for harbour fortifications at Piombino in 1499, and these gave Burtscher the basic idea for the watch and the design of the dial.

 

For example, he transferred the shape of the sketched fortifications to the design of the totalizers. The mysterious attraction of the circle and the perfection of the self-enclosed form played a central role in the design both of the Piombino fort and of the Ref. 3750. The success of Burtscher's design was complete. He harmoniously united calendar displays, four subdials, nine hands, a four-digit year display and a perpetual moon phase display, all conforming to Leonardo's original ideas. The watch itself was a self-contained work of art. The case design department immediately got down to the task of transforming Burtscher's sketches into reality. The result was an iconic case that, for 30 years, would be an immediately recognizable characteristic feature of the Da Vinci watches. The die was cast and the time had come for IWC to cross the Rubicon. At the Basel show in 1985, the watch industry was to witness the unveiling of a very special timepiece.

—Kurt Klaus
—A reminiscence to the „father of the da Vinci“: the IWC Da Vinci – Perpetual Calendar Edition Kurt Klaus (2009), Ref. 3762 05

The premiere in Basel turned out to be a nail-biter. On the evening before the presentation, Kurt Klaus had personally gone to Grenchen to pick up display discs printed with the figures 0 to 9 from the company that made them. He spent the night assembling the movements in Schaffhausen and ensured that they were ready for the fair. Utterly exhausted, he and his precious cargo were chauffeur-driven to Basel, where IWC employees were impatiently awaiting his arrival. Visitors to the fair failed to notice the tension felt by the company’s staff. Finally, the valuable payload from Schaffhausen arrived on time. Following the presentation in Basel, the entire watch industry was all ears. From a technical point of view, Klaus had significantly improved the perpetual calendar.

 

Synchronization of all calendar displays (date, day, month, year, decade, century and moon phase) was extremely user-friendly and carried out entirely via the crown. Turning the displays back in time, however, requires the intervention of a skilled watchmaker. All the calendar displays are advanced by a single switching impulse released by the basic movement at midnight. The impulse goes all the way through to the century slide, which advances every one hundred years to the correct position to show the first two figures of the new century. Another new feature that underscored the precision of the perpetual calendar was the four-digit year display. To add further emphasis to the calendar's longevity, the watch packaging contains a century slide for future use, a tiny spare part sealed in a glass tube. The slide features the figures 22, 23 and 24 for centuries yet to come because the watch's current century slide extends 'only' until the end of 2199. For the perpetual calendar module Kurt Klaus needed fewer than 90 individual parts. Technically, the design was brilliant. But the fact that Klaus had also made the actual assembly of the movement an integral part of the design was nothing short of revolutionary. The ingenious approach used by the watchmakers in Schaffhausen to assemble the module completely changed the way the watchmaking industry handled watchmaking complications in the future. 

In Schaffhausen, the employees had been making bets as to how many of the new Da Vinci watches would be sold. In view of the sales figures for watches with perpetual calendars published by other companies, some thought perhaps ten to 15 while the more optimistically minded figured a maximum of 30. So when Günter Blümlein returned to Schaffhausen with orders for over 100 watches, everyone was amazed. Their amazement necessarily gave way to serious planning. IWC had to place an order for much more gold for the cases than originally agreed with the suppliers. To manufacture the blanks for the gold case of the Da Vinci, IWC used a process that had already proved its worth in the production of titanium cases.

 

As a way of preventing the cavities that occur in standard casting, the company adopted a technology used in the aviation industry for the production of aluminium cast parts. The process in question, known as hot isostatic pressing/postcompaction (HIP), is also suitable for use with other metals. Until the 1980s, it was standard practice in the watch industry to mill cases from a block of gold. The HIP process now made it possible to cast high-quality, cavity-free gold while significantly reducing the time required for machining the blanks in Schaffhausen. The Da Vinci set up another innovative milestone in case production a year later in 1986. This was the world's first watch case made of yttrium-stabilized zirconium oxide ceramic. It created a sensation when it was presented in the shape of Ref. 3755 to the world press.

 

In retrospect, one thing is clear. In 1985, as inventor and design engineer of IWC's perpetual calendar, Kurt Klaus wrote watchmaking history. In the Da Vinci Ref. 3750, the mechanical watch displayed all its beauty and complexity. Like the phoenix rising from the ashes, a universal symbol of immortality and renewal, the Da Vinci appeared at a time when the mechanical watch had virtually sunk into oblivion. For both IWC and the entire watch industry, 11 April 1985 marked the start of a genuinely complicated era. 

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