First of all, big fan. And like any big fan of a team, I get passionate about them winning. And passion can sound critical, but it’s all out of love and the desire to see them win every year.
I first discovered IWC after making the requisite Rolex purchase and wondering what else was out there in the vast unknown world of watches. “Have you heard of IWC?” a friend asked me, and from there, after jumbling the letters in my mind a few times, I found your brand online and soon purchased my first IWC, the GST chronograph in titanium.
My first impressions of you were unforgettable. In a world of stuffy, erudite luxury watchmakers, your brand stood out as sleek, sturdy, and supremely confident. Even your name, "IWC" – short for the just-as-stoic and behaved “INTERNATIONAL WATCH COMPANY” – told me you were more interested in making great timepieces than in catchy names. When you did advertise, your ads were in black and white. The watches were very often photographed on their side, like a faithful tool at rest. And above, in forever untrendy Microsoft "impact" font, a fearless and playful devil-may-care tagline. Your brand was built, whether you knew it then or not, on a simple unspoken mantra: “We’re the other guys.”
I was hooked. I soon bought a Big Pilot (reference 5002 – didn’t have to look it up) and not only did it become my favorite watch, it also took on a much larger role as a personal identifier; “Big Pilot” became my code name on the road, and the 12 o’clock indicator even made it on the twelfth fret of my Martin signature acoustic guitar. A few years later I bought the Big Pilot in platinum, but not before a Portuguese Automatic to celebrate my first Grammy win. Suffice it to say these were not the last of my IWC purchases, and I felt very organically and authentically that I was a friend of the brand (more on this later).
As your brand became more well known, and with the breakout success of the Big Pilot, more designs were introduced, and the modern IWC story was unfolding gracefully. The lineup was like a dream team: pilots' watches, led by the Big Pilot but including an array of smaller and no-frills, flight-instrument-themed timepieces; the Portuguese Automatic, a spartan yet gorgeous dress watch that so brilliantly pulled from the sector dials of the past; and the Aquatimer, a watch over which IWC’s “tool” aesthetic fit so perfectly. The collection was rounded out by Portofinos, grand complications, and several other pieces that made scanning the IWC website so much fun. Oh, and about that website: you were www.iwc.ch for as long as anybody could hold out without getting the more universally recognized “.com.” I loved that.
Then something changed. It would be cynical to blame it on the company’s sale to Richemont Group, because I believe a company can change hands and still maintain their course. But I can tell you the moment the entire line shifted was with the release of the Ingenieur model. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need everything you manufacture to be something I would wear. But more than what was off about this particular watch, the Ingenieur birthed an aesthetic that would travel far and wide across the entire IWC line. The materials and cosmetics of subsequent releases started to change. If the IWC of the early 2000s was engineered for men they knew valued practicality, the new company was engineered for men they figured must be out there, based on the success of other luxury markets. Whatever this visual algorithm you were playing with, it was using multipliers I didn’t identify with; does polished steel mean it’s like a private jet? Does carbon fiber mean it’s like a Bugatti? If you craft the hour markers to look like numbers on a gear box, will owners of ultra-high-end toys identify so much with these features that the completist in them will be compelled to own the watch? (If there was any question that this might all be in my imagination, you aligned with Mercedes-Benz, seemingly to provide them with the highest-end little dashboard clocks in the world.)
When you started to open brick-and-mortar boutiques in high-end fashion districts across the world, the integral models in your lineup saw their DNA spliced into special limited editions so many times over that the the original models began to look like a tired sperm donor. The Big Pilot, your most popular offering and possibly the best overall watch of the '00s, spawned so many special editions it’s as if you hired the people from NIKE ID to help manufacture them. And this leads me to a thought on watch brands that I feel every company needs to understand from a collector’s perspective – future releases affect the relationship that passionate owners have with past ones. The best brands understand this, and to the naked eye they appear staid or sedate, but to enthusiasts, it appears something like respect, a tacit understanding that the watch you buy will still come to represent the brand you buy into over the coming years.
Over the next several years, the IWC I had come to know and love had all but disappeared. In its place stood a company that seemed at times more like a luxury hotel chain than a watch manufacturer. You started inviting a certain strain of particularly accomplished celebrities to events, and though they posed with your watches on their wrists in red carpet photos, I didn’t get the sense that they loved them, that they shared the passion for them that my fellow collectors and I did. I wondered if they even appreciated them for the incredible workmanship they housed, or just saw them as an incentive. This “friend of the brand” program, as you now call it, has managed to come off as equal parts withholding and alienating. (I feel like we’re friends, but I have a feeling I wouldn’t meet your stringent FOB requirements.)
I wouldn’t be writing you if I didn’t want to end this with words of encouragement. I still love IWC. I love its history, and I love its potential future. So here’s my humble suggestion for getting that old fire back: embrace your heritage, scale the product line down in terms of model variants, and simplify the design language. Transcend slowly. Trying to be all things to everyone is a pretty good way to ensure that you won’t be something special to anyone. Be IWC. That brilliant, slightly off-beat German-meets-Swiss high-grade timepiece manufacturer. Masters of utilitarian luxury. Stop polishing everything to a chrome-like luster. Play hard to get and treat your flagship pieces with dignity. And let authenticity be your best publicity; for all the highfalutin celebrities that have appeared at your events by way of a marketing budget, consider this: Keith Richards wears a Portugese Automatic. Daily. (Not this). You couldn’t have landed that deal if you’d tried. That kind of "promotion" is what it’s all about. It’s deep, it’s authentic, and it’s long lasting. Just like IWC.