Plotting the Course

Published in Private Edition 33

As a student, Walter Volpers could only dream about owning a luxury watch. Now he oversees their production.

WALTER VOLPERS FELL IN LOVE with haute horlogerie while studying industrial engineering in Basel. The subject of his affection was a watch he spotted in a Swiss jewellery boutique – an IWC Schaffhausen Mark XII, which he swore to own one day.

Twenty-two years later, he is IWC’s head of product management with a master’s degree in executive business administration and the privilege of unveiling the Mark XVIII to media and watch aficionados at the 2016 Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva. ‘It’s a dream come true. When I was promoted to this position about two years ago, it was wow – a Pilot – the Mark XVIII! This has been a great year for me.’

The IWC collection is carefully curated and each launch timed to maintain a certain rhythm – normally about four years between each new release per line. This year should have seen the reveal of a new ultra-highend collection, but the global financial crisis and current trends towards more discrete wristwatches persuaded the marketing team that it would be more prudent to add to the Pilot’s line first launched in 1936 at the request of former IWC CEO Ernst Homberger’s aviator sons. There was just one snag – they had half the usual time in which to do it. ‘Development of a new timepiece can take up to 30 months depending on the complexity of the watch, for example, whether it has a complicated movement like a minute repeater or a case like the Aquatimer, where the outer bezel turns on an inner ring,’ says Volpers. The process begins at the drawing board to produce a design that must first be checked for legal compliance, before it can be further developed. ‘A new watch can’t be launched
if the design already exists,’ explains Volpers.

Next is rapid prototyping of the watch in plastic using 3-D printing. Volpers explains that it’s all about ergonomics – testing the dimensions and how it feels. You don’t get a sense of colour or material. The watch is not functional, but its composition allows designers to experiment until they settle on the perfect look and feel. ‘The blue dial of the Big Pilot’s Le Petit Prince editions, inspired by the book by French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, is a really nice blue – it’s a hit, actually – but it took a lot of rounds to get it right,’ adds Volpers.

‘For us, it’s also more about the technical possibilities, innovation in materials and advances in mechanical engineering. When we printed a 55mm model, for example, we realised it was probably a little too big but because it dated back to the 1940s – and was an original copy so to speak – we decided to do it. Our challenge was how to make it wearable. We put a pocket-watch movement into it and it works beautifully.’

Volpers says his engineering background helps him judge if the new design is going to work or not, but he’s also learnt to be patient. ‘It comes with the beauty of the job. Holding the first IWC watch that comes off the production line is a great moment.’

During the ensuing technical prototyping phase, a case is made out of steel, fitted with the movement, hands and acrylic glass and matched to different dials and colours to find the ideal solution. Once that stage is approved, a more sophisticated prototype is made with sapphire instead of acrylic glass to reassess the colours, which will then take on a different hue. ‘Even establishing the theme of the bracelet is really complicated… deciding on the different straps and colour variations. For the new Pilot’s we settled on straps by Santoni, the Italian luxury shoemaker,’ says Volpers.

So who wears the IWC Pilot, I wondered? People with a fascination for gadgets or aviation as a whole? ‘I love the Pilot collection, even though I could never be a pilot,’ says Volpers. ‘Some clients are drawn to the pioneering spirit of the Maison, which links to those early aviators, or the speed and adrenaline of flying. It’s like investing in art. If you like it, you’ll buy it.’
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