Lifetime sat down for a highly revealing talk with IWC’s Walter Volpers, new products Portfolio – Associate Director Product Development, who spoke about the definition of a true haute horlogerie brand, about the reasons why IWC is, suddenly, a feminine brand and about this century’s opportunities and challenges.

Lifetime: How you would define haute horlogerie these days? Please name three key qualities a real Swiss watch brand has to have.

Walter Volpers: Well, the first question – what is haute horlogerie today – it is a little bit difficult to explain. I believe that the word “fashion” is invading very strongly our domain, and the domain of luxury. Fashion is not equal to luxury. Luxury is very difficult to explain. But luxury has something about history. So the longer the history, the more luxurious it can be. It doesn’t mean that luxury is only defined by history – it doesn’t mean that – but fashion is very fast. And we, our industry today is being… I wouldn’t say “attacked”, but we are feeling this fashion and these cycles of change, agility, and this is putting big challenges on us. So we are adapting ourselves very strongly to this changing environment, the new “normal”. Everyday there’s something new, something new happening in the world – political, economical or what-have-you… We need to react to this. So haute horlogerie is a way of translating this art, this affair of watchmaking, in a world where it needs to be adapting to all the new situations. I think that Da Vinci is the perfect example, because in the beginning it was tonneau-shaped, so its case was more rectangular than round; then in the 80s, 1985, we introduced the new calibre with the Kurt Klaus’ perpetual calendar. It was round again. In 2007, we went back to this tonneau form and today we go back to the round form. So this is actually exactly what is happening: we’re changing our products according to the tight case or to the spirit of the year which is happening right now and haute horlogerie right now… I think it used to be a lot of complications. The complicated watch, the haute horlogerie. Today it’s not only that. It’s about perfect quality, it’s about perfect service, it’s around the brand, it’s about the story, when you can… And the problem is it might get mixed up with fashion, but we do not want it. Fashion is completely different – this is like four collections every year. So, yes, it’s a difficult environment, but I think we’re managing perfectly and we have very good products right now to counter the situation.

Lifetime: And the three key qualities of a real Swiss watch brand?

WV: The question is very interesting, because what really defines the Swiss watch industry or haute horlogerie… On the one hand, you have the “Swiss made” – definitely. This is a little bit of luxury, history, a lot of years of savoir-faire. It would be near about 150 years and we have made marvellous timepieces with great complications. So the “Swiss made” is one label of this haute horlogerie. The second is – for me – the mechanical watch. So when you put a quartz, when you put a battery and electronics, it stops being romantic in a way. But we understand, we see this in other industries. I mean the cars were always made with an explosive engine, and now it’s electrical – you know, Tesla. So we have to be open. This doesn’t mean for a watch that if it’s not mechanical, it’s not Swiss or it’s not haute horlogerie. But I think mechanical brings a lot of romanticism to the world of mechanical watches. So I think this is one of the attributes that needs to be there. And the third one I think is about history. I mean you cannot just create one watch industry and say: “Now we are here”. You need time to confirm that you’ve been around, that you know what you’re talking about, what you’re doing and bring exceptional timepieces. So the top ten watch industries – they are all very old. The new ones they are not so… I think there has to be a certain heritage, a certain history to the work, to the attributes of a watch haute horlogerie.

Lifetime: Which are IWC’s top strengths in your opinion?

WV: Wow! We have so many… (laughs) Let’s start actually by the center… It’s a product. Every single product of IWC is beautiful. We have six lines, six different worlds, six different segments, people and ways of life and experiences. So this is one of the biggest strengths and every single family has a very strong product portfolio. If you look at the Da Vinci line… For the women, Da Vinci has introduced now five different automatic references, three-hands watch, very simple but very beautiful, with new aesthetics, new design, very round shape and moving lugs for ergonomics – so it’s also very functional; we have also three Moon Phases, and we are dedicating this launch also to the ladies. So these eight main pieces are dedicated to the ladies. And this is also confirming the strengths that we have for the six families. So we have six families addressing men and women equally. And with this new Da Vinci collection, we’re going from very sporty watches like the Pilot, or more casual ones, like the Portofino for ladies, to very classic. So, you see, this structure of IWC with its families, its worlds, its products is one of the biggest strengths of IWC. A second strength is, I believe, the team, because working with IWC is an experience unmatched for me. I mean, I’ve been working with different teams, with different people, different nationalities, we are actually international, we are called International Watch Company, and we are really international, and this is so great. I mean, when I came to the booth for the first time, on Saturday, when you look at this amazing booth, the first thing you say is: “I love my job, I love my place of work.” And this is all motivating the people and the personalities and we have great people. And this, I think, is also shown in the product, because they’re done with a lot of passion. If you see how many iterations we do for developing a watch… Da Vinci has been developing for seven years. We have new movements that were set into life, were started in development five years ago and finally today we get to present them in these two beautiful pieces – the Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Chronograph and the Da Vinci Tourbillon Chronograph. They are marvellous timepieces, and it takes five to ten years. And when I talk about the team, it’s also sitting here, seeing your baby. You see – from the design to the wrist – all the steps behind it. It’s… I love it. This is another strength.

Lifetime: We have noticed the shift towards women’s watches.

WV: Surely, we are known as “engineered for men”. This slogan is a campaign launched in 2000 plus, which was very very successful. On the other hand, when you look back at the history of IWC: for 150 years we’ve been producing watches and marvellous timepieces, and from the beginning we’ve been doing watches for women. We’ve also had small sizes, small diameters, a lot of watches with a lot of jewellery, very special designs, also with straps made of gold or what precious metal you can imagine, and we’ve always been addressing this clientele, to be honest. I mean, it’s in our history, it’s in our DNA. Yes, the campaign was very successful but we are also in a situation where we have to develop ourselves. The world is developing and we’ll have to develop ourselves, otherwise you miss a train and then you’re out. I would think that women are one of the strongest segments that needs to be addressed because, in the end, watches are jewellery. And jewellery addresses all kinds of people, men and women alike. So it’s not bad to have also some products addressing this very important segment. And as I said before, what we’re doing with the Da Vinci right now, we’re moving from the engineering, from the Pilot, which is very sporty, which you can use everyday for running, for what have you, or a casual thing which you can wear to work, or a Da Vinci which goes when you go to the Opera or when you go to the theater or something. So right now we have this complementing portfolio, from sports to elegant. Everything. And the Da Vinci line seems, as the name says, another Da Vinci, who was keen on finding the link between science, mathematics and beauty and aesthetics. I think the name is perfect. We have incredible engineering in these watches, we have beautiful aesthetics, and beautiful timepieces and now we’re addressing also the women so now we’re complementing this segment completely. From sports to elegant.

Lifetime: You have a new slogan for women, as well?

WV: (laughs) Not that I know of. Engineered for women, for men. I would say: “engineered for humanity”. For everyone.

Lifetime: You mentioned before something about luxury watches. I wanted to ask you – because there is a lot of confusion: what is luxury? Please define a luxury watch from your own perspective. Is comfort a priority for a luxury watch?

WV: Oh, I love this question. The problem is it can get very political. What I mean is that for every person luxury is different. For someone who does not have time, time is the most luxurious thing they can have. For someone who does not have money, something very expensive can be very luxurious. I think luxury is something that is not functional. And if you look at a watch per se, a mechanical watch per definition, it’s already luxury because nobody will buy a mechanical watch that goes about three minutes off every month, if you need to read the time. And not in a world where you have the time everywhere: you have on your mobile, you have in your car, you have on your computer… Wherever you look, you have a watch which is more accurate than the mechanical watch you wear on your wrist. So, per se, a mechanical watch is already luxury.

On the other hand, it’s something which is very beautiful, something which you treasure. The collectors, for example, they wear the watches and they clean them every time they take them off, they clean them, they make them perfectly shiny and they put them back in, so they’re also investing time and love into these pieces – it can be a lot of luxury. And as I said before, time is also one big component of luxury. Looking at the watch industry, I think you are completely right. Service is going to differentiate between fashion or high premium or luxury. When you buy something very expensive, in which you’re investing more than you can pay, you want to have the service from a to z and over lifetime. So I mean that if you want to buy a watch you can keep, you don’t want to give it away in ten months, you want to have it forever. So service is putting us a lot of pressure, because the more time passes and the more watches you’re making, the more you have to do in service. So this is going to be a really big challenge in the future: how do we handle this service because it’s one of the biggest attributes you can address to luxury.

Lifetime: How useful are modern techniques in the prototypes of production? Is there an issue with the concept of manufacturing and manufacture?

WV: I love this question! I come from production, I know exactly what it means, and this is really state-of-the-art. It’s a really interesting question. There are not many interviews where you can answer questions about production. It is really interesting. We are in a world right now with 3D printing for example – that’s the technology – it’s disrupting the standard production technologies, which we used to have back then. I mean, 150 years back, we still were milling the cases. So you had a machine which was turning and you had a knife which was cutting the steel and giving the shape of the case. Now, the machines are changing. Before that, IWC Schaffhausen was known for this watcher close to the Rhine, where we got the energy from the Rhine to turn these machines and to do the milling. Now it changes to electricity, it changes to electrical motors and all this stuff.

But in the end, today, 150 years later, we are still cutting steel one way or another. So there has not been very much a development in that kind of technology. But right now, with the 3D printing for example, which we are also using in the development of our pieces – you can imagine for all these Da Vinci pieces that you are seeing, we did rapid prototyping in printer, in 3D printer. So we have three phases: the first is to get the ergonomics of the watch, how big is its diameter, how high it is, how it matches and adapts to the wrist – we do this with a plastic 3D printing; then, we move to the technical rapid prototyping, where you do it in real steel. So you get the weight of the watch, and you get a little bit more functionality, where you can push the buttons for example. It’s not ready for selling, because it does not have all the necessary attributes, but you can really feel and touch the watch as if almost final. And then you make the third prototype, which is the aesthetical prototype, where you have everything final. And in all 3 stages we use kind of 3D printing technology – a really new technology, state-of-the-art. For example in polishing, we use a new way of polishing, with vibration and everything, so this is also something very new, which was never there, but we are using it. Best in class it’s called actually. So in the production right now we’re seeing a lot of new development.

We also have, for example, the new tourbillon, we have our diamond-shell technology, this is the escape wheel, it has a core of silicone, or something ceramic, and outward it’s coated with diamond. So on the one hand you have the light weight of the ceramic, and on the other hand the hardness and the rigidity of the diamond, so that you can reduce the weight of this escapement wheel. Now, if you see the escapement wheel, you will see that it is black, it has a beautiful flower shape – and this shape was also done with, for example, computer technology. We put in the computer how the forces act on this wheel and everything that was not influenced by these forces we took out. So we skeletonized this wheel. And now you have a really light-weighted wheel, which is adding a power reserve… We were able to have the caliber with standard attributes like 68-hour power reserve due to this new technology. So you see, I mean: we have 3D printing, we have the new chemical vapour deposition technologies, we have silicone and diamond… This is all state-of-the-art. And it’s influencing the way we do business. So it’s really interesting.

And then there is the third part, which is the production itself. Before, we used to produce to stock. You had stock and of course you had to pay for the stock, cause you needed the materials, and then this went into your balance sheet and the company could go bankrupt because of stock. And today you have to find ways to reduce this. You have to be more efficient in the production. And also, as I said before, the world is changing – the people want to have new models really fast. If you have a really big stock – let’s say you sell one watch every month, and you have 20 watches. Your stock is empty in 20 months. In 20 months, it’s going to be old, or out of fashion. If it’s a good piece like IWC, of course, it will never be out of fashion (laughs)… In the end, you really need to be efficient in terms of production. So you have to reduce and change the production flow and material flow in order to reduce to the max these stocks and be effective in the production.

Lifetime: A few things about the novelties, that you consider relevant, more important?

WV: Yes, I have a Da Vinci Chronograph with me, you can have a look at it. And as I said, one of the main changes is that we went back from the tonneau form to the round shape. And we kept some… from the classical Da Vinci from the 80’s we kept some slight… I would say design element which is, for example, this double case ring, which you see on the side. Another thing we kept is the moving lock. Before we had a one-piece moving lock, now we have a two-piece moving lock. You have one moving lock here and the other here. And altogether it has seven components, times two is fourteen components. And this is designed to adapt better to the wrist. Which is also very important for women watches for example, that usually have thinner wrists or more…

Lifetime: It looks precious…

WV: Exactly, it looks precious and it’s also very difficult to produce, to be honest. We talked about production technologies, this is standard milling technology, but it takes so many steps to produce that it makes the piece very expensive. This is also very good, because it’s a line with a higher positioning in this situation, so it matches perfectly. So these moving locks are, in my opinion, one of the most interesting technological developments in terms of casing for the Da Vinci line. The other thing is that the pushers and the crown have a round, symmetrical design. The pushers of the chronograph you cannot turn, only the crown, which is the one in the middle. When you turn it, you can feel it, and this design is done so that it fits better to the round case. Before we had some similar pushers – a cylinder with a round head on top of it and this is a little bit 80s, so it’s not very contemporary, so we used this design which is making it more modern. And this is drawn by a 12-year old girl who is disabled and we did a contest for the Laureus timepiece and for the first time we did an internet voting and this little girl won the contest.

The Laureus edition is limited to 1,500 pieces. This complete redesign matches perfectly. Then we added a Santoni strap, which is handmade in 21 steps, I think. For the women watches, we also have a butterfly clasp. For example, this is a folding clasp which has two elements. The butterfly has three, like the Pilot, which is better, because you only have to open one part so it can be a little more comfortable for getting in. Yes, and then we have the movement developments, which is the chronograph tourbillon which I already explained and the new perpetual calendar, which is actually the Kurt Klaus perpetual calendar module, which was already introduced in 1985. It’s of course adapted on size and the Moon Phase it has to be also changed a little bit. Let me just give you a quick input on this Moon Phase, I have it just here on my iPad. So it will be like the Da Vinci Moon Phase, the diameter is 43mm, and what you see here is the chronograph at 12 o’clock, you have the subcounter that shows the hour and the minute display and you can stop the time for 12 hours, because it has an hour counter of 12 hours and the minute counter of 60 minutes. So you have a chronograph and integrated in this subdial, there is a small, very romantic, poetic moon phase. And it has the same accuracy as the old – you don’t have to adjust the moon phase for 577,5 years, which is also amazing. And the perpetual calendar, as I said, Kurt Klaus, you do not need to actually change the date until 2499. So this is, you know, a beautiful way of making a Da Vinci a real Da Vinci, by integrating engineering and beautiful aesthetics with the classical, very elegant design of this watch.

Lifetime: As you said: it’s a journey that has made you invest the money to receive the quality.

WV: You have to feel it and live it.

Lifetime: Exactly. The brand is not enough.

WV: I think not. The brand name is important, definitely, because there are people who only buy the brand, but if you do not like the watch, you will not buy the brand. In the end, it is all projected to the watch. And I think we’ve done a great job, this is really such a beautiful piece, the blue is exceptional, the shining is, the polished locks, everything, the Santoni strap, the folding clasp with this classical… It’s all very modern. If you go out on a tuxedo night and you wear this watch, you will not be wearing something wrong. It’s going to be also very modern, because of the blue colour, which is right now… The world is blue, actually, if you look at the watch industry. Everybody has blue. And, of course, Rolex has green.

Lifetime: What does a working day look like for you?

WV: Well, I try to sleep seven hours, so after the seven hours when I wake up, of course I go to work and the first thing I do is check all the e-mails that I have. And I have a lot of international e-mails that are asking questions on the timepieces. For example, somebody wanted to go to Siberia and he said: “I will be exposed probably to minus 40 degrees. Does the watch still function?” And this is a good question, I mean we never think about this. We do testing at -20 degrees and +75 degrees to see if the watch is still working, and it still works between those temperatures. But the thing is when you’re wearing your watch you will never get -40 degrees. Otherwise, you’re dead. Or you should have your doctor look at you, because your wrist is really cold. So I mean, when you’re out you will not be at those temperatures, anyhow. But the thing is, it works. And this kind of e-mails I have to answer and there are a lot of different e-mails. They also need to understand why we have antimagnetism here and there, and how does it work, and how many Gauss, and we have a lot of such questions which, since we have been the first worldwide, we have to answer these questions. And then, of course, a good portion of the day is in meetings, where we do the development of the watches, we need to make decisions; for example, which colour should the strap have, on a blue dial… We have a lot of meetings. It’s important. We have to look at the details. The differences of the watches come from the details, and not from the general look. If the details don’t match, it doesn’t work. We did for this dial seven different versions, with different colours, with different heights, there are a lot of changes. The font is important, the font of the date and everything… So a lot of these meetings are centered around the watches and since we are developing already, we already know what we’re going to launch for the next three years. We’re already starting with 2021, the 2020s already. Of course we are not done yet, but we know what we want, so now it’s about making it, and 2021 is deciding what are we going to do. So we have so much time, there are a lot of iterations, and you have to coordinate all these iterations. And then the rest of the time is, you know, solving problems, production problems. It’s true, I mean the suppliers when they deliver something which is not in the quality, you have to look on what went wrong, how can we do it better, how can we change it so that it never happens again, so that the next time we develop we do not have the same problems. It’s a lot about putting more fires out, and then the work is not putting the fire out because we have a great team as I said, they can fight and they are very ambitious and they can do everything in very little time; but after the fire, you need to find out why did the fire come up, so it doesn’t happen again, because you cannot spend your life putting fires out. The whole idea is to have something that doesn’t burn, so that you don’t have a fire to estinguish. And this is our day and it becomes more intense as we get closer to SIHH, the worst day being Friday. Now, for me, it’s going back, enjoying the next three weeks and then we start work for the next SIHH. After the fair is before the fair, right?

Lifetime: Thank you very much!

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