Luxury Retrospective: 75 Years of IWC Portugieser
If it weren’t for an unusual request by two Portuguese businessmen in the late 1930s, the IWC Portugieser would probably have never been created. The men traveled to Schaffhausen with the vision of a wristwatch offering the precision of a marine chronometer. IWC, never shying away from a challenge, met their demands by taking a caliber 74 pocket watch movement and crafting a 43mm case around it so that it could be worn around the wrist. Despite its size—which was considered enormous at the time—the watch was surprisingly elegant, featuring Arabic numerals, a sub-dial for the seconds at 6 o’clock, and two lead-shaped hands indicating the time. In fulfilling the wishes of these two Portuguese businessmen, IWC created a legend—though it would take quite some time before the watch wholly claimed its prestigious status.
In terms of size, the Portugieser was far ahead of its time. As a result demand for the timepiece was very limited, but IWC kept the Portugieser in its collection. In the early 1950s IWC started using caliber 98 to power the watch, later switching over to caliber 982, which had improved shock resistance. In 1981 IWC had only created and sold 699 Portugiesers, and with the quartz crisis roaring its ugly head, the watch’s fate seemed to have been sealed. Yet in the early 1990s a IWC customer visited the manufacture in Schaffhausen. Around his wrist was a Portugieser. The simple elegance of the watch made such an impact, that IWC decided it was time for the Portugieser to fully claim its fame. For the 125th anniversary of IWC in 1993, the company created a Portugieser collectors now call the “Jubilee.” Officially known as “Reference 5441,” the watch has a thickness of 9 mm and diameter of 42mm. For the first time in the history of the Portugieser, the movement could be admired through a glass case back. The watch’s production was limited to 1,000 pieces in stainless steel, 500 in rose gold, and 250 in platinum..Caliber 9828, in essence a further developed derivative of caliber 982, enticed collectors with its beauty and precision.
From here the Portugieser gained momentum. Because of its larger size, the Portugieser was perfect for housing complications. IWC started ambitious, with the introduction of Reference 5240, a minute repeater, in 1995. The complication allowed IWC to maintain the elegant look of the original Portugiesers, yet position it also as a sophisticated bearer of complications. That is perhaps also the brilliance of the Portugieser; it is everything at once, and never so-so. The Ref. 5240 was followed up by a manual wind Rattrapante (Ref. 3712) and an automatic chronograph (Ref. 3714), which would become a landmark model—not only for the Portugieser collection itself, but also for IWC. With a case that is 40.9 mm in diameter and almost all dial, the watch offered a sportive elegance by integrating the chronograph counters only over the vertical axis. With this Portugieser, IWC crossed barriers, offering its customers a watch that could accompany them from the boardroom to the boat. It would also be the timepiece that would erase any doubts that the Portugieser was here to stay.
At the turn of the millennium, IWC introduced another milestone in its own history with the Portugieser Caliber 5000: a 38.2mm automatic movement that filled the case of the Portugieser with the essence of IWC. The movement was developed by IWC’s legendary master watchmaker Kurt Klaus, famous for creating the Da Vinci perpetual calendar. One of the most prominent aspects of Caliber 5000 is its Pellaton winding system, which not only allows for bidirectional winding of the movement, but also only needs the slightest movement to spring into action. It was designed in the 1950s by another IWC legend, Albert Pellaton, who served as the company’s technical director from 1944 until 1966 and Klaus’ mentor. With Caliber 5000, Klaus had enough space to insert a large mainspring barrel that was to offer a stunning seven-day power reserve. In fact, the mainspring in the Caliber 5000 could actually provide eight-and-a-half days of power reserve; however, in the last day and a half, accuracy would suffer due to the fact that the mainspring was already chiefly unwounded. An ingenious device that would actually break the balance with the seven-day power reserve had been used up. Prominent on the large rotor of Caliber 5000 was IWC’s logo and motto, “Probus Scafusia,” which means good, solid craftsmanship from Schaffhausen. Although this motto can certainly be applied to any IWC, it seems especially fitting given the care and dedication the brand put into the development of the Portugieser.
Caliber 5000 was not the only clearly visible influence Kurt Klaus had on the Portugieser. In 2003 the Portugieser Perpetual Calendar was launched. Known as Reference 5021, it united the Caliber 5000 with the perpetual calendar Klaus had originally developed for the Da Vinci. The large size of the dial allowed for a very spacious layout of the perpetual calendar function, making it easy to read while maintaining the clean look of the Portugieser. Perpetual calendars require almost continuous running in order for them to display the correct day, date, month and year. Manual correction comes with risk, but by using caliber 5000 as a base for this new caliber 5011, IWC also gave this Portugieser not only the efficient Pellaton winding system, but also the seven-day power reserve. A modern touch was given to the watch with the redesign of the Portugieser’s moon phase indicator, transforming it from a traditional display similar to the one on the Da Vinci, to a more abstract version showing the moon’s phase simultaneously on the northern and southern hemisphere.
Unique about the Portugieser is the fact that it covers the entire spectrum of watchmaking in a single model. It is as enticing in a time-only version with a manual wind movement as it is in a grand complication. Somebody who understands that perhaps better than anybody else is Georges Kern, IWC’s CEO since 2002. Under his reign the Portugieser has flourished like never before, not only with regards to design, but most certainly also in terms of technical advancement. The pinnacle of both is the Portuguese Sidérale Scafusia, which was introduced in 2011 and still holds the crown of most complicated IWC to date. Outfitted with a caliber 94900, it uses over 500 parts to display an interesting and rare complication. The watch is fitted with a constant force tourbillon that features dead-beat seconds, highlighting the technical side of the complicated timepiece. At 12 o’clock, a small dial shows what is known as “sidereal time”: a method of timekeeping used by astronomers who measure time by taking the earth’s rate of rotation in reference to fixed stars, not the sun. Why IWC incorporated this on the Portuguese Sidérale Scafusia becomes clear when you flip the watch over. Here a map takes center stage, showing the exact location of stars in the night sky in reference from a specific point on Earth, which can be chosen by the owner of the watch when he orders it. As impressive as this complication is, many would probably not notice that in the ring around the star map, IWC integrated a perpetual calendar, solar time display, second sidereal time showcase (on a 24-hour scale), sunrise-sunset and daytime- nighttime indicators, and a twilight display. Thanks to two mainspring barrels, the power reserve of this manual-wind caliber is an impressive 96 hours.
This year the Portugieser is celebrating its 75th birthday, offering technical advanced manufacture movements encased in a watch designed to always be a contemporary classic, much like the Portugieser Annual Calendar, a complication that fits right in between the Portugieser automatic and the Portugieser perpetual calendar and offers the convenience of only having to correct the date once a year. Convenient is also the way IWC displays the annual calendar. A semicircular display at 12 o’clock shows the month, date and day for superb readability. Inside the annual calendar ticks Caliber 52850, which beautifully shows off the continuous effort by IWC to improve the performance of its movements. Originally it is of course based on the Caliber 5000 developed by Kurt Klaus, but features two mainspring barrels instead of one. IWC did this to provide the extra torque needed to operate the discs of the annual calendar, while maintaining the signature seven-day power reserve. Clearly visible is also the increased amount of ceramic components, meant to reduce wear on the movement. IWC has also kept in touch with the essence of the Portugieser, 75 years in the making. The manual-wind model, automatic chronograph and minute repeater are all still part of the current Portugieser collection. While the new annual calendar makes another bridge to the future for the Portugieser, the hand- wound, “75th Anniversary” Portugieser offers homage to the watches that started the legacy. This time only watch has a date function discretely integrated in the sub- dial of the seconds display. Just as the “Jubilee” celebrated the 125th anniversary of IWC in 1993, the Portugieser honored its 75th Anniversary by featuring a display back. Here one can admire Caliber 59215, decorated in Geneva striping with an integrated power reserve display. The dial was inspired on one of the earliest Portugiesers, showing a very elegant variety on the famed “railroad track” used to indicate minutes.
Thanks to the work of Pellaton, Klaus and Kern, the Portugieser has grown to become one of the most balanced and versatile watch collections in the world. Incorporating seamlessly technical complex behemoths and elegant time-only watches, it represents the essence of IWC, wholly embodying “probus scafusia” in its display of good, solid craftsmanship.