Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the IWC Portugieser.
The contemporary IWC Portugieser is not merely a watch, but rather an entire model line within IWC’s collection, with everything from chronographs to minute repeaters and perpetual calendars counted among its ranks. It is one of the stalwarts of the Schaffhausen brand’s collection and almost universally loved by watch aficionados for its clean, classic aesthetics, purity of design and fascinating history. And it all sprang from a single request from a singular watch market. Actually, make that two requests.
To understand the genesis of a Swiss watch named for an Iberian country, one needs to understand Portugal’s relationship with the sea. Since the dawn of the seafaring age, Portugal has been straining at the shore, ultimately bearing legion upon legion of sons who learned to navigate the cold waters of the Atlantic at the feet of their fathers and grandfathers. (Ever heard of Henry the Navigator or Vasco da Gama?)
Among the tools required for successfully navigating a ship is an accurate marine chronometer. While traditionally these were large affairs, mounted in position on a gimbal on the ship's bridge, pocket watches began to take over as they became accurate and robust enough to perform navigation duty on their own. But wristwatches were newly in vogue when the clients of two Portuguese retailers — Rodríguez in Lisbon, and Teixeira, in Oporto — requested larger pocketwatch-esque timepieces from IWC.
In the 1930s, smaller, thinner calibers contained within rectangular, art deco-inspired cases were all the rage, perhaps as a reaction to the bulkier pocket watches which they supplanted. But regardless of the rationale behind this preferred aesthetic, smaller equaled better, and yet here were two Portuguese retailers asking for a larger wristwatch to meet the demands of their customers. Given IWC’s well-known history of building sturdy, accurate pocket watches, the manufacture was ideally situated to tackle this problem.
At first, IWC’s management was hesitant to take on this challenge since, after all, they had spent significant capital to develop movements and cases that were in keeping with the svelte zeitgeist of the time. But the brand had a history of doing things a little bit differently: IWC was the only manufacture in the German-speaking part of Switzerland and had been founded by an American who brought Boston pocket watch building know-how to Schaffhausen in 1868.
The Portuguese retailers were insistent. IWC gave in, and the so-called “Portuguesier” was born. Mind you, it wouldn’t actually be referred to as such until much, much later. In fact, the first version, which was delivered in 1939, was simply called “large wristwatch”, and by the standards of the time, it was positively enormous. This timepiece, rendered in stainless steel, measured in at a whopping 41.5 millimeters, with the movement consuming just over 38 millimeters of space within.
Even though this watch was precisely what the Portuguese retailers had ordered, it was anything but a runaway success, with only a few hundred manufactured between 1939 and 1944. After 1944, a newly developed pocket watch movement was employed that would power the watch through to the late ’50s, though not many were produced. Ironically, it wasn’t until the 1970s, in the depths of the so-called “Quartz Crisis”, that the “large wristwatch” would be resurrected.
Sensing that perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to throw a few curveballs, IWC took some unused cases from the earlier run and installed an updated pocket watch movement within — the calibre 98 — this time with their aim set on the German market. Again, due to the prevailing attitude toward mechanical watches at the time, the total number produced was quite low. Yet the watch with the “Portuguese connection” was well received among an important few.
One such impressed individual was IWC sales and marketing director Hannes Pantli. Pantli approached Günter Blümlein, the company’s legendary CEO, with an idea for a watch to help celebrate IWC’s 125th anniversary in 1993. Even though IWC was set to debut the masterfully built, highly complicated Il Destriero Scafusia Grande Complication, Pantil’s idea was to have another, more accessible piece available to fans of the brand who might not be able to plunk down the hefty cost of the Il Destriero. This alternative watch would become the first IWC to officially bear the name “Portugieser.”Ironically, it would be produced in a sell-out series of 1,000 watches, which early equaled the entire production of the earlier iterations.
After this point, the Portugieser became a mainstay in IWC’s stable of iconic watches. Going forward, it would host famous IWC watchmaker Kurt Klaus’s vaunted caliber 5000 movement, spawn three distinct chronographs and branch out to the highest rungs of haute horlogerie with the jaw-dropping Portugieser Siderale Scafusia, IWC’s most innovative and complicated watch to date. And yet, if one wishes to experience the essence of the watch that those visionary Portuguese clients desired all those years back, a basic time-only Portuguese Automatic — in stainless steel — is still the way to go.
For years, IWC has used the tagline “Engineered for Men” to sell its rugged sports watches, many of which are highly complicated and make use of cutting-edge materials and technologies. Yet ask most people which watch best represents IWC and, chances are, they’ll say it’s the Portugieser, the simplest, most elegant and traditional of the brand’s offerings. That’s because long before there was a Big Pilot, an Aquatimer, or an Ingenieur, there was the “Portugieser”, a watch that traces 80 years of the company’s illustrious history. Its humble and quirky beginnings as a custom watch for some discerning clients in a country with seawater in its cultural veins only add to the watch’s mystique.
Manufacturer Info: iwc.com