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Usually just called IWC, the International Watch Company was established in the mid-1880s by an American operating in Schaffhausen, a German-speaking town in Eastern Switzerland. Though the industrial revolution had already come to pass, fine Swiss watchmaking was still piecemeal labor done mostly in people’s homes. IWC’s founder, Aristo Jones, had a distinctly American vision of an electrically-powered watch factory, and once hydro-electric became established in the area, IWC’s headquarters quickly became one of the most prolific watchmaking facilities in the world, taking on highly profitable commercial and military contracts throughout the World Wars. (See inside their modern facilities here.)
Throughout WWI and WWII, IWC built more mil-spec pilot’s watches than any other company, and the focus on aviation timepieces remains central to IWC today. Their modern catalog also includes dress watches, dive watches, and more than a few grand complications costing hundreds of thousands. IWC’s products span a range wider than that of many other watch companies, and the quality of their wares places them among the major Swiss watch manufacturers.
IWC aficionados tend to collect and fuss over the pilot’s watches, and because the company refers back to its historic catalog so much, those in the know love to complain about inconsistencies between older models and their modern iterations. Interestingly, IWC is quick to respond to customer feedback, and few watch companies revise and improve their watches as regularly. Their famous “Mark” series pilot’s watches, for example, have gone through a befuddlingly large number of iterations, each one seeming to satisfy and disappoint the aficionados in equal measure.
For years, IWC has been steadily replacing 3rd-party movements with in-house calibers (which the brand will specifically name as "IWC-manufactured" in its spec list). Even in the lower end of their range, these upgrades often come without significant price increases, and this evolution makes their current catalog ever tastier, as the value propositions are getting better each year.
IWC segments their pilot’s watches into five categories: Classic, Spitfire, Top Gun, Le Petit Prince, and Antoine De Saint-Expuéry (author of Le Petit Prince). Within each category you’ll find many of the same watches, differentiated mostly by the dial’s color and case materials. Roughly speaking, here’s how the IWC pilot’s watches break down:
Classic: a broad-ranging collection based on its pilots' instruments of the 1930s and '40s
Spitfire: similar to the Classic, but featuring a caseback engraving of a Spitfire plane
Top Gun: ceramic cases
Le Petit Prince: steel or gold cases with blue dials and “Le Petit Prince”-themed case backs
Antoine de Saint Exupéry: steel cases with brown dials
Starting with the now highly collectable Mark XI, IWC has iterated on their most basic pilot’s watch, and this is the one that often causes the most stir among the aficionados. Placement of the date window has caused feuds among forum-dwelling nerds, but that passion indicates how compelling the Mark series pilot’s watches are. It's also the brand's most affordable watch.
Movement: Cal. 35111 (based on Sellita SW300-1)
A little bigger and featuring a weekday and date complication alongside a robust three-register chronograph function, this watch is a purebred IWC staple. The Pilot's Watch Chronograph comes in many iterations but the "Tribute to 3705" is particularly cool, recalling a collector favorite from the 1990s and cased in the brand's own ceramic-and-titanium "Ceratanium" material.
Movement: IWC 69380 automatic
Big Pilot’s Watch
With its large dial, clever power reserve indicator at 3-o’clock, and unmistakable “onion” crown, the Big Pilot’s Watch is perhaps IWC’s most iconic timepiece, one that could stand for the brand above all others. These things really live up to their Big name with 46mm cases meant for Stallone and Schwarzenegger type wrists, but there are also (still sizable) 43mm versions, as well.
Movement: Manufacture cal. 52110 with 8-day power reserve
No pilot’s watch collection is complete without a serious world timer, and the Timezoner model sees IWC taking global travel seriously (this was less of a concern back in the short-flight days of the World Wars). This watch will track a second time zone as well as the time in cities around the world, with a couple versions available such as those with and without chronograph functionality.
Movement: IWC 89760 automatic
Flying below the radar, these submersible divers from IWC are robust timepieces with compelling features and a look that imitates nothing while remaining a classic in its own right. The internal rotating timing bezel is actuated via the crown at 9 o’clock, a feature which, taken visually, offers a unique symmetry to these waterproof watches.
If the time, date and a rotating timing bezel are all you’ll need, then the Aquatimer Automatic is the watch for you. With 300 meters of water resistance, these watches are more than ready for any watery adventure. Aquatimers also come in chronograph variants and special editions.
Movement: ETA 2892-A2 automatic
Based on oversized timepieces developed in the 1930s for two Portuguese merchants, these watches range in price from $7,250 to well into six figures for grand complications, indicating that IWC is not only committed to this platform, but that the Portugieser covers a lot of ground for their customer base.
With its dressy-leaning, no-nonsense feel, the Portugieser comes in a number of forms, including time-only versions, but it's best known as a chronograph. Though these appear very straight-ahead and conservative watches, they are easily among the watch world's icons and they live up to expectations in terms of details and quality when seen in person. Water resistance is 30 meters, so don’t do any cannonballs in this one.
Movement: IWC 69355 automatic
After Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe hired Gerald Genta during the 1970s to design the now-famous Royal Oak and Nautilus steel sport watches, IWC brought the famed designer into its fold to help them compete in this fast-emerging market. The result was the Ingenieur, a watch that never gained the fame of either the Royal Oak or the Nautilus. Over its decades of life, the Ingenieur has featured integrated bracelets and funky bezels like those watches, but the modern version has returned to a more conservative form. And yet, for those seeking a sporty-yet-dressy watch that’s 100% IWC, the Ingenieur is accessible, handsome, durable, and incredibly versatile.
Straightforward, water resistant to 120 meters, rugged enough for an adventurous weekend and classy enough for suit-and-tie affairs, this watch may be one of the best everyday options in IWC’s whole catalog. The collection includes chronographs and even a perpetual calendar, but it's best represented by this versatile three-hander.
Movement: Sellita SW301-1 automatic
The Italian seaside town of Portofino is so elegant and beautiful that when the equally elegant and beautiful Cate Blanchett walks the red carpet wearing an IWC Portofino, we confront a self-referential, kaleidoscopic display of luxury. Grab a shard of that impossibility and strap it to your wrist with the Portofino.
Simple, elegant, and unmistakably IWC in design, the Portofino collection is available in an array time-only automatic, chronograph and other configurations, each with different dial, case and strap options. The Hand-Wound Eight Days, however, shows off the line's aesthetic character but offers more interest with a beautiful in-house movement and a dial featuring a power reserve indicator for its eight days of run time.
Movement: IWC 59210 hand-wound
The Da Vinci Collection
For an American-founded company operating in Switzerland, IWC sure does seem to love the Italians. The DaVinci series watches step up the jewels and complications to a degree that spans, again, an incredibly wide range of features and price. As such, the pilot’s watch aesthetics are not to be found here.
Aimed at those who prefer classic European cues of elegance, the Da Vinci's defining trait is its articulating lugs which help models of any size fit the wrist better. Those sizes range from is offered in a wide array of styles that range from 36mm to 44mm and also include the brand's usual range of features. For the gentleman seeking a touch of flamboyance in an everyday dress watch, the 40.4mm automatic will fit the bill.
Movement: Sellita SW300-1