Of all the design tropes in watchmaking, there are three that watch designers come back to most – anything round and classic, diver’s and pilot’s. That might be a rather reductionist view of the watch industry’s current output, but then again, those cover the fundamentals of a well balanced watch wardrobe.
IWC has built a global following with watches that have helped shape those three categories. Yes, the Da Vinci flirted with the tonneau shape for a time, and its recent all-things-to-all-men Ingenieur reboot probably puts it in a broader ‘tool watch’ segment. But otherwise, it’s pretty safe to pigeonhole the Schaffhausen brand’s collection against those three.
Behind the story
The one we’re singling out today is the new Pilot’s Watch collection launched at this year’s SIHH in Geneva. IWC returns to its Pilot’s Watch more frequently than any other of its six families, even the widely loved Portuguese. That explains why there are more watches in the Pilot’s Watch family at the moment than in any other – 44 at last count, compared to 14 for Aquatimer and 10 for Ingenieur.
Thinking pragmatically, IWC’s strategy makes sense. Pilot’s watches are easily marketed, easy to understand and easy to wear, although as we know, only a small percentage of those made are ever actually worn by qualified pilots – just as few diver’s watches make it beyond the shallows. But because aviation’s values are broadly aspirational, from solid engineering to derring-do, we go for them. Again and again. Pilot’s Watches are a more universal sell than even the lifestyle captured by the IWC Portofino, named after the oh-so-chic Italian coastal resort.
This year’s Pilot’s Watch additions amount to 14 new references across the Pilot’s Watch Spitfire, Top Gun and Special Editions sub-categories, and become the first home for a new IWC in-house family of movements, dubbed Calibre 32000. This is the first time every piece in the Spitfire collection has been powered by one of the company’s in-house calibres, and it’s here our focus falls today.
The story behind the Spitfire collection goes back to the 1948 Mark XI, a piece commissioned by the British Royal Air Force in response to a growing need for an antimagnetic watch navigators could use while airborne. Radar screens emitted strong magnetic fields – and magnetism is the great invisible disruptor of mechanical watches.
That watch was powered by Calibre 89, which was wrapped in a soft-iron inner case, using the principles of a Farraday cage. The watch also had a glass secured to offset sudden changes in pressure, and a simple black dial with legible markings. Amazingly, that watch remained in service until 1981. It’s a classic – and those same codes remain in place in the Spitfire collection.
The new line picks up where this – and its successors – left off. There are seven Spitfire references in total, three in steel and four in bronze, all with soft-iron inner cases, bar the top of the range bronze Big Pilot Perpetual Calendar Spitfire, a limited edition piece with a full calendar, down to a four-digit year indicator, and a seven-day power reserve.
A clever complication
The headline is the steel Pilot’s Watch Timezoner Spitfire Edition ‘The Longest Flight’, the second piece IWC has made with an ingenious function that means the second time zone can be adjusted simply by rotating the bezel. The watch is made to promote a round-the-world flight by a restored plane called the Silver Spitfire. IWC is sponsoring this summer’s attempt, an epic 43,000km journey with 150 legs that’s never been completed in one of the iconic planes before.
The entry into the collection is the Spitfire Automatic, a simple 39mm time-and-date piece in the same tradition as the Mark 11 and available in either steel or bronze. This is where we find the new Calibre 32110, a three-day automatic with a date that upgrades IWC’s base calibre offering, and will no doubt go on to appear in many future releases.
Both versions carry the word ‘Spitfire’ in red on the dial, a detail IWC will expect to lend the watch a premium – collectors will recognise that a simple element such as this can add long-term value to a watch.
Then there’s a classic pilot’s automatic chronograph version, the Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Spitfire, also available in steel or bronze; and finally another bronze piece with a second time zone called the UTC Spitfire Edition ‘MJ271’, named after the Silver Spitfire’s original call sign when it was in service.
No Mark XI tribute?
It’s a solid collection and the introduction of Calibre 32000 is a milestone for IWC, but some buyers may wonder why there isn’t a Mark XI tribute, or at least the next in the line of Mark watches. The answer probably lies in the release in 2017 of the Mark XVIII Edition ‘Tribute to Mark XI’. That limited edition piece was made for the watch’s 70th anniversary, and it flew off the shelves, now trading at well over retail on pre-owned websites. Some things are just best kept special.