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International Watch Company (I.W.C.) History

An interesting fact you may or may not know: International Watch Company (IWC) is possibly the only major Swiss watch company whose founder was an American! During the 1860s, three manufacturers dominated the American watch industry: Elgin, Howard, and Waltham. Combined, these firms produced upwards of 100,000 pocket watches. Times were changing in the industry as pocket watches went from being a status symbol that only the wealthiest individuals could afford, to an everyday item available to the middle class. As a result, production methods had to be improved; for example, most parts for watches were still being made by hand. Costs were also high because the pool of available, qualified watchmakers was relatively small. In Boston, Massachusetts, Florentine Ariosto Jones, who had worked in the American watch industry for a number of years, keenly observed the failure of Aaron Lufkin Dennison, a leader in the watch business whose efforts to move production to Switzerland to benefit from lower wages and Swiss watchmaking know-how failed miserably. Undaunted, Jones took over the failed enterprise and soon set up his own company in Switzerland. His plan was to assemble watches in Switzerland and import them into the United States, hence the name International Watch Company.

Fortuitously, Jones made the acquaintance of one Johann Heinrich Moser, a watchmaker whose hometown of Schaffhausen was conveniently located near the Rhine. Following Moser's advice, a dam was built in order to harness the mighty river and generate hydro-power to drive the machines used in manufacturing facilities throughout Schaffhausen. A watch factory was built in Schaffhausen to take advantage of the cheap hydro-power and production commenced in 1868. Despite the company's unique business plan, the enterprise was doomed from the start. For one thing, Jones had trouble selling the watches in America due to a high tariff on imported finished watches. An even worse problem: Jones was undercapitalized and encountered technical problems with the machines. By 1875, amid allegation by disgruntled stockholders that the company was on the verge of collapse, he was scrambling to find new investors. Inevitably, the company filed for bankruptcy and Jones was forced to relinquish control of his company.

A Swiss consortium acquired IWC's shares and put another American, Frederick Seeland, at its helm. Although the company's fortunes improved somewhat, it was not deemed sufficient enough. As a result, the company was put up for sale again. This time, one of IWC's stockholders, Johannes Raschenbach-Vogel, bought the company at auction for 280,000 francs. Technical achievements and increased sales soon followed with the production of the first pocket watches with digital time indication, as well as development of the famous Calibre 52 movement, which at the time was quite revolutionary in its concept and construction.

Although the company experienced significant growth, following World War I, the company's fortunes again hit rock bottom under the proprietorship of Ernst Homberger-Rauschenbach following World War II. Fortunately, a major modernization effort paid off when the advent of World War II resulted in increased military demand. It was thus during World War II that IWC created the first oversize anti-magnetic pilot's watch, followed by the famous Mark X, featuring its new in-house movement, Calibre 83. In 1944, IWC had a close call when the Allies mistakenly bombed Schaffhausen. Fortunately, the factory narrowly escaped destruction. In the aftermath of the war, International Watch Company lived up to its name and became a company of international scope. Exports to the United States increased and the brand became best known for its specialty watches, such as the Mark XI and Ingenieur as well as for its elegant dress watches. Needless to say, vintage IWCs from the 1940s and 50s are highly collectible today and in great demand, as they are somewhat under-priced compared to other high-end watch brands of that era.

Although IWC entered the quartz era with its first quartz watch in 1969, using the Beta 21 movement, the company was ultimately unable to remain under family ownership. In 1978, a majority interest in the company was sold to VDO Adolf Schindling AG. Subsequent developments include the debut of the Porsche series of sports watches, which remain in production to this day, as well as the creation of the "DaVinci" -- a perpetual calendar chronograph wristwatch that is mechanically programmed for the next 500 years. This watch caused quite a stir when first introduced and set new standards with its "user friendly" perpetual calendar. In 1993, the company again stunned the watch world when it unveiled the remarkable Il Destriero, which at the time was the most complicated wristwatch in the world. The year 2000 was no less exciting for the company, as it introduced a new advertising campaign, as well as the 5000 calibre. The automatic, an IWC exclusive, is a further development of the patented Pellaton system. The pocket watch-size movement is featured in the latest addition to the Portuguese line: an automatic with a power reserve display. It should also be noted that 1999 was the most successful year in IWC's history, with 39,000 watches sold, 115 million Swiss francs in revenue, and over 350 employees.

In closing, the company's philosophy is best summed up by IWC's current CEO, Michael Sarp, who recently stated: "We shall produce watches of the highest quality with unique technical and design characteristics and thus continue to experience the pleasures of innovation." If you should have an opportunity to examine an IWC, you will quickly realize that Mr. Sarp speaks the truth.

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