The Mechanical Establishment
New mechanical-watch entrepreneurs were crucial to the mechanical revival. But the newbies were pygmies compared to the mechanical-watch establishment, led by Patek Philippe and Rolex in Geneva. Their continued support for the mechanical, while the rest of the industry scrambled to convert to quartz, was essential to its survival.
In 1979, Philippe Stern, managing director of Patek Philippe, met with his team in a planning session for the company’s 150th anniversary, which would come in 1989. Stern made a fateful decision. In the year that ETA introduced the 1.95 mm quartz Delirium watch to show that Switzerland could compete with the Japanese in quartz technology, Stern decided that Patek Philippe’s 150th anniversary watch would be a mechanical. A very special mechanical: Stern wanted his team to make the world’s most complicated mechanical watch, surpassing the 24 complications in the Patek Philippe Graves watch of 1932, which still held the “world’s most complicated” title. His technical team got started on it in 1980.
Across town at Rolex, André Heiniger, the president of Rolex, also weighed in for mechanicals and against quartz. “André Heiniger was a true visionary. His opinion was that the originally very costly quartz watch would soon be banal,” writes Lucien Trueb in his book “Electrifying the Wristwatch” (Schiffer Publishing, 2013). “This had already happened with transistor radios, TV sets, and pocket calculators,” Trueb continues. “Top quality mechanical movements would always remain expensive and exclusive due to the large amount of highly qualified labor required for manufacturing the parts and assembling them. The inescapable fact that a mechanical device can only tell time approximately could easily be hidden by writing “Superlative Chronometer, Officially Certified (i.e., the COSC certificate) on the dial … Wealthy people don’t need an instrument that tells time: they want a beautiful and exclusive object on their wrist.”
Consequently, the mechanical remained king at Rolex, despite years of research into quartz technology that Heiniger himself had authorized in the 1970s. Rolex made quartz watches. But not many. Patrick Heiniger, André’s son and successor as president, called the amount “negligible” in a 1994 interview with me.
At the other end of the Swiss watchmaking arc, in Schaffhausen, near the border with Germany, Günter Blümlein, CEO of IWC Schaffhausen, was also sticking with the mechanical. Blumlein came in as chief in 1982. One of the first things he did was suggest that Kurt Klaus, the company’s head watchmaker, make a little change in a project he was working on. Klaus was a fan of perpetual calendars.
When the quartz crisis arrived, “there was only enough work to keep me busy four days a week,” he told me in 1996. “On the fifth day, I would tinker around with ideas and designs.” Particularly on perpetual calendars. He was working on a perpetual calendar wristwatch with an automatic movement when Blümlein joined the company. When he showed it to Blümlein, the new boss was underwhelmed. What would be impressive, Blümlein said, would be a perpetual calendar with an automatic chronograph movement. Klaus couldn’t argue, considering that no one had ever produced a perpetual calendar automatic chronograph wristwatch. Daunted, Klaus went back to his drawing board. He worked on the watch, making drawings and calendar calculations and prototypes for two years.
IWC unveiled the watch, called DaVinci (a tribute to Leonardo), at the Basel Fair in 1985, with a whopping $25,000 price tag. The watch, if kept wound, would keep track of the day, date, month, year and phase of the moon accurately and without adjustment for the next 214 years. IWC employees took bets on how many DaVincis would sell at the Basel Fair. Many figured 10 to 15, given its price and the weak market for mechanicals. The most optimistic was 30. But IWC took orders for more than 100. The DaVinci convinced Blümlein that the tide was turning, that the classical mechanical watch would not drown in the flood of cheap quartz watches after all. Buoyed by its success, IWC decided to storm the horological Mount Everest. The company assembled a team to go where no watch producer had ever gone before: create a Grand Complication watch for the wrist.