Craftsmanship Meets Technology: A Conversation with Christoph Grainger-Herr, CEO of IWC Schaffhausen
In the new IWC Manufacturing Center, IWC Schaffhausen combines traditional craftsmanship with sophisticated technology to produce high-quality timepieces like the iconic Pilot’s Watches or the Portugieser. The building was designed by the brand’s CEO, who is a trained architect. Christoph Grainger-Herr sat down to talk to us about recent developments and future plans for IWC.
Christoph Grainger-Herr, we congratulate you and your team on the opening of the new IWC Manufacturing Center. How have the first months of operations been?
It has been an exhilarating experience. There has been an immediate shift in the working atmosphere. The IWC Manufacturing Center really ties together the character and identity of our brand with the pride that our people take in their work as watchmakers. For the first time in our industry, you see people together in an environment that reflects the brand, the craft and the individuals behind the watches. As you walk around, you sense all these things at the same time. No other place communicates so thoroughly perfectly what IWC is all about. That’s what’s so beautiful about it.
Why is this such an important milestone for IWC?
For the first time in our history, we have brought together the production of movement parts, movement assembly and case-making in one place. This enables us to configure our production processes in the best possible way to ensure that they run optimally and produce perfect quality. The entire process of creating value – from the raw material to the individual movement component and onto the finished movement, progresses in a logical order on a single floor. Like our founder Florentine Ariosto Jones in 1868, we combine craftsmanship with modern technology. We are, for example, using high-precision milling and turning centres to produce movement components within tolerances of just a few thousandths of a millimetre. The movement assembly process, on the other hand, is carried out entirely by hand using an innovative line concept that builds on the original entrepreneurial idea of our founder.
You are a trained architect and helped to design the new IWC Manufacturing Center. What requirements did you have?
The new building needed to offer optimal conditions for production and excellent working conditions for our employees. It was also important to provide visitors with a unique experience. But we didn’t just want to build a functional factory. We wanted to bring to life our vision of how a watch-manufacturing centre should look in the 21st century by designing an aesthetically pleasing building that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of our brand. This is why we invested a great deal of time and thought into how to capture the essence of IWC in architectural form for our employees and visitors.
From where did you draw inspiration for the design?
I was inspired by modernist exhibition pavilions. These pavilions allow countries to showcase their most significant artistic, technological and scientific achievements. This blend of gallery, workshop and exhibition space seemed a fitting architectural foundation on which to base the design, and the classical modernist style is an excellent match for our brand. We are a manufacturer with a 150-year history, but we are also always looking towards the future.
How can architecture foster good working conditions?
A crucial aspect is the proximity of the offices and production facilities. This means that different departments can communicate quickly and easily, and our teams can discuss quality issues and process optimisation in real time. It’s an entirely new way of working. You have an idea, then you design it on the computer, prototype it, test it, and walk over to the person working at the machine to exchange new ideas. We have already made many changes since the opening. We are constantly learning and making improvements, and that’s exactly the purpose of the new building.
2019 will be the year of the Pilot’s Watches. Can you tell us why you chose to renew this collection?
Pilot’s Watches are one of our most successful product lines. Their history goes back to the early days of aviation when pilots relied on celestial navigation to determine their position in the sky. For this, they needed accurate wristwatches that were optimised for use in a cockpit. IWC built its first aviator’s watch back in 1936. The most iconic Pilot’s Watch, however, is the Mark 11, which was engineered in Schaffhausen in 1948 to the specifications of the British Royal Air Force (RAF). This watch defined the technical functionalities for most of our modern Pilot’s Watches, including the soft-iron inner case for protecting the movement from magnetic fields. It also inspired their uncluttered design in the style of a cockpit instrument.
What novelties can we expect?
Our main focus this year will be the new Spitfire collection. The Spitfire was a British fighter aircraft that perfectly combined form and function. Its characteristic elliptical-shaped wings not only made it easy to manoeuvre but also gave it an iconic silhouette. To celebrate the visionary engineering of this iconic aircraft, all Spitfire models are fitted with IWC-manufactured calibres. Among the highlights are the two Spitfire chronographs with diametres of just 41 millimetres, featuring our in-house calibre 69 for the first time in a Pilot’s Chronograph.
IWC will be supporting the project “Silver Spitfire – The Longest Flight”. Can you tell us what this is all about?
This unique project will take a beautifully restored Spitfire aircraft on an epic journey of 43,000 kilometres around the globe this summer. This is extremely challenging because with its limited range of about 750 kilometres, the Spitfire was not built to fly around the world. The project is the brainchild of Steve Boultbee Brooks and Matt Jones, two British pilots who founded the Boultbee Flight Academy in Goodwood – the first recognised Spitfire flight school in the world. When we heard their idea, it immediately sparked our interest. We see this as a great opportunity to celebrate the engineering and design of the Spitfire, and to share it with as many countries and people as possible. The “Silver Spitfire” is an original Spitfire built in 1943. It was painstakingly restored to reveal its iconic silhouette in a never-before-seen way.
You are also launching a new Top Gun collection. What is your highlight?
It’s the Pilot’s Watch Double Chronograph Top Gun Ceratanium. As the name suggests, this watch is made of Ceratanium, a groundbreaking new material developed by IWC. It combines the lightness and robustness of titanium with the hardness and scratch-resistance of ceramic. Ceratanium is also resistant to corrosion, skin-friendly, and stands out for its jet-black colour. For the first time, it enables us to manufacture all components of the watch – including the push-buttons and the pin buckle – in a striking black finish that is much more durable than any conventional coating.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is becoming increasingly important. Why is it crucial for a watchmaker to be socially responsible?
I fundamentally believe that a luxury product, which people buy for its symbolic value and the pleasure it brings, needs to be made responsibly. This is absolutely essential. It means, among other things, that our products are entirely Swiss Made, we offer excellent working conditions and development opportunities for our employees, and we also source our raw materials responsibly and use energy as efficiently as possible. In 2018, we became the first Swiss luxury watch brand to publish a sustainability report in accordance with the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Standards. We closely measure and actively manage our progress, and we have established a clear set of targets for 2020.
How are you minimising the impact of your operations on the environment?
We became a certified carbon-neutral company many years ago. We only use Swiss hydroelectric power that is generated with zero CO2 emissions. In the new IWC Manufacturing Center, for example, we installed solar panels and draw water for cooling and heating from groundwater sources. We are reducing our energy consumption using automatic lighting control coupled with LED lights. In December 2018, we were ranked as the best-performing company in the Swiss Watch and Jewellery sector in a WWF Switzerland report examining the environmental impact of 15 brands. However, we realise that more work lies ahead, especially when it comes to transparency and documentation.
What is your vision for the traceability of a watch and its components?
My goal is to be able to document every single detail of each watch. This could be done using a blockchain-type database or any other suitable technology. Imagine if every raw material or component and its origin were recorded somewhere. If a client wanted to know where the yarn for the strap was spun, they could simply look it up. This industry should be entirely about creation, craftsmanship and positivity. Luckily, our clients value our responsible approach to production and are willing to pay a certain premium for this.
As the CEO, you have a lot on your plate. What is you most rewarding task?
Creating a new product and the entire universe around it, like the storytelling, the events and the in-store presentation. When everything comes together in the right way, and you are able to walk into a shop anywhere in the world and see the product on display and our clients enjoying it, it’s extremely rewarding. We are always delighted when clients tell us how much a particular timepiece means to them, and which stories they associate it with.
What would you say is the most challenging part of your work?
The most challenging part is keeping everything running smoothly. At the end of the day, you are trying to create a perfect product and a perfect customer experience. To be able to succeed, the components of such a complex system all need to be perfectly synchronised. Although it can be rewarding when it works, it can also be challenging – especially if you happen to be a perfectionist!
In a globalised world, is there anything like a globalised taste in luxury?
Despite globalisation, individual and local perceptions and tastes are not significantly globalised. You definitely notice that IWC is perceived differently in certain markets and that people associate our brand with different values. This is very interesting because our products only function in the context that people give them. If you take a luxury product out of its context and put it in the middle of a desert, for example, it’s going to be very hard to understand it without all the symbols that are usually attached to it. In the Western world, there is an image of IWC that is apparently more oriented towards rugged tool and sports watches like the Pilot’s Watches. In Asia, however, most markets are much more classically minded, and the demand for ladies’ watches is higher.
What are your priorities for IWC in 2019?
We will keep pushing to build awareness in key markets in Asia but also in the U.S., which is still the biggest luxury market in the world. I see tremendous potential for us going forward, and we have all the assets in place. I am here to build our brand sustainably. I want to develop IWC to create value for our shareholders, our clients and our employees. I am here for the long run, not just for a few years.
Which IWC watch would you take to an island?
That depends on the island. If it were a deserted island, I would probably take the Aquatimer Split Minute Chronograph on a rubber strap. If it were an inhabited island, I would take my Big Pilot’s Watch in stainless steel instead.
Thank you very much, Mr. Grainger. It was a real pleasure speaking with you.