In keeping with its usual practice of devoting each year to refreshing a particular product line, IWC brought out a totally redesigned Da Vinci family at this year’s SIHH. Of all the IWC families, Da Vinci may be the hardest sell – unlike the brand’s technical and aviation themed watches, Da Vinci is, and historically has always been (with one exception), a way of showing off IWC as a complications specialist. Stylistically, the Da Vinci family has much more to do with wristwatch design idioms that considerably pre-date the pioneering steel tool watches that became so popular after the end of World War II, and they also stand very much apart stylistically from every other IWC family.
Those differences are not so much polarizing as they simply are more specific, in terms of to whom they are going to appeal. However, I think the Da Vinci family comes by its individuality honestly. For one thing, the designs have importance and value in terms of what they represent about design history at IWC as a whole. For another, they have a strong connection to IWC’s decades-long, avowed philosophy of exploring what it means to make "a pocket watch for the wrist."
The Origins Of The IWC Da Vinci Family, And Complicated Watchmaking At IWC
The very first Da Vinci watch from IWC was from 1969-70 and that model doesn’t have a whole lot to do with what the Da Vinci line has become. The original Da Vinci was a quartz watch, made to show off the then-revolutionary Beta 21 quartz movement, and the lozenge-shaped case certainly made it stand out from the crowd. The quartz Da Vinci evolved, as quartz technology did, becoming thinner and more elegant – the one you see above is a Da Vinci SL quartz wristwatch from 1977 – but it wasn’t a platform for high complications until some years later.
Jump forward to 1985, and Da Vinci has become a whole ‘nother animal. Although the name Da Vinci was used for the first time for an IWC watch right at the beginning of the Quartz Crisis, the models that used the name next in the 1980s were so different as to basically constitute a re-boot of the entire Da Vinci line. The rather mod, very 1970s lozenge shaped case is gone and instead we have something that stylistically could easily have been made in the period, say, 1925-1935 and which, in terms of mechanics and complexity, is connected to not just the tradition of high complication wristwatches, but complicated pocket watches as well.
It’s difficult now to appreciate just how revolutionary the 1985 Da Vinci was. This was a perpetual calendar chronograph, with a module designed by IWC’s Kurt Klaus, built on a Valjoux 7750 chronograph base. However, the Valjoux movement was just a starting point. The perpetual calendar mechanism was the first ever made in which all the calendar indications, including the moonphase, were coordinated via the crown, so that in order to set the watch you only had to pull out the crown and advance the day indication – the day, month, leap year, and year indications, along with the moon, would all advance together. The only gotcha was that you couldn’t set the calendar backwards, but it was still an unprecedented technical achievement, and in the mid-1980s, when complicated watchmaking was probably at its lowest ebb in the entire 20th century, it was a very powerful statement from IWC not only about its own capacities as a complications specialist – which, historically, had not been its specialization – but also a statement of faith and belief in the future of mechanical horology as a whole.
Stylistically? The barrel lugs, stepped bezel, mushroom shaped pushers, and general vibe were all designed in a way that vehemently recalls what, even in 1985, was already an extremely conservative and anachronistic style of watchmaking. However, this very much fit with the intentions of the watch and the renewed Da Vinci family – the conservative cosmetics were, like the mechanics, an avowal of faith in both the past and future of mechanical horology.
I wasn’t yet interested in watches when the first run of mechanical Da Vincis came out in 1985, but ten years later, I’d gotten bitten by the bug and by the time I started reading about IWC, the Da Vinci Perpetual Chronograph and Kurt Klaus had become, respectively, legendary and celebrated in the watch enthusiast community. Complicated watchmaking at IWC in the late 20th and early 21st centuries had been legitimized by Klaus, and by the Da Vinci Perpetual Chrono, almost single handedly. I said earlier that complicated watchmaking had never been a particular specialty of IWC, but it is true that IWC had produced very complicated watches in the past – however, these were rare one-offs (though it’s worth mentioning that there were both perpetual calendar and minute repeating complications in IWC pocket watches in the late 19th century.)
The Secret History: A Complicated IWC Wristwatch From 1982
Although the IWC Da Vinci of 1985 was a major milestone, it wasn’t the first complicated mechanical watch from IWC. In 1982, the firm released a watch never shown in any catalog: the reference 3710 full calendar, chronograph, and moonphase. Read IWC historian David Seyffer’s article right here, at IWC.com.
The watch that really brought home the point that IWC was now a contender amongst complications specialists, is the one above: the first IWC Grande Complication wristwatch, reference 3770. The one above is a very rare platinum model on matching platinum bracelet (reference 927016, which I think the market still undervalues. If you can find one at auction it’s one of the most interesting ways to get into a platinum-cased minute repeater, perpetual calendar with four-digit year indication, rattrapante chronograph that I can think of). The Grande Complication came out in 1990, and three years later, IWC debuted the watch known as "Il Destriero Scafusia" (roughly, "The Warhorse Of Schaffhausen") which added a flying tourbillon. Il Destriero Scafusia was also based on a Valjoux 7750, but one so heavily modified its own mother wouldn’t have recognized it.
The Grande Comps and Il Destriero Scafusia weren’t part of the Da Vinci line per se, but they were very much in the same spirit: statement pieces, both for IWC and for anyone wearing them. At the time, they weren’t considered an affordable way to get into grande complication wristwatches (is there such a thing?) but rather, an alternative to the very small group of other possible candidates for making one – which, it bears emphasizing, included at the time just a handful of makers, including Jaeger-LeCoultre, Audemars Piguet, and Patek. They were technically distinctive in a way that appealed strongly to connoisseurs and as much as anything else, really put IWC on the map in a way it had never been before.
Stylistically, they were also allied to the Da Vinci family – extremely traditional, rather more Baroque than not; which gave both them and the Da Vincis an extremely aristocratic air, and which was a major departure from the very restrained, even utilitarian flavor of virtually all other IWC watches from the second half of the 20th century.
The New Da Vinci Perpetual Chronograph (And Its New Siblings Too)
The reason for all the palaver about the roots of Da Vinci in IWC’s aspirations to become a complications manufacture in the 1980s and ’90s is because it has a lot to do (this is A Week On The Wrist, after all) with how I felt about the new Da Vinci Perpetual Chronographs when I first saw them earlier this year. I have to be honest, I understand why IWC made some modifications to the original design but I would have been perfectly happy to see those barrel lugs and mushroom pushers again – the Baroque is not an idiom that sells a ton of watches nowadays but I have an irresistible nostalgia for the original Da Vincis, and to see a return to the round case, onion-ish crown, stepped bezel, and overall aristocratic flavor sat very well with me; I thought it was a great way to connect the dots to IWC’s past as a complications maker and to the history of the Da Vinci line.
The other thing I was very happy to see was the four-digit year indication – IWC had gotten out of the habit of using it in recent years and it’s great to see it front and center again. It was a signature element of the original Da Vinci Perpetual Chronograph back in 1985, and a visual signature for the inventiveness of Kurt Klaus as well. Getting back in a round, slightly Baroque, rather formal Da Vinci case is pretty exciting, especially for those of us who’ve been following the evolution of complicated watchmaking at IWC for a couple of decades.
It’s a fairly large watch – 43mm x 15.5mm, which is a hair larger than the the Portuguiser Automatic (42.3 mm x 14.5 mm; for a fairly ubiquitous standard for comparison, the Seiko Diver SKX 007 is 42.5mm x 13.25). Despite the diameter, it doesn’t come across as a gratuitously large watch. As is the case with many perpetual calendars there is a lot of information being displayed, with the calendar indications sharing dial space with the chronograph sub-registers, so the available real estate is being put to good use and you actually end up having a more legible than usual perpetual chrono.
This particular, somewhat maximalist approach to complicated watchmaking is a bit in contrast to some of the leaner ways of implementing a perpetual calendar and it’s certainly not the only way to do things – the Patek Philippe 5270 perpetual calendar chronograph, for instance, has windows for the day of the week and the month, up at 12 o’clock; the moonphase and date share a sub-dial at six o’clock; two additional sub-dials show the running seconds and the chronograph 30-minute counter.
At 41mm, it’s worth pointing out, the 5270 is not dramatically smaller than the Da Vinci, although it’s also true that Patek’s first perpetual chronograph ever – reference 1518 – is just 35mm in diameter. On the Da Vinci’s side, it does include both a minutes and hour register (in the sub-dial at 12 o’clock) so it’s delivering a bit of extra data. Still, though, for the Da Vinci, I think the desire to make a watch that not only looks complicated, but also does so in a very old fashioned way, has given us a watch that has a bit more of a connection with the pocket watch tradition of complicated watchmaking, than the wristwatch tradition.
The movement is IWC’s in-house caliber 89630; it’s self-winding, with a 68-hour power reserve, a moonphase accurate to one day’s error every 577.5 years (a conventional moonphase complication accumulates a full day’s error in two years, seven-and-a-half months, although much higher precision moonphase complications – one day in 144 years, or better – have become more or less de rigeur in high-end watchmaking).
IWC’s in-house caliber 89630 looks handsome through the caseback; it doesn’t give an impression of bleeding edge, obsessive craft as much as it does of a carefully constructed, more overbuilt-than-not, piece of precision machinery, which is to say, it fits the pocket watch-ish feel of the watch overall quite well. Of course you get the Kurt Klaus mechanism for the perpetual calendar; you also get a 68 hour power reserve, and flyback chronograph. Chronograph operation is crisp and clean, with just a little bit of a push to get through the detent, but in handling in general, the Da Vinci Perpetual Chrono gives the same impression it does visually – a sort of heirloom-quality sobriety.
I found myself adjusting to the Da Vinci Perpetual Chronograph quite quickly; the articulated lugs go a long way towards muting the effect of its large and thick case, and in steel, it’s easy to wear all day (this from a guy whose daily wear watch is usually under 40mm, sometimes by a lot).
I did think, while I was wearing it, quite a lot about the fact that the design is somewhat narrow in its appeal, despite the careful updates IWC has given to the original design from 1985. I don’t mind any of the changes; objectively, they make sense in terms of bringing the Da Vinci at least a bit into the 21st century, and the design of the new Da Vinci Perpetual Chronograph still has enough in common with the 1985 versions that you feel a sense of connection to the past right away.
There’s no denying that a lot of the reason I like the new piece so much, really does have to do with how much it reminds me of the original – and it’s not just a question of the fact that understanding history and context makes the design more appealing. I’d be lying if I didn’t say there isn’t a pretty good helping of pleasant nostalgia mixed in there as well. Then, too, I think that when you spend a lot of time in a particular realm as an enthusiast – whether it’s furniture design, or wine, or watches, or what have you – you can easily start to develop somewhat contrarian tastes and you can find yourself gravitating towards things just because you know a lot of people find them eccentric or weird.
The IWC Perpetual Calendar Chronograph, though, isn’t a contrarian choice (at least, it doesn’t feel that way to me, not even after some introspection). What makes it appealing is what made the very first Da Vinci Perpetual Chronograph so interesting back in 1985 – it’s technically distinctive (the more so now, with the use of an in-house movement vs. the 7750 base in the model from the 80s) and its combination of slightly aristocratic and extremely traditional aesthetics, combined with the overbuilt and slightly massive feel of the movement, give it an elegant instrumentality. As cornball as it may sound, it feels, on the wrist, like a real gentleman’s wristwatch – a watch of substance, serenity, and quietly self-sufficient style.
As shown, the IWC Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Chronograph Ref. IW392101 in steel is 43mm x 15.5mm; 3 bar water resistance. Movement, IWC caliber 89630, self winding, with 68 hour power reserve; perpetual calendar with four-digit display of the year; chronograph with flyback function and hours/minutes combined in the sub-register at 12:00. Free sprung adjustable mass balance. Price, $29,900. See it online at iwc.com.