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Legendary IWC watchmaker Kurt Klaus might be 83, but he’s a millennial at heart

In town for the brand's 150th-anniversary celebrations, the horological icon talks to us about embracing new technologies and the importance of commercially minded design.

#YOLO, a popular acronym that stands for “you only live once”, is a common buzzword among the younger set, but it might also well be the life philosophy of Kurt Klaus, 83-year-old IWC master watchmaker and roving ambassador. At an age when many would be content with a leisurely retirement, he travels the world spreading the word about the brand that has employed him for six decades. Having last visited Singapore 11 years ago, the Swiss horological legend was recently in town to grace IWC’s 150th-anniversary celebrations.

Sitting down with us for a drink and a chat on a sunny afternoon, it was clear that his passion for mechanical watchmaking burns brightly even after all these years. He first joined IWC as a watchmaker in 1957, a time, Klaus noted, when the brand specialised in simple but very accurate watches. Among his many contributions, he is best known for inventing IWC’s perpetual calendar module in 1985, a high complication that helped to elevate the brand’s offerings and give it an edge during an era when quartz watches were eclipsing their mechanical siblings.

But don’t let Klaus’ high horological repute and properly suited self fool you – he might be famous for creating one of watchmaking’s most complex complications using just “my brain and my pencil”, but he is no stodgy traditionalist. While he believes in time-honoured watchmaking handcraft, he is also a clear-sighted realist with a fondness for new technologies and an eye on the future (and in certain respects, the tastes of a millennial – for instance, the grey suit he was sporting when we met is from popular Dutch company Suitsupply, and beauty products from hip Aussie skincare brand Aesop were among the gifts he planned to bring home to his wife). Here, more from our conversation:

 

1: It’s IWC’s 150th anniversary year, and you’ve been working for the brand for an amazing six decades. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen over the years?

First, I would like to tell you what hasn’t changed. This is the watchmaking – the watchmaker’s handcraft. When I am at the manufacture today, I see watchmakers assembling movements, and it’s exactly like what I was doing 60 years ago. Of course, today they have better tools for comfort. For the bigger movements, such as pocket watch movements, for example, they can use electric screwdrivers. It goes “vrr, vrr!”, and the screw is in. But for the wheels and levers, it’s not just about setting them, it is also about adjusting them. Everything has to be adjusted and checked by qualified watchmakers. This hasn’t changed.

2: We are now in an age of computer-aided design and CNC machines. What was it like working on complex mechanisms like the Da Vinci perpetual calendar (ref. 3750) in the 1980s?

When I created the perpetual calendar for the Da Vinci, I didn’t really know what a computer was. I did my drawings by hand on the drawing board; I did my calculations using a thick book with logarithmic tables, which was very precise, but not easy to use. This was my computer.

Three years after the launch of the Da Vinci, I heard that there was something new: CAD – computer-assisted design. I was looking around to find out, what is this, and I decided, I must have it. (Laughs.) In 1988, I got my first computer. From that time on, I never did drawings on the drawing board again. I designed everything on the computer. It was a very good and comfortable tool, but it was just a tool. Not everybody was able to adapt to working on the computer. But I liked it, I wanted to work with it. I worked on new developments on the computer. It was a very big machine then. Today I can do everything on the laptop, and it’s even more powerful.

3: How did you come to develop the Da Vinci perpetual calendar?

In those days, IWC never produced complicated watches – only simple, time-only watches. The advantage of IWC watches then was very high accuracy. But then quartz watches arrived. If you compare an accuracy of 3 or 4 seconds a day to the accuracy of a quartz watch, it’s nothing. So, it was a difficult time for mechanical watches.

I started making some interesting things. Around this time, pocket watches were the trend, so I made some additional mechanisms for pocket watch movements – like a calendar with a date and moonphase indicator. It was a difficult time, but the management said they would do an experiment: They would make this pocket watch with a moonphase, and present it at the Basel watch fair (in 1976) to see if it sold or not. It sold out in two days. And then I had to work for a year to assemble and finish all the 100 pieces. (Laughs.)

This success gave us motivation to continue. I continued with a few interesting products, for instance a zodiac watch indicating the 12 zodiacs around the world. But one day, our sales director (Hannes Pantli) said, “I can no longer sell pocket watches. People want wristwatches. Now, do the same thing, but in a wristwatch.” And I knew it had to be a perpetual calendar. It had to be something really special for the customer. From when I first had the idea to the launch, I worked on it for five years.

The Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar (ref. 3750) from 1985, which was then a brand-new timepiece featuring the perpetual calendar chronograph movement designed by Kurt Klaus.

4: What set your perpetual calendar apart from others at that time?

I wanted to make something completely different. It should be a product that was easy to use. If you go on holiday and leave it alone for a while, a watch will stop. (For many perpetual calendars then,) adjusting it to the correct date was very complicated. I wanted to make something that was easily adjustable, and could be adjusted by the crown. This was a very big advantage for IWC to sell. The clients said, “Oh yes, this is very easy to use.”

Another important thing was that I tried to create a mechanism that could be made in serial production – not haute horlogerie – so we could produce more of it. Two years after the launch, we produced 2,000 perpetual calendars in one year. This was more than all (the other companies in) the watch industry were making. This was the moment IWC entered a new era. IWC was then already different – a good, high-precision watch manufacture. But at that moment, IWC went to the top of the watch industry, where it remains today.

5: Why was serial production important to you?

(Thoughtful pause) I never was one of these independent watchmakers, who work alone to make wonderful things. Before I started on the perpetual calendar, I had been working for over 30 years at IWC creating new products, focusing not on complications but on quality. So I had always thought in an industrial way, and of course, I wanted the perpetual calendar to be a success. To make a perpetual calendar so that everybody would say, “It’s good” – that would have been nice, but much, much better would be to sell thousands of them, and to get for IWC, at the end of it all, great business.

 

A 1983 drawing of the perpetual calendar mechanism by Kurt Klaus.

6: Let’s talk about the 150th anniversary collection. You have mentioned that your favourite piece is the Tribute to Pallweber pocket watch.

That’s right. I have a special relation to the Pallweber digital watch. Sixty years ago, I was working in the repair department of IWC, and I repaired a few Pallweber watches. It was difficult, but I loved it because it was so interesting – when I finished repairing it, the (hour and minute) discs would start jumping again.

A few years ago, I worked with a young engineering team for ten years. We would work in small groups to develop new products. It was very interesting and we had a good time together. The young people accepted this old man (smiles), because they saw my experience. And I accepted the new technologies they brought from engineering school. This was a good time, but after 10 years, I said, “Enough. You are now independent. You don’t need me anymore.” I am very happy to see that they have continued working in the same way that I have trained them.

So, for the new Tribute to Pallweber pocket watch, I was not at all involved in its development. The young people did it – I just followed and looked around. They have made a wonderful movement – a completely different idea. The mechanism is completely different from Pallweber’s in the 1880s, but the result is the same, with the minutes and hour discs jumping and clicking.

IWC Tribute to Pallweber pocket watch

IWC Tribute to Pallweber Edition “150 Years” pocket watch, one of the highlights of IWC’s 150th-anniversary Jubilee collection.

7: What do you think of innovations like silicon components?

I was never involved in developments such as silicon, which you now hear about everywhere. But of course, now the young team has to think about it, and they do. More importantly for IWC, when we talk about new materials, it’s ceramic. IWC made the first ceramic watch case for a Da Vinci in 1987, and until today we use ceramic in different ways. When we made the first Da Vinci ceramic case (Ed’s note: It features a specially hardened ceramic that is more shatterproof than other high-tech ceramics), we tested it by throwing it out of the window onto the street, and it did not break.

For several years now, we have been using ceramic for parts of movements. For example, the Pellaton winding system. The lever has two clicks (or pawls) that move. After a very long time, these clicks will be (subject to wear and tear). But now, we have changed the two clicks from copper beryllium to ceramic. They will never wear out. We now also make the (winding) wheel in ceramic. The use of new materials is very important for IWC. Our young engineers are always thinking and working in the background – if they see something that offers a real advantage, they will use it.

8: What do you think young watch customers are looking for today?

Just this week (in Singapore), I was surprised by a very young man who bought a Portugieser Perpetual Calendar. Sixty years ago, these quality mechanical watches were something for older people. Young people didn’t buy them. But today I see more and more young people who are interested. They are able, and willing, to spend money to get something very interesting. I see this more and more, and I find it surprising.

They’re also more interested in technical details. They ask questions like, “How does it work?” “How is it possible that a perpetual calendar can automatically know that it’s a leap year every four years?” So, sometimes I have to explain in detail how it works.

9: Where is home for you?

I live in Schaffhausen, a little bit outside the city. It takes me 20 minutes to walk to IWC.

10: I’ve read that in the 1950s, you applied for a job at IWC because your then girlfriend wanted the both of you to live in the German-speaking part of Switzerland.

(Laughs.) I was working at Eterna in Grenchen then. We were very young, and we talked about being married and she thought it was a good idea. But she had been born in the same city (St Gallen in eastern Switzerland) as me, and she said, “Good idea, but please, not here (in Grenchen).” I was happy to hear this, because I also wanted to go back to the eastern, German-speaking part of Switzerland. So I decided to work for IWC.

11: And of course, you have been happily married ever since. Will you be bringing her anything special from Singapore?

On Sunday, I had a few free hours, so I went to the Thai festival at the garden of the Thai embassy. I bought some Thai products, some dried fruits – papaya, mango. She likes these a lot. We can buy them in Schaffhausen, but it’s not the same. And I bought her some beauty products – there are some products she likes (from Aesop).

  • Kurt Klaus
    Kurt Klaus on the day of our interview at the Four Seasons Hotel.

12: I understand that both you and your wife are big lovers of greyhounds…

For 40 years, we had whippets – they are a small kind of greyhound. At one point, we had four at the same time. We trained them to race. During the time I developed the Da Vinci, (spending time with my dogs) was a big help: I would walk the dogs over the fields and in the forests, and I would think about a problem I had. And sometimes in those moments, I would find the solution.

Four years ago, the last whippet grew older and older, and he passed away. And there was the question of what we should do: Continue racing? No. We are now over 80 years old, and we need a lovely dog for older people. And we got it. (Shows us his mobile phone, which has a wallpaper image of a large black and white dog.) It’s a King poodle. He’s called Janoush. He’s so lovely and so easy to have. From home, when I go out with him, I have to cross two streets, and then I can leave him to run free; he runs around and always comes back to me. He is four years old, and he’s a good friend to all other dogs.

13: What is your best memory of working at IWC?

After the Da Vinci was a success, I continued working and nobody talked about me, I was simply an employee of IWC. Twenty years after the launch of the Da Vinci, the then new CEO Georges Kern said, “We should have a new edition of the Da Vinci.” The designers created the tonneau-shaped Da Vinci, but the calendar didn’t fit into the case. So we used the original movement and set it in this case. Georges Kern said, it should be a limited edition in tribute to Kurt Klaus. I would have my signature on the dial and he wanted to engrave my face on the back of the watch. At first, I said, no, no.

But I saw later that it was a good (thing) for sales, and all the editions were sold out. This was the moment I was not only respected as an employee, but as an inventor. There was a big event at SIHH in Geneva when we launched the new rectangular Da Vinci, and all the press came to me. This was the moment when I saw that the perpetual calendar I had created was really something special – 20 years after I had first created it.

14: At 83, do you ever get tired of travelling around to spread the word on IWC?

Not yet!

  • Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Edition Kurt Klaus in red gold, launched in 2007.

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