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Time and Again

For European watchmakers IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre and A. Lange & Söhne, success has been all in good
Edward Kiersh
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, Jan/Feb 00

When tourists flock to the massive waterfalls known as the Rheinfall in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, they gape in wonder at the surging waters and pose for Kodak moments.  

Yet, when American watchmaker Florentine Ariosto Jones visited this picturesque town in 1868, he viewed the Rhine's powerful waters as a solution to a perplexing problem.  

Dreaming of challenging the domination of Geneva watchmakers--a goal that still occupies the attention of Jones's successors--the 27-year-old Yankee had traveled the world looking for a cheap energy source to fuel a state-of-the-art watch factory. He finally met the owner of a Schaffhausen hydroelectric power plant who provided the necessary energy for his machine tools that helped Jones launch the International Watch Co. in the north-central Swiss burg.  

IWC was quickly praised for producing elegant pocket watches. Though highly sought by collectors, these watches still couldn'tcompete with American-made timepieces in the 1870s. Close to bankruptcy, Jones sold his interest in the company in 1876 to Schaffhausen Commercial Bank, and another American, Frederic Frank Seeland, took over as director and general manager. Four years later, Johannes Rauschenbach-Vogel, a member of the board of directors and a Schaffhausen industrialist, acquired the factory, but it wasn't until his son, Johannes Rauschenbach-Schenk, succeeded him upon his death in 1881 that the company became prosperous again. For the next 100 years the firm's name, ownership and financial prospects changed frequently.  

Despite its volatile existence, IWC pioneered increasingly complex movements and became synonymous with the factory stamp "Probus Scafusia," or quality workmanship, from Schaffhausen. Many European heads of state swore by IWC timepieces. Winston Churchill was presented with a gold IWC hunter, a pocket watch, by eight Swiss doctors for his role as the "liberator of Europe" in 1944, and when Sir Edmund Hillary made his successful assault on Everest in 1953, he wore the Ingenieur, the first IWC watch to feature patented automatic winding.  

Today, IWC is part of a powerful triad. Controlled by financial heavyweight LMH, a German holding company that also owns renowned watchmakers Jaeger-LeCoultre and A. Lange & Söhne, IWC is breaking out of its small, elitist niche among watch connoisseurs and becoming the stylish choice for the likes of everyone from Michael Jordan to Giorgio Armani.  

In the highly competitive watch business, in which Geneva-based companies are able to fund the development of new products each year, the often struggling IWC was unable to compete with the Geneva titans before the LMH ties were secured in 1991. Now financially strong and mounting a massive challenge to Geneva's supremacy, IWC has styled numerous complex masterpieces that it feels will finally fulfill Jones's dream of reaching watchmaking's pinnacle.  

"Since we're outsiders from the German part of Switzerland, we're working feverishly to prove our products are equal to Geneva's," says IWC president and cigar-smoking chief executive officer Michael Sarp. "We must convince retailers our products have spirit, a technological edge.  

"The similarity between cigars, wine and watches is the passion of the people who make them, and that gusto, or culture of flawless craftsmanship, is guiding our new production [30,000 timepieces are made annually]. So, instead of short-term designs, fashion-type items, we're only going to do high-quality, hand-crafted pieces worthy of collecting."  

Priced at a whopping $350,000 and touted as the most complex mechanical wristwatch ever made, the Il Destriero Scafusia is already legendary. Named after valiant steeds used by jousting knights in the Middle Ages, this museum-worthy limited edition celebrates IWC's 125th anniversary (only 125 pieces were slated to be made when production began in 1993). Each watch squeezes 750 mechanical parts into a 35.4-millimeter-long movement, runs on 77 jewels to reduce wear to a minimum, and features 21 displays and functions.  


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