How Does IWC Continue To Make Relevant Pilot’s Watches?

How Does IWC Continue To Make Relevant Pilot’s Watches?

We sit down with Christian Knoop, Creative Director of IWC Schaffhausen, to find out.

By Josh Shanks

Ahead of Watches & Wonders 2021, Watchonista had the opportunity to travel (virtually) to IWC’s new broadcast studio in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. And while we can’t reveal all of what we saw, one key takeaway was that the brand is as relevant as ever within the pilot's watch category. Due, in no small part, to the leadership of CEO Christoph Grainger-Herr and Christian Knoop, IWC’s Creative Director.

As Watchonista has previously discovered, these two men have a vision and strategy for the brand that positions IWC in the marketplace for not just the next 18 months but also true staying power, a rare thing in today's world of influencer and viral marketing.

Last week, I spoke to Christian Knoop to learn how the brand manages to stay so relevant in a world plagued with short attention spans.

Transparency At All Levels

Today, brand executives and CEOs have never been more visible. From Zoom sessions to Instagram Live, if you’re not in the moment talking to your collectors, press, and potential buyers, then you’re most likely on the sidelines.

For IWC, its community approach stands out because its youthful executive team has an open-door policy that extends not only to their employees but to the watch community at large. Every week, you can find the IWC team in their "What Makes Us Tick" Clubhouse room, as well as personal interactions across its individual social media channels.

It might sound a bit strange, but as a collector, I would feel more than confident voicing my opinion to IWC's executives without fear.

The IWC of 2021 not only has its finger on the pulse of the market but wants to know its collectors’ and fans’ opinions of its products – be they good, bad, or ugly. That is a rare quality for a watch brand.

During our interview, Knoop added, “Over recent years, we want to bring forward what we stand for in the watch industry. And that is this amazing engineering heritage and a very technical and very pure approach to aesthetics.

“We will leave everything aside that doesn't fit in that image and what also doesn't help us to have a clear identity in a luxury watch market that is too crowded. So, the only chance we have as a brand is to have a clear profile, to have a clear identity, to stand out, and to be recognizable.”

Youthful Designs At A Variety Of Price Points

From sub-$5,000 timepieces like the Automatic Pilot's and Portofino to heavy-hitting perpetual calendar chronographs, IWC is a brand with range. It is also a brand that is making investments in attracting a younger clientele.

As Knoops said in our interview, “What we have seen over the recent years is that our customers are getting younger and younger. Especially looking at the Asian markets but also globally. And we've also seen an evolution in [IWC’s] portfolios. There was a strong vintage trend [previously]. And now contemporary watches, sports watches are getting more and more popular. This means, for us, that we want to cater to that market development with a contemporary sports watch.”

Unique Pilot’s

Continuing, Knoop added, “When you look at the landscape of watch manufactures, we are not the only one doing pilot's watches. Many other brands share an amazing history of pilot's watches as we do. But next to the fact that we were pioneers introducing this archetype to the luxury industry, we also have a collection like no one else.

“This is what our Pilot's Watch lends itself to because of its pure design and timeless aesthetics. And we are very much taking this into a very contemporary, very modern, creative, urban context. And we’ve adjusted our entire brand communication to that."

In talking with Knoop, if you were to point towards one specific catalyst for IWC’s resurgence in the world of pilot’s watches, it would have to be at Günter Blümlein, the man who oversaw IWC’s shift towards the luxury Pilot’s Watches in the 1990s.

Knoop added, “Blümlein was very visionary to introduce an aesthetic that came from the military in the context of luxury watches. Like the reference 3705, which played a role in that, also the Doppelchrono [ref. 3711] and the metal bracelet which also got introduced back then."

Fitting Tributes

As you may have seen, IWC’s latest Pilot's Watch Chronograph Edition “Tribute to 3705” is a fitting salute to one of the brand’s most underappreciated timepieces. It also presents a case study in modern watch design by honoring the past but integrating the future. For Knoop, the 3705 came on his radar quite naturally, “I must say that I had already looked at the initial 3705 for a long time because, for me, this was a watch that contains two distinct elements in the design history of the brand. [First,] it has been part of the very first Pilot's Watches that mark IWC's move to the design archetype of a pilot's watch.

“Second, this watch also probably started the whole trend of all-black watches. So, this was a piece I always looked at as a designer with a special eye, and thought, okay, this was a milestone in our brand's history.”  

For Knoop and his team, it was essential to not merely copy the original 3705 but to offer IWC's collectors something truly unique and modern. “We all agreed that we don't want to launch a facsimile. We don't want to do a one-to-one copy of what we did in the past,” said Knoop. “I think we are a forward-thinking brand, so whatever we do needs to have a modern edge and display a kind of contemporary interpretation of our brand's past and not just copy something we've done. And I think this is what the tribute piece does beautifully.”

By using the brand’s latest in-house movements and advanced materials like Ceratanium, IWC has thoughtfully updated the Tribute to the 3705 for modern collectors.

“We took it to the next level, still honoring the historical piece but not copying it,” added Knoop

Relevant Pilots

So, how does a brand continue to stay so relevant in a category in which it has been active almost since the start?

Knoop told Watchonista, “We have watches that range from the super-pure, technical, tactical aesthetics of a TOP GUN – super sharp and clean – to the more poetic like the "Antoine de Saint Exupéry." There is no other brand on the market that has such a collection of pilot's watches.

“And by strengthening the classics and by adding modern materials, new inventions, and even colored ceramics, we have a product that we believe speaks to modern customers.”

It’s In Their Blood

Finally, when asked about his influences, Knoop told me, “When I was a kid, before the idea of becoming a designer, I wanted to be an astronaut or a pilot. So, this fascination for flying and planes was fundamental in my childhood. I was building all these crazy model planes, fighter jets, and crazy stealth jets. So, there was this fascination for aviation, which still exists today.”

(Photography by Watchonista)

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