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Interview: IWC CEO, Christoph Grainger-Herr on redefining the ‘Pilot’s Watch’ for 2021

Mr. Christoph Grainger-Herr, CEO of IWC Schaffhausen gives us an exclusive tour of the brand’s new novelties presented at Watches & Wonders 2021.

Another year of W&W, another great line-up by IWC Schaffhausen.

Over the last century and a half (or at least its latter years), IWC has built a reputation of manufacturing military-grade, professional timepieces as Swiss luxury novelties. It’s safe to say that the term ‘Pilot Watch’ is almost synonymous with the brand’s name itself. Their signature aesthetic of vintage aviation has always stood out in the watch market and it’s astonishing how, every year, IWC reinvents these heritage pieces with a bold, contemporary twist. This year is no different.

More so, aviation junkies were in for a real treat this year. Under the spotlight for 2021, was the Big Pilot’s Watch and the Pilot’s Watch – Two most definitive lines for the brand. With such a rich history in crafting aviation wristwear, engineering and innovation has always been at the heart of IWC. This year, it’s more prominent than ever. From shock-absorbing cases for their movements to quick-change systems for their straps, IWC showed us their vision of reinventing heritage pilot watches to become future icons. Christoph Grainger-Herr, CEO of IWC gives us an in-depth view into this and the new novelties for 2021.

Interview: Christoph Grainger-Herr, CEO of IWC talks 2021 novelties

In your opinion, which model was the true star of IWC’s 2021 collection?

This year IWC had not one but two guiding stars: The new Big Pilot’s Watch 43 and he Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41. As a first in the Big Pilot history, we’re introducing a new case diameter of 43-millimetres. It combines a bold presence on the wrist with outstanding ergonomics and wearability. On the other hand, with the Pilot’s Watch, we introduced a 41-millimeter chronograph which is also part of our classic collection. Both these new models feature our newly developed EasX-CHANGE system, allowing them to adapt to various settings and indulgences.

iwc big pilot

IWC celebrates 85 years of the Pilot’s Watch this year, tell us about its significance in the brand’s journey so far and how the icon has evolved through the decades.

If we look through IWC’s archives, Pilot’s Watches have been a very definitive line for the brand. In the early days of aviation, a precise wristwatch was a mission-critical cockpit accessory. It helped pilots keep track of engine hours and flight time, or to perform celestial navigation in combination with a sextant.

During the 1940s, IWC manufactured an array of mil-spec service watches that were designed for observation and navigation. We have carried this rich aviation history and heritage till date and its highly prominent in our modern Big Pilot’s Watches as well. While today’s Pilot’s Watches are mostly appreciated for being robust sports watches, they still have that emotional aspect and bring the dream of flight to the wrist.

iwc mojave desert

Tell us about how the Mojave Desert edition found its place in IWC’s family and what’s new about it in 2021?

The Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Top Gun Edition “Mojave Desert” in 2019 was perhaps the first commercial IWC watch that took direct inspiration from our ties with the U.S Navy squadrons. As part of IWC’s military program, we collaborated with professional pilots from various squadrons in understanding the effects of pressure drops or impacts around the cockpit.

In terms of its aesthetics, it features a very unique sand-coloured ceramic case which was inspired by the actual flight equipment that U.S. Naval aviators wear while training in the intricate canyon systems at China Lake in the Mojave Desert. For this year, we refreshed the “Mojave Desert” line with two new models: First, the Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar and second, a Big Pilot’s Watch. Both novelties feature a sand-coloured finish and sub-duel dial graphics. We’ve also improved the rubber straps making them more robust with textile inlays. On its titanium caseback, you’ll find the iconic TOP GUN logo as an engraving.

What led to the decision of introducing replaceable or click-switch straps in this year’s collection?

In today’s modern watchmaking world, pilot’s watches are often perceived as sports watches but with an aviation-inspired aesthetic. For customers who are looking to invest in such sports watches, they demand versatility. They want to wear that timepiece on occasions both, formal and casual. It must be a piece that suits an office cabin as well as poolside sundowner. Which is why we introduced the EasX-CHANGE quick-change systems, which gives our customers the freedom to experiment with various straps, all expressing a different aesthetic and personality.

At IWC, this new technology results from a long development process that faced many technical difficulties to engineer. We wanted its design and mechanism to be completely easy and safe to use. This quick switch mechanism allows you to change from a calfskin strap to a rubber strap or a stainless-steel bracelet at the touch of a button, without additional tools, sparing you a trip to the boutique. We integrated the EasX-CHANGE system with the new Big Pilot’s Watch 43 and the Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41. It’s very likely that you will soon see it on other references, too.

iwc big pilot

IWC’s new  Shock Absorber XPL was certainly an interesting concept this year, tell us about that.

I think the main innovation in this year’s collection is the Big Pilot’s Watch Shock Absorber XPL. It’s the brand’s first watch that features a shock absorber system. The SPRIN-g PROJECT system is the brainchild of our new engineering division: IWC Experimental. Its design is based on a cantilever spring in which the movement is freely suspended inside the case. The precious movement is kept safe from g-shocks generated during impacts thanks to this spring technology.

During R&D at the Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, we conducted a series of comprehensive impact tests. In these tests, protected movements have survived accelerations in excess of 30,000g. That’s about ten times as much as you would experience in daily life situations, for example, when hitting your watch against a hard metallic surface. The excellent performance of the shock absorber system is made possible by the spring’s perfectly calculated form and the use of an advanced Bulk Metallic Glass (BMG) as material. Thanks to a sophisticated manufacturing process, BMG is significantly more elastic than conventional metal, allowing the spring to bend in every direction during impacts.

Alongside the heritage pieces and its timelessness, I noticed that IWC also aimed to create a sportier appeal with this year’s collection, what led to that decision?

Yes, you’re absolutely right. Contemporary pilot’s watches aren’t only recognised as professional aviation accessories but also as fully versatile sports watches. It’s meant to accompany you through every type of day-to-day indulgences. Take the Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41 for example, it’s such a great watch for someone looking to invest in their first luxury timepiece. Heritage IWC aesthetic, sapphire glassed open caseback with a beautiful IWC movement on display, EasX-CHANGE quick-change system to promise versatility and now a 10-bar water resistant case. It’s all these elements coming together as such a great all-rounder package. This is undoubtedly one of the sportiest designs from IWC and if you could only own one timepiece, then this should probably be your pick.

iwc big pilot 43

While we already had a 41-mm and a 46-mm, tell us why IWC are introducing a 43-mm this year?

The Big Pilot’s Watch is perhaps the most prolific aviator’s watch from IWC Schaffhausen. Thanks to its purely functional design and the oversized crown, it has turned into a modern design icon and expression of a distinct mindset It made its debut in 2002 with an oversized 46-millimetre case. However, at that size, the Big Pilot’s Watch always had limits when it comes to its ergonomics.  This is why we decided to release a new model in a more wearable size. We went through an incredible number of prototypes looking for the right diameter, case height, crown proportions and dial graphics. The Big Pilot’s Watch 43 is not just a downsized version of the 46-millimeters model.  The new model looks and feels every bit like a Big Pilot’s on the wrist but at the same time is incredibly comfortable to wear.


Given everything that is going on, what are some of the efforts undertaken by IWC at the moment to reach its customers?

IWC has always been a technologically-inclined brand. For many years, we’ve been at the forefront of the industry when it comes to integrating digital methods to reach our customers and enhance their experience with us. In 2020 alone, we introduced several new digital products and experiences.

One example is the Cyberloupe, a digitally enhanced watchmaker’s magnifying glass. It allows watch geeks from across the world to peek over the shoulder of an IWC craftsman in action. Recently, we also started offering customized virtual tours of our manufacturing centre in Schaffhausen. Just in time for Watches & Wonders, we also introduced a new smartphone app. You must try it, it allows you to virtually try-on our latest novelties using an augmented reality technology.

In your opinion, what will the luxury watchmaking industry look like post the COVID-19 crisis and what change could we expect?

I believe that customers will invest more time into taking purchasing decisions. Especially in the luxury segment where products are not only made to last but also to meet the highest quality standards. Customers will also be looking at its impact on the environment and our society too.

I think that IWC has a very compelling offer here. We have been making high-end mechanical watches at one site in Schaffhausen since more than 150 years, with a very high degree of vertical integration, from bars of metal to finished watch movement and case. Few other industries cover everything from the design to manufacturing to marketing in one place. Our manufacturing runs on renewable energy, for example, and we source our precious metals from suppliers that are certified by the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC). We will continue to address every aspect of how we make, sell and service our products with the goal of offering the most responsibly made mechanical luxury watches on the market.

All images courtesy brand


Interview: IWC CEO, Christoph Grainger-Herr on redefining the ‘Pilot’s Watch’ for 2021

Mikhail Gomes

Features Editor, Lifestyle Asia India & Contributor - Augustman

A watch aficionado, Mikhail also enjoys learning about fine whiskies, and one day hopes to establish his own menswear label. At Lifestyle Asia India, he writes on watches, menswear, auto and tech.

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