IWC Tries to Capture the Energy of the ’70s

Christoph Grainger-Herr, the chief executive of IWC, was explaining why the company’s stand at the Watches and Wonders Geneva this year would be more retro science lab than contemporary luxury watch showroom.

“The idea is to capture the energy of the 1970s engineering environment,” said Mr. Grainger-Herr, speaking on a video call from IWC’s base in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, shortly before the large multibrand watch event began on March 27.

The stand, he said, would include 1970s design objects, including two Dieter Rams designs — the Braun FS 80-1 television and the 620 Chair Program, a lounge chair that could be reconfigured, with other chairs, into a modular sofa.

“This was a world where the idea of progress in science and engineering was an entirely optimistic concept,” Mr. Grainger-Herr, 45, continued in his signature rapid patter. “Better, faster, further. It was as if there were no limits to human endeavor and exploration.”

The inspiration behind the décor was the new Ingenieur Automatic 40, a revival of the 1976 IWC Ingenieur SL, a luxury steel sports watch designed by Gerald Genta. The 1970s was Mr. Genta’s great decade: He produced the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak in 1972 and the Patek Philippe Nautilus in 1976.

The new Ingenieur may be seen as a signal of industry trends. It remains industrial, with Genta’s five exposed screws still poking through the thick steel bezel, but it is not as thick and more refined than the previous version of the SL, and has a more decorative dial pattern. At $11,700, it is also double the price of the previous model.

Mr. Grainger-Herr said he believed the design is what contemporary watch buyers want. “After Covid, there’s this idea of casualization of society that affects stylistic choices and purchasing decisions,” he said. “That is clearly a longer underlying trend, but at the moment, it’s going back from hoodie to more formal.”

The return of the Genta Ingenieur had been anticipated for some time; some observers had said it was overdue. The last watch based on the design was discontinued in the mid-2010s, right about the time that timepieces like it — steel sports watches with integrated metal bracelets — became the luxury watch industry’s rocket fuel.

Richemont, IWC’s parent company, does not report revenue by brand. But Oliver Müller, founder of the specialist Swiss watch consultancy LuxeConsult and one of the authors of Morgan Stanley’s annual watch report, said the company’s 2022 revenues were estimated to be 908 million Swiss francs ($987.3 million), an increase of 13.2 percent over the previous year.

“At its level of sales, the growth is tremendous,” Mr. Müller wrote in an email. “IWC is still No. 1 in Richemont’s specialist watch portfolio and still ahead of Vacheron Constantin. It’s not Richemont’s best performing watch brand in terms of growth, but it is one of two brands, with Vacheron, bearing the potential to join the billionaires’ league of the Swiss watch industry.”

Morgan Stanley estimates there now are seven watch brands with annual revenues of more than one billion Swiss francs, including Rolex and Audemars Piguet.

Mr. Grainger-Herr declined to comment on the company’s sales. But he said the spirit of the Genta Ingenieur, commissioned to refresh a staid 1950s model of the same name, made 2023 a good time to reintroduce it.

“The 1970s was a great era of departure from classical norms, and great technological improvement,” he said. “There was this optimism that everything we could improve technically would ultimately make us healthier, richer and better off, and all ’round happier. It was a very positive mind-set.”

Mr. Grainger-Herr joined the company in 2006, becoming chief executive in 2017 when he stepped into the large shoes of Georges Kern, an industry veteran who, since leaving Richemont, has gone on to head up Breitling.

He was 39 at the time, one of a younger breed of chief executives brought in by the Richemont chairman, Johann Rupert, to freshen up his senior executive suite. But along with youth and energy, IWC also got one of the watch industry’s pioneers in sustainability.

Even before taking the leadership role, Mr. Grainger-Herr, a trained architect, had overseen the design of IWC’s Manufakturzentrum, a 14,000-square-meter manufacturing center in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, which opened in mid-2018. The building’s eco credentials prompted the company to be singled out for praise by the World Wildlife Fund in its otherwise damning 2018 review of the watch and jewelry industries. The report rated IWC as “ambitious” and said: “Only IWC was able to show more serious commitment towards a sustainable transformation.”

IWC has since intensified its environmental program, publishing sustainability reports each of the last four years and, in 2022, appointing the Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen to the newly created role of environmental and community projects adviser — as well as the face of its new Portofino collection. (The IWC news release noted that Ms. Bündchen had been a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Environmental Program since 2009 and had been honored by institutions, including Harvard University, for her environmental commitment.)

But, “it’s not about having the loudest campaign in the marketplace,” Mr. Grainger-Herr said. “I want to create and make a product that our customers can genuinely feel good about in every single respect. This should be the rational reassurance to purchase.”

Mr. Grainger-Herr, like many of his industry peers, said mechanical watches are innately sustainable, an advantage for brands trying to appeal to a generation of consumers who are increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of their purchases. “At the moment, everybody is reporting the life span of their products,” he said. “But none of this really applies to mechanical watches because we can guarantee to repair them, basically forever.”

The industry’s current challenge, Mr. Grainger-Herr said, is to reduce the ecological impact of its supply chain. Last year, IWC joined the Watch & Jewellery Initiative 2030, established by Cartier and the French luxury group Kering to enable brands to collaborate on improving sourcing practices.

“Every single element can be made better than it was,” Mr. Grainger-Herr said. “It’s less loud, it’s less flashy, but this is ultimately where the bulk of the impact and the emissions are coming from.”

IWC’s role as an early adopter under Mr. Grainger-Herr has extended into the virtual world. During the pandemic, IWC operated what he called a “virtualized store experience” online, and became one of the leading voices on Clubhouse, the briefly popular social audio channel, with Mr. Grainger-Herr the fast-talking host.

He introduced the 2022 collection in what the brand described as the metaverse, and the company minted 1,868 NFTs as part of a high-tech loyalty program.

But he said he has grown skeptical of the value of NFTs. “This was probably something that was a bit of a moment trend, which doesn’t appear to be for the long term in our industry,” he said. “But there is a clear and practical application of NFTs in the context of blockchain that I think is longer term and very promising.”

Mr. Grainger-Herr’s appraisal of his six years at IWC? “Have I made my mark?” he said. “Yes, absolutely.”

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