Lasting Values: a conversation with Christoph Grainger-Herr, CEO of IWC

For Christoph Grainger-Herr, CEO of the watch manufacturer IWC Schaffhausen, sustainability is much more than a fleeting fad. And that's not the only thing he tells ramp Editor-in-Chief Michael Köckritz. He also speaks about the colour green and the importance of the watch, which in turn also has something to do with longevity.
Text Michael Köckritz
Photo IWC

Mr. Grainger-Herr, there’s this story that you had a stuffed animal as a kid, a Saint Bernard that you called “Patek”. Is that true?
Yes, that’s a true story. Sometime in the eighties, my father realized a lifelong dream of his and got himself a Nautilus. I was five or six years old at the time. We went to a jeweler’s store in Bern, and I was waiting patiently and looking at the watches. It probably didn’t take all that long, but to me it felt like forever. I then got the Saint Bernard from a tourist shop for being so good and named it Patek. Patek is still in the family, my daughter plays with him today.

Did your father’s fascination influence your choice of profession?
He didn’t influence my choice of profession, but I certainly inherited my affinity for small mechanical products from him. When I was at university, I was able to intern at Paff Design in London. Working in a project for the royal supplier of cufflinks and men’s accessories, I noticed how much I enjoyed the highly technical retail setting of watches and jewelry, which is all about lighting technology and precious materials. A little later, serendipity knocked on my door: I was working as an interior designer in Zurich when I received a call encouraging me to apply for a post at the IWC museum.

You’ve been quoted as saying, “As opposed to the smartphone, a watch leaves you in peace.” How important is peace today – generally and for you personally?
Peace and quiet are extremely relevant to me; I need that to be able to think. We live in an age where we’re constantly flooded with input, which wreaks havoc on our creativity. I remember that from my childhood and I can see it in my kids today: You need to be all but bored to be creative. I mean that in a positive sense. Ideas need space, some quiet time and most of all a break from the constant deluge of input.

How does a watch manufacturer deal with trends and fads in this fast-paced day and age?
You can’t exist outside of trends. The way mechanical watches have developed in the past twenty years reflects every single trend of this period. We’re interested in what’s happening, and we don’t believe that our products must eternally stay the same. What we consider key, however, is to incorporate trends in a way that is in harmony with the timeless core of a brand. Our new Pilot’s collection, for instance, includes models such as the Pilot’s Watch Chronograph, which ergonomically and agelessly keeps developing within its product DNA. That’s a development that’s part of the long-term trends. A more medium-term trend is the color green. Blue was the trend color in the early 2000s, and it is still the dominant color in sports watches. But we’re seeing that customers, particularly first-time buyers, are interested in green. Our products reflect medium-term color trends.

Then there is the question of size.
Exactly. In the twenties, the 40-millimeter Portugieser was considered gigantic. After that, watches became smaller, got bigger again, and in the 2000s, we had watches that were 48 or 50 millimeters in size. Today, there is a varied size portfolio revolving around the sweet spot of 41.42 millimeters.

"We’re interested in what’s happening, and we don’t believe that our products must eternally stay the same. What we consider key, however, is to incorporate trends in a way that is in harmony with the timeless core of a brand."

And what about the general meaning of watches?
We were both lucky and unlucky that the watchmaking industry experienced its great disruption during the 1970s and 1980s. Watchmaking completely reinvented itself in this period. When we entered the scene with Kurt Klaus’s Da Vinci and the Perpetual Calendar in 1985, it was the complete opposite to the simple and cheap quartz watch. It was about the question what the watchmaker’s craft was all about. It was at this time that the passion for the art of watchmaking was reignited. Today we can see that the importance people attribute to watches has not changed because they are a very emotional, lasting and sustainable product. A watch also speaks volumes about its wearer’s mindset, values and preferences. You leave a car or an airplane when you’re done with them. A watch, on the other hand, is a constant companion.

You have mentioned sustainability. How important is this topic?
It’s very important and always has been. In 1868 American watchmaker Florentine Ariosto Jones founded a factory to manufacture high-quality, lasting products, operated by the power of the Rhine River. We are still powered by the Rhine today. Naturally, it’s hydroelectricity by now and no longer power directly transmitted from mills moved by the water. But the source of energy has not changed in the more than 153 years since the factory was established in Schaffhausen in Switzerland. I like to ask our customers how many industries are left today where you can still see every single production step at the original production site even after more than 150 years. What’s more, our products are not flown around the globe while they are being made. And the final result is a watch that is solely powered by my wrist movements or my fingers in wind-up models. We make products that can be handed down over generations and that bring joy to people for many years. We don’t need watches that can be recycled or composted. Our watches have been made for four generations and have a tiny ecological footprint. That’s our definition of sustainable watchmaking.

"You leave a car or an airplane when you’re done with them. A watch, on the other hand, is a constant companion."

Christoph Grainger-Herr

Would you say it’s also about one of life’s luxuries?
Luxury is about things with a high, lasting value and superior quality and design. Things that can be enjoyed by several generations. Our luxury is delivered through local craftsmanship.

How would you describe the spirit of IWC?
IWC makes watches for people who have a thing for technology. Our watches also convey a feeling of luxury and uniqueness. They are confident even though they’re certainly not diamond-studded golden extravaganzas. They are characterized by refined workmanship and a clear, understated air. This way they’re a perfect fit for an active and also somewhat sporty lifestyle.

Read the entire interview with Christoph Grainger-Herr in the current ramps #54.

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