Robb Interview: IWC CEO, Christoph Grainger-Herr
The new (small) Big Pilot, coloured ceramics and the year that was.
2020 proved the year of the Portugieser, then IWC is now fully ensconced in the period of the pilot.
A slew of 2021 releases have come to frame and explore the broadly rugged notion of aviation—a slate that’s as extensive as it is varied, and which includes the recent Pilot’s Watch Chronograph with AMG, a further collaboration with Mr Porter, the newly sized Big Pilot offer and the impressive first outing from the IWC Experimental engineering division with the Big Pilot’s Watch Shock Absorber XPL.
Robb Report spoke to IWC’s engaging CEO, Christoph Grainger-Herr, to better understand those pieces that have now landed and the future for a brand that
seems to instinctively know its audiences and exactly where it’s headed.
Robb Report: The Big Pilot’s been gifted a smaller design at 43mm. What prompted this?
Christoph Grainger-Herr: When we reintroduced the Big Pilot back in 2002, the idea was to hit that deliberate oversized watch trend, and at 46mm in those days everything around this watch was a massive statement. A large portion of our clients loved the design but cannot, and will not, wear a 46mm watch. We went for something that wears like a Big Pilot and looks like a Big Pilot but also resolves that question [size and wearability]; we tried many different heights, proportions and diameters in the development process to see where we have this sweet spot—to create a crown that ergonomically you don’t feel on your hand as you’re wearing the watch—and ended up at the 43mm.
RR: And a steel bracelet here for the first time on certain pieces. Is that playing to consumer demand and what is seemingly a sports-watch trend that’s not dissipating?
CGR: Straps are still very strong and our clients are increasingly asking for the flexibility … It’s about options and versatility and interchangeability. With the quick-change system, this is what we’re trying to achieve.
RR: ‘Mojave’—talk us through what’s undoubtedly a sense of excitement in extending this line?
CGR: It’s a unique story inspired by a day we had at Naval Air Station China Lake in California, where we started to connect with different squadrons and their requirements for professional pilots watches … They’re training out of the desert and had these desert-coloured flight suits and equipment, this subdued tone-in-tone execution on all this equipment and across these different textiles and materials that all then came together.
That’s where it came from. We launched it in the chrono a couple of years ago and are now bringing in the Big Pilot Perpetual Calendar 46mm and Big Pilot 46 Automatic—a really exciting extension of this Mojave line and not the last we’re going to hear about coloured ceramics this year for IWC.
RR: 2020 was a reflective year for most people. What did you learn about yourself and also IWC?
CGR: Unprecedented was the word I heard every day. It tested the flexibility of everybody, but at the same time has brought out an amazing amount of innovation and very quickly too. We were able to refocus on substance and our connections and our team—and recognising what is truly important at the heart of it and all that we do … A great moment of focusing on what matters and the joys of mechanical watches and what they bring to our clients.
RR: One strong alignment that IWC has pursued and invested in is sport. What does this field offer for a historical watch manufacture, what are the narratives that align and which enable you to engage an audience?
CGR: At the heart of it is the mindset. We find that when we work with athletes—whether that’s Lewis [Hamilton] or Tom Brady, or people from other sports, we find a very good match for IWC’s character and DNA. These are often people initially motivated by a big and unreasonable dream—look at Lewis and when he started off in karting with his dad, it wasn’t the obvious route to becoming the greatest of all-time in Formula One; Tom Brady and his story is similar … And you see that with us, we also have that big dream of achieving something and a lot of hard work and engineering goes into it, and ultimately you then have the big adventure and then hopefully success. And it’s success not for success’s sake—it’s success because these athletes, like Lewis, they deeply care about racing and what they do and it’s what drives them every single day—to become better at what they do.
RR: You’re four years or so into this role now. What are the plans following the global pandemic in regards to the key objectives for IWC in 2021
and moving forwards?
CGR: What I tried to do from the beginning was build something that was strong and consistent at its core. So it’s about who we are as a brand, a focus on the clarity of our DNA and that expression in watches that are timelessly beautiful, with great technical content and engineering and then also around innovation, collaborations in marketing, in distribution and the ways we express the brand—to be constantly creative and imaginative, and also agile.
It’s your ability to respond quickly and appropriately in times of being tested, and I think that’s what the team has demonstrated very eagerly and very well last year. And as long as this balance between the fundamentals and agility is there, you can navigate through these things … I’ve also stopped making predictions—focus at the core of what you’re doing, get it right and then just react to the rest.
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