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Review: IWC Portugieser Perpetual Calendar 42

Some people have a bit of a love-hate relationship with IWC. In talking with watch aficionados about the brand, some will acknowledge loving a particular model, but will further confess that it’s just a bit too wide or a bit too thick for them to take the leap. It’s a shame, because IWC makes some of the best-looking watches in the business, is up there with the top dogs on spec and truly offers a chunk of watchmaking history that no modern brand can hope to replicate. Well, IWC’s been listening, because now there’s this: the Portugieser Perpetual Calendar 42, and it just might be the perfect IWC.

One of the big draws of IWC for a lot of people—myself included—is the engineering. Founded by an engineer, Florentine Ariosto Jones in 1868, having a watch in its collection called the engineer, the Ingenieur, and bound by a motto that speaks of solid engineering, Probus Scafusia, IWC is a company that prides itself on making watches that—no prizes for guessing—are well-engineered.

As many of you know, I used to be an engineer, and I can see in the behaviour of the company, the way it develops its products, that there’s something different to your usual watchmaker. Typically, a Swiss watchmaker is very traditional, is the last to embrace new technologies, will do things the old way even if the new way is better.

IWC is different. Where most watchmakers are happy to follow the tried and true methods of watchmaking, IWC seeks to improve. Watchmaker Kurt Klaus, who joined the organisation as a boy in 1956, was unsatisfied by the way a perpetual calendar, as constructed traditionally, did not change all its indications at the same time at the stroke of midnight.

In case you don’t know, a perpetual calendar is a complication in a watch that allows it to tell you the exact date regardless of month and year, accommodating changes in month length, even in February and even on a leap year. As you can imagine, it’s not an easy device to master when following the traditional approach, let alone redesigning it from scratch.

IWC was founded by Florentine Ariosto Jones in 1868

IWC was founded by Florentine Ariosto Jones in 1868

But that’s what Klaus did, designing this new perpetual calendar from the ground up, hand-sketching his engineering drawings—this was of course a long time before the CAD software Solidworks—advancing an age-old complication that had operated in much the same way since the 1700s.

His approach enlisted a sequential operation to the movement that fed the input of the changing date down the line rather than out in different directions for each function to react independently, and it had a rather pleasing side effect. The watch no longer needed a series of hidden pushers to adjust the day, date, month and year—it could all be done with a turn of the crown.

Klaus’ mentality for refinement, that engineering approach, stemmed from his training by IWC Technical Director Albert Pellaton. Pellaton, himself a fastidious watchmaker, engineered the Pellaton winding system, a mechanism that simultaneously reduces the complexity of a typical winding system, introduces two directions of winding instead the standard one, and even incorporates shock resistance into this otherwise delicate area of the movement.

He was a firm master, known for his strict approach to teaching—by criticising the use of tolerance when manufacturing parts, for example. In his eyes, everything could always be improved, and it was a message that stuck with a young Klaus. It’s also a message that resonates with the entire brand, because whilst this Portugieser Perpetual Calendar and the models before it both share Klaus’ revolutionary calendar mechanism and Pellaton’s ingenious winding system, it has still moved the game forwards for IWC. Let’s find out how.

The first IWC perpetual calendar mechanism was introduced in 1985

The first IWC perpetual calendar mechanism was introduced in 1985

So, if IWC has got the engineering side of things well and truly covered, how does this new Portugieser Perpetual Calendar improve upon its predecessor? John Cleese once said, “Technology is designed by engineers to impress other engineers” and he’s kind of right. There’s a marked difference in a product that’s had the input of someone who’s expertise is in understanding the wants and needs of the end user, and for engineers, that kind of mumbo jumbo is often considered folly.

Speakers are a great example. The best speakers in the world, the ones that cost as much as a row of houses, that are designed by the greatest audio engineers of our generation, may sound like the recording is playing back live right in front of you—but they’re often ugly as sin. There aren’t many people who want to gag every time they sit down to listen to a bit of Diana Krall.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me—previous iterations of the Portugieser Perpetual Calendar are most certainly not ugly, but at 44.3mm in diameter and 14.9mm thick, you can tell the engineering influence of the brand won over the concession to make the watch appealing to a broader audience. The Portugieser has always been a beautiful looker—and a big watch—developed for simplicity and accuracy rather than as a work of form-led design, and for many, that extreme focus on functionality has given them pause for thought.

But not anymore. The IWC Portugieser Perpetual Calendar 42 is smaller—around 2mm smaller, as you can tell by the name—but perhaps more importantly, thinner by over a millimetre. The engineers compromised for the benefit of the end user, and that makes this new model perhaps the best of IWC yet.

The new IWC Portugieser Perpetual Calendar 42 starts at £19,700 (Steel)

The new IWC Portugieser Perpetual Calendar 42 starts at £19,700 (Steel)

One of the big engineering boasts of the IWC perpetual calendar has been the full year display, all four numbers of it, right there on the dial. I mean, when you think about the person wearing the watch, there aren’t many scenarios where they need to glance at their wrist to remind themselves what year it is, so in the name of making the watch more appealing to wear, that’s gone. Instead you get a leap year indicator in the day window, more than enough to set the watch by.

This not only improves the wearability of the watch, but it also eradicates an often-overlooked concern of the Klaus perpetual calendar mechanism that only ever seemed to exist to—recalling Cleese again—impress other engineers. You see, with only the crown to adjust the calendar by, and no rewind capability, many an owner has fallen foul of ticking the date forward one too many, continuing on to navigate their way back round to the beginning. Only problem is that there are way too many years to get through, and the watch must inevitably be readjusted by IWC itself.

So, you lose some fidelity, to borrow a speaker term, but you gain usability. And it doesn’t mean the watch no longer fulfils the IWC brief of being the best engineered you can buy—if anything, it’s the opposite. It’s not been developed to impress Klaus, or Pellaton, or any other watchmaker—it’s been engineered to impress us, and I’m pretty sure it’s working.

History is rife with incredible engineers who made incredible things that didn’t succeed. Sir Clive Sinclair’s Sinclair C5, Sega’s Game Gear, Philips’ LaserDisc—all incredible inventions that, at the time, had no audience to fulfil them. Sometimes engineering is done for engineering’s sake, fixing problems engineers want to fix rather than ones the audience wants fixed. For the IWC Portugieser Perpetual Calendar 42, IWC has managed to hit that rare, sweet balance right in the middle.

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