"IWC is a brand that has to be driven carefully, because it's like a fast car that needs a touch of skill at the wheel."
Carlo Maria Ceppi, director of IWC Italy, is familiar both with high-speed cars and high-tech watches, and this year, IWC combines both worlds in the new Ingenieur collection, presented at SIHH in Geneva in a stand that looked like a Formula One paddock. The new partnership with team Mercedes AMG Petronas is like a marriage made in heaven, with new materials and design taken straight from race cars. Mercedes' quest is one for speed, cutting time; IWC aims at measuring it with ever-greater precision and beauty.
"I am very happy about the partnership. IWC has had close links to the team since 2004, and I think that our arrival in Formula One is the result of the natural development of a relationship that is beneficial for both partners."
An example of this engineering osmosis is the Ingenieur Perpetual Calendar Digital Date-Month. The case is made in titanium aluminide, direct from motorsport, with pushers and other components in zirconium oxide, another Formula One material. The dial design evokes a racecar cockpit, and the rotor visible through the sapphire caseback resembles the spokes on an alloy wheel. The movement is superbly engineered, with an innovation that recalls the KERS system: the display discs for the perpetual calendar absorb some energy – particularly at the end of the year when five of them advance together – and the watch stores a tiny amount of energy every night so that it can be used at those crucial moments. The watch indicates leap years, and this means that adjustment will be needed only on 1 March 2100, when the calendar makes an exception to the leap year system, an event that occurs only once every century. (Below, the Ingenieur Perpetual Calendar Digital Date-Month).
The new collection includes many pieces, and it's hard to single out just a few. But Carlo Ceppi says, "The other new product that I believe is fundamental for us is the Ingenieur Constant-Force Tourbillon. Another piece of supremely refined horological engineering." The tourbillon with integrated constant-force mechanism increases precision, but requires higher torque. This is provided by two barrels, which also provides the extra power for the beautiful moon phase subdial, on which you can see even the craters. The new movement has a power reserve display that indicates just how much of the massive 96-hour reserve is left. (Below, the Ingenieur Constant-Force Tourbillon).
To mention another new reference, the Ingenieur Chronograph Racer (shown below) celebrates the partnership with Mercedes AMG Petronas. The contemporary dial design is accompanied by a superbly efficient movement, providing flyback chronograph functions with a totalizer on a single subdial, small hacking seconds, and tachymeter on the bezel. The back is engraved with a racing car. I could not help asking Carlo Ceppi about his background in motor racing and his opinion of the partnership with Mercedes AMG Petronas.
"IWC has had a close link to the racing team since 2004. For example, the Mercedes CLS 55 AMG IWC Ingenieur was a car that was personalized by IWC, and made in a limited edition of 55 units. IWC and Mercedes AMG Petronas share many values, such as the manufacturing and hand-crafted concept, the quest for new materials, new technology, and ever-better performance."
IWC's marketing policy has been in the fast lane for a number of years now, reflecting recent changes in the market and in how people think about quality watches.
"I think that we are witnessing an epochal change. Over the last few years, we have been seeing the effects of market globalization, the acceleration of digital media, and above all, the appearance of a heterogeneous market. On one hand, there is the mature clientele, the European customers, who have been familiar with top watch brands for 50 or 60 years; and on the other, there are new customers from markets who are coming into contact with this sort of product only today. For the mature markets, what was once the quest for a status symbol has become real knowledge of the field and the search for quality. New clients are thirsty for culture and want to understand the history of these prestige timepieces."
New customers also have to understand exactly why a quality mechanical watch can have an appreciable price-tag. "The greatest watch brands dedicate total attention to quality, with aspects of finish that may be invisible because they are on tiny components hidden inside the movement, made by specialist staff in Switzerland. Once you become familiar with the metiers d'art that exist within a watch, you immediately understand the price. And after all, a high-quality watch is an investment that provides satisfaction for many years. IWC products are designed to last."
The brand's retail network is also changing in order to meet the new market conditions. "IWC's international character accelerated enormously when the Richemont group purchased the brand, but its great content and values can be expressed best of all in its own-brand stores, where there is direct contact with the final customer. It is easier to develop this concept – that of flagship stores – in new markets. The challenge today is in mature markets, where there is a long tradition of multi-brand boutiques which have contributed enormously to the brand's success: the question is one of expressing the IWC values both in multi-brand boutiques and the brand's own retail structure." (Below, interior of the IWC boutique in Paris).
Does this mean that there will be some products available exclusively in IWC own-brand stores?
"This will be inevitable, because our products are very high in quality, made in low volumes, because of their high content of new materials and new technology. The pieces made in very small series will be available only in IWC stores, so that they can be presented in the best possible way to the general public, collectors and journalists."
And does this new marketing situation include e-commerce?
"Personally I think that a watch enthusiast always appreciates physical contact with the product, looks for advice from someone with advanced knowledge, and enjoys that special ritual that is the purchase of a watch in a boutique. Of course, there are exceptions, such as when a person cannot reach an official dealer, or wants to purchase a familiar best-selling product, in which cases e-commerce can be a great opportunity. Any company has to think about how its own DNA can be incorporated into such tools, which in any case have a vast potential."
It was interesting to be able to talk to Carlo Ceppi, because his long experience on the Italian watch market is unrivalled. From April 2008 he has been the Mission Delegate for Italy for FHH, Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, whose objective is to protect and promote the values of fine watchmaking.
"The Italian market has always been one of the most important in the world, and it is the top market in Europe in terms of revenue. Italian watch connoisseurs have a deep knowledge of these products. In today's economic climate, their choices change a little, in that they prefer purchasing products that transmit security, that represent a sort of oasis, a refuge in difficult times. Products that offer the highest possible value with respect to the monetary investment. For this reason, IWC has further increased quality, so that all its ranges have moved upwards, and its iconic pieces become even more coveted. This is something that is happening to all the most important marques.
"There is another side to the Italian market, the fact that the country is an important tourist destination, attracting international clients that include people from Asia, South America, Russia and other emerging markets. Their motivations for purchase are different to those of the Italian market. We therefore have to adapt so that we can provide the optimum response both to local customers who are looking for qualitative excellence, and to a new international clientele with a high purchasing power, but that needs expert advice on products because their knowledge of quality watches is not so extensive and less technical. In practical terms, in Italy this means developing our own boutiques, but also helping our dealers to work in this different context."
From his words, it is clear that IWC is already looking far into the future. What will be the greatest challenge in the coming years for the watch sector?
"The greatest challenge for us will be a closely-integrated retail network consisting of IWC stores and multibrand boutiques, as I mentioned earlier. Every day, we have to be aware that we have to change. The things that we seem to have done well today can be done better tomorrow." And that's a formidable approach to life, whether in a company, on a racetrack, or anywhere.