By: Carlos Torres
Little is known today about the founder and the first owner of the Swiss watchmaker IWC, the acronym of the International Watch Company. Born in 1841 in Rumney, New Hampshire, Florentine Ariosto Jones belonged to a family whose roots can be traced back to the Mayflower, the ship that transported the first puritan pilgrims who founded the colony of New England in 1620. With no known photograph of Jones, the only description of him dates back to 1907, which registers 171.5cm, 97.5kg, blue eyes and brown hair.
The son of a cobbler, F.A. Jones’s calling in watchmaking was the result of the influence of two great-uncles who worked in the field in Concord. It opened the doors to his first job in the industrialised E. Howard Watch & Clock Co. in Roxbury, Massachusetts, followed by a collaboration with the watchmaker G.P. Reed in Boston.
It was precisely in Boston that, on July 2, 1861, after the start of the American Civil War, Jones enlisted in the armed forces in Fort Independence, later becoming part of the 13th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry that, among other battles, was present at Gettysburg in July 1863.
It was probably at the end of the Civil War, in 1865, that the idea of a watch manufacturer in Switzerland started to sprout in the head of Florentine Ariosto Jones. It was to be a project that would follow the example of the highest American industry standards of giants such as Waltham, Elgin and Hamilton.
The idea to found IWC emerged at a time of transformation in craft production. The birth of the machine, from an industrial point of view, dates back to the 18th century, when the first samples were used in cotton weaving. But in the field of watchmaking, it was Pierre Frédéric Ingold, an ingenious watchmaker from Bienne, who gained prominence as one of the first to identify the need to replace handcrafting from home (known as establissage) to make watches through the industrial mass production of interchangeable components. Ingold created machine models to stamp, cut, drill and mass produce the most diverse components of a watch.
After a series of failed trials in mechanical watch production in Paris and London, Ingold emigrated to America in 1845. He was 58 at the time. Little is known about his time in the New World, but in 1877, the famous Danish watchmaker Jules Jurgensen noted that most machines and tools used on the other side of the Atlantic to make watches were invented by Ingold, and the machines used in the first watch factories that opened in 1852 were his.
Jones’s choice to establish an industrial unit in the Swiss Confederation was largely down to the availability of quality and extremely cheap labour. It was a situation that contrasted with the post-war reality of the American market, which the future factory was conceived to supply and which would allow a high level of competitiveness for IWC.
However, there was one obstacle that the founder hoped would shift soon and which was tied to the high import rights for the US, implemented by law in 1864. The protectionist measure was at the base of the American customs system and, unfortunately for Florentine Ariosto Jones, would draw out over the following decades.
After a few unsuccessful contacts in Geneva, it was in Schaffhausen that Jones found the essential requisites for the launch of an industrial enterprise of this kind. The existence of a hydroelectric plant in the Rhine, built by Johann Heinrich Moser (watchmaker and industrial pioneer), powered the machines at the future IWC factory.
Nevertheless, the idea to produce 10,000 watches a year left investors and industrialists in the Swiss commune sceptical, even when Jones presented them with the development’s plans. At that time, a production capacity of this dimension was completely unprecedented in Switzerland. In addition to that, Jones announced exceptional performances for the machines, describing automatically turning pivots with a diameter of 1/10 of a millimetre, and stamping and milling sprockets. These were the same analogue production methods introduced 16 years before by Ingold and whose ideas Jones was certainly aware of.
Finally, in Schaffhausen in 1868, Florentine Ariosto Jones founded the International Watch Co. (international because the factory was located in this Swiss commune and the sales offices were in New York), kicking off a saga whose highs and lows, always associated to external economic causes and realities, are today an intrinsic part of the watchmaker’s history.
Over the course of a century and a half, the IWC production included movements and models that are part of the watchmaking evolution in terms of both aesthetics and technology. From the first movements for pocket watches, such as the Calibre Jones, followed by the Calibre Seeland, IWC successively corroborated its watchmaking creativity through a high number of patents aimed at improving the most diverse systems of a mechanical watch, with a special emphasis on precision, robustness and ease of handling.
One movement in particular, the Pallweber IWC, presented in 1884, is still one of the most recognised by aficionados and collectors for the brilliance of the mechanical solutions it comprises, which were conceived to solve the issues associated to a pocket watch with a mechanical movement, but integrating digital hour and minute display. At a time when the wristwatch was gaining traction, not only as a trendy product but also as a practical object, IWC launched the Ref. IW436 in 1936, a pilot watch that is still the inspiration behind a hugely successful watch line.
The year 1939 marked one of the most iconic moments for IWC, when two Portuguese merchants ordered unusual wristwatches, whose precision should resemble a navy chronometer. The result was a large model for that era, and whose unusual 41.5mm diameter would forever associate the name of the model with the Portuguese nationality of the two merchants, Rodrigues and Teixeira. Even today, the Portugieser line still benefits from great success among IWC admirers.
After that, in 1950, came the launch of the calibre 85, the first automatic movement whose conception was down to Albert Pellaton and which would be part of the first samples of the Ingenieur line. Aquatimer followed in 1967, along with the partnership with Porsche Design in 1980, which led to the first wristwatch with titanium case, and the extraordinary chronograph with perpetual calendar, Da Vinci, launched 1985 and which would forever be tied to the name of master watchmaker Kurt Klaus. Finally, the Big Pilot, whose name reflects the 46mm diameter of its case, was presented to the public in 2002. Today, it remains one of the most accomplished watches inspired by aviation.
Already with the habit of renewing a different line from its collection each year, the 150th anniversary of the Swiss manufacturer in 2018 couldn’t exclude any of its historical models. At the annual presentation, which takes place every January at the SIHH in Geneva, IWC decided to present the Jubilee Collection, comprising 27 limited editions whose models comprise the Portugieser, Portofino, Pilot and Da Vinci lines and, for the first time, includes a rightful tribute to the Pallweber model.
Few companies today would dare tell their story exactly as it happened, because usually the timelines tend to only mark the moments of success, unabashedly eliminating references to events that could smear an exemplary corporate image.
The chronology of the venerable and prestigious IWC marks both the successful and not so successful moments. Although these incidents aren’t openly publicised by the brand, they only add substance to the name and reinforce the image of prestige and quality to which it has always been tied.
It is worth recalling that IWC is still the only watch manufacturer in north-western Switzerland, and the only factory of its kind founded in the country during the 19th century by an American. Since 1903, the watchmaker has associated its watches to a designation that comes from Latin: “Probus Scafusia”. These two words can be translated as either “good quality” or “the honest watch” and have been part of the brand ever since, not only for marketing purposes, but also as an expression of genuine pride in a quality product. One hundred and two years after the death of Florentine Ariosto Jones, there is no doubt that he would agree that the designation fits it like a glove.