Interview: Christoph Grainger-Herr, CEO of IWC
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Interview: Christoph Grainger-Herr, CEO of IWC

Interview: Christoph Grainger-Herr, CEO of IWC

At the helm of one of the most high-profile Swiss watchmakers, Christoph Grainger-Herr is repeatedly proving that he isn’t short on product or business innovation ideas

Christoph Grainger-Herr, CEO of IWC

For many, pinpointing the exact moment when their fascination with watches kicked in is difficult – but that isn’t the case with Christoph Grainger-Herr, CEO of Swiss watchmaker IWC Schaffhausen. Precisely at the age of 3, he remembers accompanying his father to a jewellery shop. Unable to purchase a watch of his own like his father had, the little boy was handed a conciliatory stuffed toy Bernhardiner dog instead, which he – tellingly – named Patek.

Skip forward a few years, while the interest in watches didn’t wear thin, Grainger-Herr didn’t set out to make a career of it. He studied interior design at Bournemouth University in England and became immersed in the concept of luxury, when during a placement year in London he was given the opportunity to design a gentlemen’s accessory store. “At that point, I became obsessed with creating shops for luxury goods. It was not long after I had started a new job as an architect in Zurich when I was contacted by Richemont and asked to design the museum that they were planning for IWC in Schaffhausen,” he told Gulf Business recently in an exclusive interview. “I guess they liked my work because I was offered a job in the trade marketing department.”

That he was offered the job was only one half of the story – the person whose attention he caught when designing the museum, and who made that offer, perhaps had a far more overarching impact on the path that his career was about to take. It was none other than the maverick former IWC CEO Georges Kern who asked Grainger-Herr to part with his job as an architect at Smolenicky & Partner Architektur in Zurich and come on board IWC full-time. “That was back in 2006. Since then, I have held various positions in different departments. I worked as head of marketing, executive brand architect, associate director strategic planning, and associate director retail, and international sales architect,” he notes. Working his way through the entire gamut of administrative roles, in close coordination with Kern, left him in a commanding position to take over as CEO of IWC in 2017 when Kern left Richemont to take up the top job at Breitling.

A change of guard at IWC, which traces its roots back to 1868 when American watchmaker and engineer Florentine Ariosto Jones travelled from Boston to Schaffhausen with the idea of combining traditional Swiss craftsmanship with advanced manufacturing methods, could go either way. But Grainger-Herr steadied the ship and proved his mettle – according to a report published this March by Morgan Stanley and LuxeConsult, IWC recorded around CHF540m in turnover last year, and was one of only two Richemont brands (Cartier being the other) to rank among the top 10 Swiss watch brands with the highest annual turnovers.

IWC Big Pilot’s Watch with a Racing Green Dial
IWC Big Pilot’s Watch with a Racing Green Dial

There are six core collections within IWC’s stable. It includes the Pilot’s Watches, Portugieser, Portofino, Da Vinci, Ingenieur and Aquatimer. Every year, the watchmaker picks one of the six collections and overhauls it – 2021 was the turn of the Pilot’s collection.

This year’s novelties included the Big Pilot’s Watch that was for the first time offered in 43mm, powered by the in-house 82100 calibre featuring the Pellaton winding system with ceramic components in the movement. The Pilot’s Watch Chronograph meanwhile was given the 41mm treatment (backed by an IWC-manufactured 69385 calibre column-wheel chronograph movement). But it’s the perpetual calendar complication that usually steals the show at IWC each year, and with good reason. It was the Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar from 1985 that most definitively signalled IWC’s swing to focus on high complications. That specific model was courtesy of IWC’s master watchmaker Kurt Klaus – regarded in the same breath as watchmaking legends including Gérald Genta or Günter Blümlein – who took a base Valjoux 7750 chronograph movement and made the first perpetual calendar movement whose calendar indications and moonphase were all controlled via the crown itself. It’s worth remembering that the perpetual calendar at IWC is mechanically programmed to automatically recognise the different month lengths and the leap years without requiring any manual adjustments until the year 2100.

This year’s Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar in stainless steel with a blue dial is fitted with IWC-manufactured 52615 calibre, and the Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Top Gun Edition Mojave Desert features the 52000 calibre and shows that IWC still regards the perpetual calendar as central to what it does.

The brand, under Grainger-Herr, has also been pushing forward consistently on the material innovation front. “In the 1980s, we pioneered the use of titanium and ceramic in the watch industry. More recently, we introduced Ceratanium, which combines the lightness and structural integrity of titanium with a hardness and scratch-resistance similar to ceramic in a groundbreaking new material.”

But what is likely set to be a real game changer for IWC, and quite possibly Grainger-Herr’s legacy itself, is the new engineering division within its facility in Schaffhausen called IWC Experimental. “The Big Pilot’s Shock Absorber Watch XPL is the first brainchild of IWC Experimental, and is the first watch to feature our patented new shock absorber system. Developed over eight years, the Spring Protect system is based on a cantilever spring that suspends the movement inside the case. Thanks to its use of a bulk metallic glass, the spring protects the movement against the g-forces generated during impacts on the watch. In impact tests conducted at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, protected movements have survived accelerations in excess of 30,000g.”

On the subject of g-force, it’s difficult to gloss over the fact that IWC partnered with major g-force producer Mercedes-AMG back in 2004, and with Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport F1 in 2013. “Our motorsport partnerships have inspired some truly unique timepieces. The latest is the Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Edition AMG featuring a case made of automotive degree 5N titanium and a carbon fibre dial. Our partnership with the F1 team has also seen some exciting developments. An example is the Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Edition Lewis Hamilton which we developed with seven-time F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton,” notes Grainger-Herr.

Sustainability has become a buzzword among businesses, with the luxury industry as a whole more eager and enthusiastic to embrace it than it has ever been before. This year, IWC introduced the concept of paper-based TimberTex watch straps that are 80 per cent composed of natural plant fibres, with cellulose obtained from managed forests and tree farms in Austria and Scandinavia, while the stitching holding it in place is made from recycled microfibers. But the IWC CEO is quick to point out that sustainability is far more deeply ingrained into IWC. “In 2018, we were the first luxury watch brand to publish a sustainability report to the standards of the Global Reporting Initiative. We openly communicate about our targets and how we work towards them. Our manufacturing centre in Schaffhausen runs on 100 per cent renewable energy – we get our electricity from a hydropower plant just up the river, complemented by solar power generated with solar panels on the roof. We also seek alternatives to single-use plastic and are working to mitigate the environmental impact of our events,” he says, while observing that sustainability at IWC means that it also closely examines its supply chain. “We secure our precious metals and diamonds supply chain through trusted suppliers and have been independently audited to the Responsible Jewellery Council’s new code of practices.”

The IWC boutique in The Dubai Mall
The IWC boutique in The Dubai Mall

Whether that social bent has played a role in helping position IWC more favourably among its customers is open to debate, but that the watchmaker continues to be in rude health isn’t.

According to the Morgan Stanley report, IWC sold an estimated 130,000 pieces last year – Richemont doesn’t share business specifics of each of its brands, so it isn’t possible to conclusively verify those figures. Richemont doesn’t provide sales figures from individual markets either, but IWC does have a robust market in the Middle East. “The Middle East is a very important market for us. We currently have over 40 boutiques and retail partners in the Middle East region. Recently, we introduced our e-commerce offering in the UAE. Just a couple of weeks ago, I travelled to Dubai. I am very excited about the upcoming projects we have for the region,” he says while being careful not to reveal what lies ahead for the brand in this region.

While business is booming at IWC, the Covid-19 pandemic has meant that Grainger-Herr has had to rethink the positioning of luxury objects at a time when the demand for them can no longer be taken for granted. “The current crisis might change people’s behaviour towards more conscious purchasing decisions – possibly we will consume less and instead invest in products that are physically and aesthetically long-lasting and represent real emotional value for us. The global pandemic has [also] accelerated the digital transformation in the luxury industry. In time for Watches and Wonders 2021, we launched a proprietary smartphone app, including an innovative AR function that lets you try on our new Pilot’s Watches virtually at home,” he says. Besides rolling out e-commerce platforms in select markets, IWC has also latched onto newfangled digital platforms such as Clubhouse to more closely engage with the watch community, he adds.

Part of catering to that community also means listening in to their whimsical demands and giving some of them a chance to upgrade their timepieces should they want to do so. Last year, IWC partnered with Richemont-owned Watchfinder to offer such a service. “The watch trade-in service was first introduced in our London boutique as a pilot project and then gradually extended to selected boutiques around the world. Many IWC customers are watch collectors, and some may own timepieces they no longer want. The service lets them trade in these watches, receive a valuation and use the agreed value towards a new timepiece from our collection,” says Grainger-Herr.

The year after he took the reins at IWC, the watchmaker unveiled its new 14,000 square metre manufacture in 2018 to mark its 150th anniversary. The facility, he says, has helped consolidate the manufacturing of movement parts, its assembly, as well as case making operations all under one roof. But rather than being a vainglorious exercise, the opening of the new manufacture has meant that IWC has managed to rapidly increase the pace at which it is developing its in-house calibres.

“In 2019, we presented an all-manufacture Spitfire Pilot’s Watches collection, followed by an all-manufacture Portugieser launch in 2020. This year, we added another strong set of novelties to our Pilot’s Watches collection, all with in-house calibres. Over the next few years, you can expect us to deliver more of this manufacture strategy,” he says.
As a side note, Grainger-Herr notes that IWC also recently launched a virtual tour of the manufacture, allowing the public to explore the site from wherever in the world they might be – live-streamed from Schaffhausen and narrated in real-time by one of its guides. Presumably, three-year-olds aren’t excluded.

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