Feliz Aniversário Do Jubilee!

by Terry Russell

The Quiet Explosion

As Otto Heller made his way to the offices at Baumgartenstrasse 15 on that fateful Saturday morning of April 1, 1944, he had no notion that the only Swiss watch company ever founded by an American was about to be bombed by American forces. But as Heller, then IWC’s financial director, walked across his office that morning to answer a phone he refused to have sitting on his desk, an American bomb accidentally exploded outside his window, raining phosphorus down on the very spot he had sat only moments earlier – or so one version of the story goes.

Indeed, as Heller’s life was saved that day by a ringing telephone, he also had no notion that he had been witness to the birth of an obscure little watch that would someday take on the legendary stature capable of defining this venerable old company. Though he did not know it then, these were the years of the Portuguese.


Small Remittances

By that fateful Saturday morning, sales of the Portuguese had probably reached no more than 250 watches in the six years since its inception. While total movement production would have exceeded 100,000 calibers during those years from 1939 to 1944, none of those would have even included the Cal 74 used in the first 303 watches. Not only had Cal 74 production ceased in 1931, it would be 1952 before the final and 304th Cal 74 Portuguese would be sold.

With such insignificant sales, Heller’s primary interest in this oversized oddity of a wristwatch would have most likely been liquidating old movement inventory and collecting payments due from those two now-famous Portuguese watch dealers, Rodriguez and Teixeira.

Someone Ordered What?

plate 1 An original Ref 325

Over the next 37 years, IWC would go on to sell only 419 more of the Portuguese, most of which would contain the Cal 98 and/or 982. As remarkable as it now seems, this watch company, located in the “wrong” part of Switzerland, had unwittingly planted the seeds of a quiet phenomenon almost unmatched by any other company before or since.

Out of hundreds of thousands of watches, a mere 669 Portugueses scattered over 43-years would go on to become an icon within the industry that produced them.

By 1946, 80% of all known Portugueses had been produced, making the period from 1944 through the end of that year the high point in sales volume. The last 20% would trickle out over the next 35 years.

Years of the Portuguese

Cal 74

Cal 98/982

Total

1939 to 1943

229

0

229

1944 to 1946

74

228

302

1947 to 1981

1

137

138

Totals

304

365

699


Back to the Future

plate 1 An original Cal 98

In the ensuing years, IWC would of course go on to greater technical achievement, producing a respectable collection of movements and models, including the Mark XI, the Ingenieur, the Porsche Compass and Ocean 2000, and of course Kurt Klaus’ gift to the re-birth of the mechanical watch – the perpetual Da Vinci chronograph.

None of these however, in and of themselves, would take on the mythical proportions of the Portuguese, and none would ever be as rare. By the time IWC’s 125th Anniversary would roll around in 1993, it would be the Portuguese that would be exhumed in celebration of the often tenuous history of this remarkable old manufactory.

Feliz Aniversário Do Jubilee!

Though it hardly seems possible, 2003 marks the 10th Anniversary of the Jubilee Portuguese Uhr and my how time has flown. Though its release feels like only a short while ago, it was all but sold out by the time Internet watch communities started developing, and once discovered, it quickly became one of the “Holy Grail” watches for many collectors. These ten years later its desirability has of course only grown.

In a recent accounting by Kurt Klaus, the decision to release a new edition of the Portuguese was made around 1990 when a visitor to the atelier showed up wearing a vintage original. “As we gathered round him, we declared, ‘this is such a uniquely beautiful watch; we should make it again’.” and thus was made the decision that would forever tie the company to its own past. It would also eventually lead to the birth of a successful new family of watches and innovative movements. Be it purposeful continuity or just plain luck, the new Portuguese Jubilee stood not only on its own merit as a fine execution of craft, but it also introduced its obscure predecessor to a whole new generation of collectors.

plate 3 Jubilee Cal 9828

Boxes, Books and Glass Bottom Watches

The release of the Jubilee in 1993 was not simply a copy, but a delayed continuation of the previous Cal 982 models. To assure its authenticity, IWC utilized original tooling wherever possible and maintained the integrity of all original design and dimensional characteristics.

Offered individually in three metals and in a limited number of boxed sets, the Jubilee was instantly sought after. There were 1000 produced in stainless steel, 500 in rose gold, and 250 in platinum.

Sapphire glass backs gave the first factory-installed view of the Cal 982 pocketwatch movement, transformed by its special Jubilee engraving into the Cal 9828.

The single Jubilees came in a special wooden casket with a descriptive plaque and hardbound instruction booklet. Though not included with the watch, there was at least one other large-format folio commemorating the 125th Anniversary. It covered not only the Jubilee, but the introduction of the IL Destriero Scafusia, as well as an interesting smattering of company anecdotes and history. The sets of Jubilees came packaged in special boxes containing one each of the three metals, some of which were split up among several buyers, explaining in part why low numbered models still occasionally surface without boxes and papers.

Once this watch and its provenance became known to more and more collectors, accounts from numerous individuals surfaced about their mad pursuits to track these down.

At 42mm in diameter, this was one of the largest models introduced in 1993 and, along with Audemars’ Royal Oak OffShore, is credited with ushering in the age of the oversized wristwatch. It’s 46mm cousin, the Portofino 5251, was larger but remained obscure to all but the hardest core devotees of the brand.

Early Internet discussions actually focused on whether or not the Jubilee was wearable and even some who owned it felt it better collected than worn. As watches have grown in size by more than 25% over the last ten years, the Jubilee today seems hardly that large at all.

plate 4 The “Pisa” Portuguese


Glimpses of the End

Several years after the Jubilee was introduced, IWC produced what might possibly be the last of the Portugueses from the original lineage. Itself a commemorative watch celebrating 50 years of business for the dealer Orologeria Pisa in Milan, Italy, the “Pisa” Portuguese was released in 1996.

Essentially identical in all respects to the previous Portugueses, the Pisa differed from the Jubilee only in dial appearance, featuring breguet numerals and blued hands found on some of the earlier vintage models. While the Pisa would not have the special movement engraving found on the Jubilee, it would remain a true Portuguese in all respects.

At an issue of only 50-pieces, the Pisa has become as hard to find as the early originals, though much easier to authenticate.


Dial variations were almost as numerous as the watches themselves – relatively speaking of course. The Portuguese was possibly IWC’s only watch model ever that was dialed from whatever might have been handy when orders were received.

plate 5 Various Portuguese Dials


Defining Moments

plate 6 Original Ref. 325

If one thinks about all of the famous Swiss watches that have defined their respective manufacturers during the 20th Century, few other models will come to mind that enjoyed such scant production as the Portuguese. Be it Patek’s Calatrava, JLC’s Reverso, or even the original Panerais which were one of many products produced by the Italian instruments company, only the Portuguese has met us here today still pure of form with its DNA intact.


plate 7 Original Cal 98

In a Joe Thompson interview conducted last year with Nicolas Hayek of the Swatch Group, Hayek showed Thompson several new models, among them the Swatch XL. Obviously proud of the XL’s girth, Hayek exclaimed, “My son calls it the Portuguese”.

Indeed. The Portuguese. The most powerful man in the world of Swiss watches has almost everything, but he hasn’t one single model analogous to this mystical and storied old watch from Schaffhausen.



 


Terry Russell

Copyright 2003


plate 8 Original Cal 98

plate 9 Original Cal 98

plate 10 Original Cal 325

plate 11
Seven Original Portugueses


Acknowledgements:

I would like to thank Tornyai László of Hungary for the generous use of his photographs. He is an avid IWC collector who is fortunate enough to own four vintage Portugueses, all containing the Cal98.

I would also like to thank Michael Friedberg not only for his photo contributions but for his review and invaluable edits of this article, and his guidance over the years in support of my interest in IWC. In any capacity, he is an asset to the subject at hand.

Photo Credits:

plate 1: provided and used by permission of Tornyai László

plate 2: provided and used by permission of Tornyai László

plate 3: photo by Terry Russell

plate 4: used by permission of Michael Friedberg / IWC

plate 5: used by permission of Michael Friedberg / IWC

plate 6: provided and used by permission of Tornyai László

plate 7: provided and used by permission of Tornyai László

plate 8: provided and used by permission of Tornyai László

plate 9: provided and used by permission of Michael Friedberg

plate 10: provided and used by permission of Tornyai László

plate 11: provided and used by permission of Michael Friedberg

- all other watch photos by Terry Russell

- all remaining photos used under “doctrine of fair use”

 
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