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IWC Schaffhausen: Continuously innovating while honouring tradition

Who would have thought that an architect would take over the reins of one of Switzerland’s most iconic luxury watch brands at just 38 years of age? But his creative training turned out to be his greatest asset. IWC Schaffhausen’s CEO Christoph Grainger-Herr explains how he ended up in the role – and why smart watches are no match for classic mechanical timepieces.




Christoph Grainger-Herr remembers exactly when he first became interested in watches. It was some time in the 1980s when his father bought himself his first mechanical watch in Bern, Switzerland. “Back then, buying a mechanical watch was a huge deal,” he says. It made such an impression on the three year-old Chris that he has remained fascinated by mechanical watches ever since.

Years later, while he was studying in Bournemouth, UK, he spotted an IWC display on his daily walk to university lectures. As an architecture student with a keen eye for detail, he was immediately drawn to the clarity of the dial and the purity of the brand’s classic Portofino and Portugieser Chronographs’ design. It must have been fate: soon after Chris established a career as a designer of retail spaces for luxury brands, Richemont – IWC Schaffhausen’s parent company – contacted him to ask whether he would be interested in designing a museum for IWC. Naturally, he jumped at the chance.

From designing spaces to designing brands
Fast-forward ten years when, having worked his way through various marketing and strategic brand management roles at IWC Schaffhausen, Chris was named the firm’s CEO. It was a relatively easy transition, he says, because his earlier positions provided him with in-depth insight into most areas of the firm. When asked if the architecture student of yesteryear ever imagined that someday he’d become the CEO of a global luxury watch company, he’s quick to respond with a chuckle: “Did I ever expect this? No, I don’t think so. But you learn very quickly.”

In fact, Chris is certain that his architectural background prepared him well to lead a brand whose core identity is rooted in timeless design: “As an architect, you’re creating an environment that thinks about how people live, what values they live by, what their cultural expression is. That creative and aesthetic training helps you when you go into design that centres on products like watches; you realize that you’re addressing the entire brand and its implementation.”


Did I ever expect this? No, I don’t think so. But you learn very quickly.

Balancing continuity and change
Perched on the banks of the Rhine River, IWC’s roots date back to 1868 when Florentine Aristo Jones – a 27 year-old engineer and watchmaker hailing from Boston – set out to combine American manufacturing technology with Swiss craftsmanship to make the best pocket watch movements money could buy. The quaint Swiss town of Schaffhausen – where he could source hydropower from the river – turned out to be the ideal location for establishing a watchmaking factory. 150 years later, this entrepreneurial spirit remains a key element of IWC’s identity.

So how does one go about keeping a 150-year old brand fresh while remaining true to the company’s heritage? “It’s roughly 60% continuity and 40% innovation,” says Chris. “When you look at some of our design icons, it’s fascinating to walk into our museum and see a Big Pilot’s watch or an original Portugieser from 1939 or 1940 being essentially the same design as 2018. That is important for the continuity of the heritage. On the other hand, we’re constantly evolving with new product lines, new brand concepts and new ways of communicating with customers.”

This careful blend of the traditional and the new is reflected in the company’s headquarters. Overlooked by Schaffhausen’s Munot Fortress, the company’s original building is home to the IWC Museum, the boutique and the CEO’s offices overlooking the Old Town’s slate rooftops. Throughout the building, various photos and models of classic aircraft, race cars and pilots’ helmets are on display, evoking the company’s heritage. A catwalk seamlessly connects the historic building to a modern structure housing the marketing teams, the watchmaking workshops and an airy rooftop employee canteen (with accompanying river views). And in keeping with its tradition of constantly innovating, IWC has recently unveiled a new state-of-the-art production facility just a few kilometres down the road. Still, Chris notes, “We can do everything in terms of using technology to improve production processes, but we cannot distract from the fact that we are crafting a physical, sculptural piece of art that becomes part of our identity and sits on our skin.”

Embracing technology
IWC is in the business of manufacturing classic timepieces – or, what Chris calls “essentially inessential products.” But the ubiquity of mobile phones that track time – and smart watches that do everything else – doesn’t worry him at all. According to Chris, iconic designs that appeal to one’s sense of adventure and connect people to their childhood dreams of say, becoming a pilot or a racing driver, will always carry a certain allure: "You have such a huge amount of emotional value, storytelling, meaning and self-expression in a mechanical watch that a functional, disposable, electronic device cannot deliver. The more our world becomes dictated by being connected and digital technology, the more people are longing for the simplicity of something as a mechanical watch.”

You have such a huge amount of emotional value, storytelling, meaning and self-expression in a mechanical watch that a functional, disposable, electronic device cannot deliver.

This doesn’t mean that that IWC shies away from new technology. Quite the contrary – true to the company’s pioneering spirit, IWC was one of the first luxury watch brands to embrace social media. More recently, IWC released an interactive virtual reality movie that takes viewers on a motorcycle ride through the Mojave Desert in which they can determine the outcome of the story – and most importantly, connect emotionally with the brand. Thanks to digital technology, the company can engage in a constant dialogue with its clients rather than rely a one-sided approach to communicating through traditional advertising. “We now have access to feedback from customers around the planet at any time of the day,” Chris explains. “It allows us to make much more individual products and bring luxury back to when it was an individual creation for an individual client.”

Charting the course for the future
Looking ahead, Chris thinks it’s still too early to consider what type of personal legacy he’ll leave behind. “I still have quite a few years to go there!” he quips. But he’s more than happy to share some advice with other young entrepreneurs who may be preparing take the helm of a business. “You know, anything from finance to operations, logistics and supply chains, you can learn on the job,” he says. “But you really need to be 100% behind the product or service that you are promoting, and the rest will come.” Ultimately, that is what drives Chris as he continues to chart the course for the company’s next 150 years. “To see the passion of our customers and our staff for what we create here makes this a very special environment to work in. At the end of the day, we can pride ourselves on making honest products that deliver real value and that give people a lot of joy.”


Video production: Scott McNamara