Fancy some Portuguese?

Heinrich Moser was born in 1805 in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, into a family of watchmakers, and served his apprenticeship under the tutelage of his father, and the town watchmaker, Cantonal Moser. Heinrich was more than a watchmaker, though – he was also a pretty astute businessman; it was his entrepreneurial spirit that led to the founding of H Moser & Cie in (of all places) St Petersburg in Russia some 23 years later, and before long he had expanded his business into Moscow with a second sales outlet.

In order to maintain what he considered to be the necessary quality of his watches, Moser established a watch factory in Le Locle to produce watches exclusively for his distribution channels in Europe and Russia. We know of course just how wonderful the modern day Moser watches are, but this wasn’t the only legacy Heinrich Moser left when he died. He was also a successful industrialist, and to this day his Moser Dam provides power from the energy of the Rhine and has done so since 1866. In fact, at the time it was the largest dam in Switzerland.

Now, this pretty amazing guy also had a number of other industrial concerns, including grain production for which he owned a large production site in his birth town of Schaffhausen. And this is important, because it was his interests in Schaffhausen that led to a fairly fortuitous alliance with another young entrepreneur and pioneer, this time from the USA.

At the tender age of 27, an American engineer and watchmaker by the name of Florentine Ariosto Jones had been the deputy director and manager of the E. Howard Watch and Clock Co. in Boston, then a leading American watchmaker. In an attempt to steal a march on his competitors by taking advantage of both highly-skilled watchmaking techniques and relatively low wages, he looked to Switzerland and made the journey across the Atlantic to determine whether this pretty pioneering dream could become a reality. What’s more, he didn’t want to replicate the Swiss tradition at the time of tiny workshops, often run from family homes; he wanted to revolutionise the Swiss watch industry by marrying the skills he could find there with large-scale, modern and centralised production facilities. It was pure chance that Jones, whilst in Schaffhausen, happened upon Heinrich Moser. What transpired, though, was the founding of the International Watch Company, in premises built on the banks of the Rhine in the precise location of the IWC headquarters today.

Now, you may be wondering why I’m waffling on about IWC, and before I explain that I just want to touch on the history of their greatest ever watch (well, range of watches now) – the Portuguese. The original Portuguese actually dates back to the end of the 1930s when two Portuguese businessmen already operating in the watch industry visited the International Watch Company headquarters in Schaffhausen. Their proposal was for the development of a large stainless steel wristwatch housing a movement that could match the precision of a marine chronometer and with perfect readability.

The only way of meeting their request was with a pocket watch movement. With a case of 43 mm, the first Portuguese ever produced was considered huge compared to other wristwatches popular in 1939 and which were generally 33 mm or less. Nonetheless the Portuguese – the first wristwatch using a pocket watch movement – was probably the precursor the far, far larger watches that we know and love today. It was also beautiful in the simplicity and elegance of its execution.

The key design elements of the Portuguese were a streamlined dial with Arabic numbers, a very thin bezel contributing to make the watch look even larger, leaf (“[I]feuilles de sauge[/I]”) hands and a large sub dial at six o’clock for the seconds. IWC actually used a great number of dial variations, hands and indices for the Portuguese over the years, although the most often used combination was represented by silvered dial, applied Arabic numerals and leaf hands. Here’s another absolute beauty, this time dating from 1946.

In the years leading to the 1980’s IWC sold a relatively small number of Portuguese watches, never quite enough to justify large scale production of the pieces. A total of less than 700 pieces in total were sold, in fact, and to all intents and purposes the Portuguese was headed for a silent decline. But something totally unexpected happened at the beginning of the 1990’s. According to Kurt Klaus – the legendary IWC watchmaker nicknamed the Einstein from Schaffhausen for his contributions to horology generally and IWC in particular – during customer visit it was noted noted that he was wearing an original Portuguese, and he recounts that, as they gathered around him, they declared, “this is such a uniquely beautiful watch; we should make it again”.

Plans were quickly made to revive the Portuguese, developing an entire line around the design of the original. IWC’s 125th anniversary, occurring in 1993, was deemed to be the perfect occasion to introduce the new Portuguese in a limited edition; the resultant Portuguese ref. 5441 had a case diameter of 42 mm and a thickness of 9 mm, silver dial, applied platinum Arabic numerals, dot indices and typical leaf hands. It was produced in 1750 pieces: 1000 in stainless steel, 500 in rose gold and 250 in platinum.

And so the Portuguese line was reborn, and at that point I’ll bring to an end what must appear to be the ramblings of a lunatic. I wasn’t really rambling, though, as the history I’ve described is (very indirectly, it has to be said) responsible for me and a friend meeting for lunch a few days ago in order that I could admire in person his newly acquired Portuguese Hemispheres Perpetual Calendar in rose gold. And what a watch it is – possibly the most beautiful I’ve seen, with a quality of finish that really is absolutely faultless. I totally fell in love with it and to be honest pretty much fell in love with the Portuguese in general at the same time.

Now, I’d already been in communication with a fellow member of TZ-UK by then, to talk about the potential purchase of his nearly-as-beautiful 5001-09. I actually said to my lunch companion that handling his PC had pretty much convinced me that I had to try to arrive at a deal with said TZ member, and my intention was to drop him another line later that evening. However, fate often seems to play a part in my watch-related choices, and when I next logged on to TZ it was to find that he had that day (possibly when I was chatting over lunch – I’ll have to check that) dropped me another line with what turned out to be a proposal that suited both of us. An agreement was reached, money was transferred and a slight delay ensued in order that I could ensure that the timing suited my ability to take collection without having to fear not being around with all the frustration that entails.

The watch arrived today, in fact, and it really is as beautiful as I hoped it would be. At this point, I’ll quote from the IWC website, as it’s easier than paraphrasing…

“Since its debut in 2004, the Portuguese Automatic with date display has become one of the most successful Portuguese models ever to come from Schaffhausen. The balanced dial design, with its appliquéd Arabic numerals, railway track-style chapter ring and slender feuille hands, retains the classic appeal of the legendary original Portuguese, first manufactured in the 1930s. Its spiritual roots reach all the way back to the voyages of discovery undertaken by the Portuguese seafarers. The voluminous IWC-manufactured 51011 calibre integrates all the finest features ever to grace an automatic movement, such as the highly efficient Pellaton winding system and a seven-day power reserve.

Since 2010, the Portuguese Automatic’s 42.3 millimetre case has been available in warm-toned, 18-carat red gold. The appliqués on the silver-plated dial are likewise made of red gold. The steel model with its silver-plated dial (like the earlier steel versions) was fitted with rose-gold-plated hands, numerals and hour indices: luxury befitting of a watch model so much in demand. The Portuguese Automatic in 18-carat white gold and the other steel models complete the collection.”

The 5001-09 is the black dialled stainless steel model, with a genuinely wonderful 42-jewelled in house movement offering a 7-day power reserve. The detailed specification is as follows:

· IWC-manufactured 51011 calibre (50000-calibre family)
· Pellaton automatic winding mechanical movement (42 jewels)
· 7-day power reserve when fully wound
· Power reserve display
· Date display
· Small hacking seconds at 9 o’clock
· Glucydur®* beryllium alloy balance with high-precision adjustment cam on balance arms
· Breguet spring
· Rotor with 18-carat gold medallion
· Sapphire glass, convex, antireflective coating on both sides
· See-through sapphire-glass back
· Water-resistant 3 bar
· Case height 14 mm
· Diameter 42.3 mm

I was a tiny bit worried that, for work and other smart occasions, it would be slightly too large to wear with a shirt. In reality, though – particularly as most of my shirts are double-cuffed – it’s no problem at all and the overall size is also fine on my not overly large wrist. The contrast of the white gold hands, numerals and hour markers against the rich black of the dial is nothing short of breath-taking, and I love the wonderful balance of the dial with the sub-seconds at 9 and power reserve at 3. It really is a perfectly designed and executed watch and (as when I saw Tim’s the other day) my feeling was, immediately, one of near awe at the very obvious quality of every aspect of build and finish.

I think, even for me, I’ve written enough for what is just another incoming post so I’ll finish with a few photos that don’t really begin to convey enough the beauty of this iconic watch; due to the black dial and very blue-tinted AR coating, it’s a very difficult watch to photograph without little problems arising, and I’ll have to try again when I have some time to spare and I’m not so tired.

4 thoughts on “Fancy some Portuguese?

  1. Pingback: Oh, the irony… | Half Past The Hour

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