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Feature: This IWC Was The Hublot Of Its Day

This watch probably strikes you as the quintessential dress watch. Classy, understated, refined—you can imagine it discreetly poking out of the cuff of Barack Obama’s tuxedo at a state banquet.

When it was released, however, at the tail-end of the 1930s, the IWC Portugieser was regarded as something of a beefy chimera, a timepiece that defied convention by combining classic looks with pilot’s watch dimensions.

A 1940s-era Portugieser reference 325 with calibre 98 movement. Image courtesy of Bonhams

A 1940s-era Portugieser reference 325 with calibre 98 movement. Image courtesy of Bonhams

Measuring a smidgen below 42mm, it’s pretty big even by today’s standards, but back then it dwarfed most other watches the way an AP Royal Oak Offshore out-beefs an Oyster Perpetual.

The sweet spot for watch cases between the two world wars tended to be 33-35mm, so why was the Portugieser so different? And how did it overcome a rather patchy start to become one of IWC’s favourite collections?

A Lifeline From Lisbon

The 1930s was a turbulent decade, what with the Great Depression and the start of World War II. Watch brands in the economic doldrums borrowed money, courted new investors and rallied to come up with radical new designs to keep them afloat. This resulted in the creation of models like Patek Philippe’s Calatrava and Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso, now considered industry icons.

By this time, IWC, Swiss-based but founded by an American entrepreneur in 1868, had already dealt with some major setbacks, including bankruptcy—twice! It now found itself needing to cater for the rapidly burgeoning wristwatch market, despite still making large quantities of highly regarded pocket watches.

A rare Portugieser reference 325 with three-tone dial. Image courtesy of Phillips

A rare Portugieser reference 325 with three-tone dial. Image courtesy of Phillips

With the lucrative US market dwindling, IWC were handed a lifeline in 1939 by two Lisbon-based Portuguese wholesalers, Messrs Rodrigues and Texeira, who were looking for a company that could provide them with a range of fine watches.

Visiting the IWC headquarters in Schaffhausen, Rodrigues and Texeira asked for a number of pocket watches, women’s dress watches and wristwatches for men that had the precision of marine chronometers. They had one last, unusual requirement: they wanted the men’s watches to be bigger than usual, insisting this was what Portuguese men wanted.

With a slow-down in sales of pocket watches, IWC are likely to have pounced on the opportunity to use their smaller pocket watch movements in a new, larger wristwatch. With plenty of their highly accurate calibres 74 and 98 knocking around, it was a no brainer. IWC were able to re-direct these movements into their new wristwatch for the Portuguese market, and a legend was born.

Shades Of The Calatrava

As for the design, it’s pretty easy to see where the Portugieser—which was yet to be named as such— got its inspiration from. Art Deco style was still common at that time but IWC opted for the clean, Bauhaus aesthetic of the successful Calatrava, launched seven years earlier. Hence the simple round case, small seconds at 6 o’clock and an uncluttered, highly legible dial.

A contemporary Portugieser from 2020, still oversized at 43mm

A contemporary Portugieser from 2020, still oversized at 43mm

Unfortunately for the two Portuguese, who were responsible for the watch’s existence, the start of World War II in 1939 made it difficult for IWC to transport the watches to their waiting customers in Lisbon , despite both Portugal and Switzerland being neutral.

If you think being on a Rolex waiting list for a couple of years is a stern test of one’s patience, try three years. That’s how long it took a batch of Portugiesers to get to the Iberian Peninsula. In fact, a few watch dealers in the Ukraine received the watches long before the Portuguese did.

Pocket Watch Specialist

From the 1940s the so-called “Portuguese” reference 325, was made only intermittently and in small batches, making vintage models rare and thus highly sought after.

Around 690 of the reference 325 were sold from 1939 to 1981, with a new edition—almost identical except for its ornate minute and hour hands—not released until the 1970s.

By this time, IWC was all but ready to concede defeat to the quartz crisis and even considered becoming an ultra-niche pocket-watch company.

A chronograph version in rose gold with a stunning vivid blue dial

A chronograph version in rose gold with a stunning vivid blue dial

Thankfully it hung on until mechanical watches were once again in demand. And in 1993, when the mechanical watch industry began to see the first chinks of light at the end of the tunnel, IWC released a 1000-piece limited-edition version of the original Portugieser, faithful to the original in every way except for the all-numeral hour markers.

It has since grown into one of the brand’s most important collections, home to its most complicated watches. The Portugieser family, which officially changed its name from “Portuguese” in 2015, now encompasses everything from sporty steel chronographs to perpetual calendars in rose gold, as well as minute repeaters and exceptional tourbillons in platinum that sell for upwards of $250,000.

Better Than A Calatrava?

Without the Calatrava, the Portugieser as we know it may never have existed. But whereas Patek Philippe’s oldest continuous model sometimes lacks a certain uniformity—its Calatrava Pilot Travel Time, for example, looks like nothing else in the collection—you can always identify a Portugieser by its large size (rarely less than 41mm), feuille hands, thin bezel and simple Arabic numerals.

A contemporary perpetual calendar version in rose gold

A contemporary perpetual calendar version in rose gold

It provides diversity and uniformity at the same time, and never strays from its origins. And as one of the first non-pilot’s watches to come in an oversized case, it was also a game-changer, helping to pave the way for larger wristwatches.

Perhaps someone should point out to the Hublot-wearing football coach Jose Mourinho that the very existence of that monster on his wrist owes much to the actions many decades ago of two of his Portuguese compatriots.

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