Review: IWC Portuguese IW397204
The watchmaker IWC has had a long affinity with the perpetual calendar. This most righteous of complications, it demonstrates a fundamental understanding of high watchmaking that few companies have been able to master to the same degree as IWC. It’s hallowed, it’s traditional, it’s sacred—and IWC has gone and completely changed it.
The IWC Perpetual Calendar is a familiar sight to your everyday watch fan. Whether as the elegant Portuguese or the purposeful Big Pilot’s, this quadrant display calendar is an impressive bit of kit. No thanks to eons of technical evolution, the calendar itself is no easy thing to master. Jam-packed with odd rules and weird exceptions, the calendar we all know and take for granted is a watchmaker’s nightmare.
Check it out: A day, you may think that lasts one rotation of the Earth, but it doesn’t. You may think it’s 24 hours, but it isn’t. Because the Earth is also orbiting the sun, high noon to high noon is actually a full rotation and an extra degree more, and because the universe wasn’t built by humans, a day can actually be longer or even shorter than 24 hours by half a millisecond or so. And a year, a complete orbit around the sun—arbitrarily broken into months of differing lengths, mainly because the Romans told us to—doesn’t last 365 days either. It’s more like 365.2422 days.
This seems awfully pedantic, and you would think that it needn’t be acknowledged on a watch capable of accuracies of a few seconds per day—and for any other watch, you’d be right. But not with a perpetual calendar. Those days add up into months and those months into years, and all these little discrepancies start to become significant errors. If we measured a day at its exact length, each and every one would be different. If we measured a year at its exact length, we’d start the next at about six o’clock in the morning.
And so, there are various concessions made to accommodate the uncooperative nature of space and time. The first is the leap year, a 366-day year that happens one in four to cater for that extra quarter-day. And then, every century, a leap year is dropped to adjust for the fact that it’s actually just shy of a quarter-day. And then, every fourth century, the dropped leap year is kept because the dropped leap year every century is overkill.
So, this watch, this perpetual calendar, has to take as much of that as possible and cram it into a mechanism small enough to fit on your wrist. And for the most part it achieves that; everything up to and including the leap year can be accurately calculated without adjustment, meaning that, once set, the day, date, month and year will read correctly, even through a leap year. It may not be capable of accommodating the centennial adjustments, but you’ve got to admit, not having to do anything to your watch as long as it stays wound for almost a century is pretty decent.
And not only that, but IWC has gone one step further with its own interpretation of the perpetual calendar. Not only does it have a fully operational four-digit year display—come on, now that is impressive—but it’s also completely adjustable via the crown. Most watches of this complexity use an array of hidden pushers to get everything in sync, but with the IWC, that’s all taken care of for you. Simply adjust the crown like you would the date, and the watch is set. Seems pretty much perfect, so why would IWC go and change it all?
If you didn’t know otherwise, you wouldn’t think this IW397204 was a perpetual calendar. There are a lot less sub-dials for a start, not to mention the two Groundhog Day-style digital displays. You can just imagine Bill Murray’s Phil Connors waking up in dread to those things.
What exactly is going on here then? Is this not a perpetual calendar? Is it the perpetual calendar’s poor cousin from the other side of the tracks, the annual calendar? No, nothing like that. Quite the opposite, in fact, because this watch actually adds a complication to the already fit-to-burst watch.
It’s hard to believe just by looking at it, because side-by-side with IWC’s traditional perpetual calendar and this looks like a far simpler watch. Granted, we’ve lost the day display, year display and the moon phase, but what we’ve lost there we’ve gained in the big date and month windows, with a smaller window added at six o’clock to keep track of the leap years as well.
Now, to fully appreciate what this means requires a few hard numbers. As well as being exceptionally clever, IWC’s perpetual calendar is actually very efficient as well, requiring only another eighty parts on top of the base movement—but that’s still some 200 components in total. Here’s where it gets interesting, because the calibre 89801 in this digital display perpetual calendar adds another parts-heavy complication: the chronograph.
Given that a chronograph adds another fifty or so parts again, and what we’re looking at here is a watch one function shy of being a full-on grande complication, yet with a dial that suggests little more than your run-of-the-mill everyday timepiece. But it gets better still, because even the chronograph, packed neatly into a dual-handed sub-dial at twelve for hours and minutes, with seconds located in the centre for clarity, is anything but ordinary, somehow finding room for a flyback mechanism as well.
It’s a testament to the engineering mindset of the IWC watchmakers that this kind of complexity could possibly be married to such simplicity. Within watchmaking, the usability of a watch is just as important as its functionality, and this IW397204 really pushes the limits of what’s possible when pursuing ultimate practicality in a highly complicated mechanical watch. That it accommodates an additional complication known for being a dial hog whilst simultaneously appearing cleaner than its less complex cousin is a feat that deserves recognition.
It’s easy to get bogged down by tradition. As important as it is to acknowledge, tradition can also be the easy route, the lazy route, discouraging development and avoiding challenges. What IWC has done with the perpetual calendar here is neither traditional, nor is it easy, and although it may look like nothing you’ve ever seen before, it’s all the better for it.
Looking for a IWC watch? Click here to shop now