Minutes & Seconds

Dream job at watch museum

As curator of the IWC Schaffhausen museum in Switzerland, Dr David Seyffer knows the ins and outs of the brand’s six watch families.
As curator of the IWC Schaffhausen museum in Switzerland, Dr David Seyffer knows the ins and outs of the brand’s six watch families. PHOTO: GAVIN FOO
On display in Singapore are IWC’s (from left) 1879 Savonette Lady’s Pocket Watch “Jones”, Pilot’s watch Mark 11 1952 and 1942 Portugieser (ref 325).
On display in Singapore are IWC’s (from left) 1879 Savonette Lady’s Pocket Watch “Jones”, Pilot’s watch Mark 11 1952 and 1942 Portugieser (ref 325).PHOTOS: IWC

David Seyffer landed a position at IWC when he asked the watch-maker for access to its archives for his PhD thesis

As curator of the IWC Schaffhausen museum in Switzerland, Dr David Seyffer is a walking encyclopaedia on the luxury watchmaker's timepieces and their history.

He can tell you all about the ins and outs of the brand's six watch families, including the iconic Portugieser, Portofino and Pilot's.

The first Portugieser, the first Portofino and the first Pilot's watches, incidentally, are taking a holiday from their museum home in Schaffhausen to make an appearance at the Inside IWC History exhibition in Singapore.

Held at Level 1 of the main atrium of Takashimaya Shopping Centre until Oct 27, the exhibition - housed in a special booth designed by the brand's in-house architects - features 18 rare IWC timepieces, including a set of exquisite women's watches.

Mounting an exhibition, says Dr Seyffer, is easy. The real challenge is to pick the most historically significant pieces, given the limited exhibition space.

The 46-year-old and his team decided to showcase the evolution and storied history of IWC's three most successful lines.

Serendipity helped Dr Seyffer land his job with the watch-making company, founded in 1868 by American watch-maker Florentine Ariosto Jones, in 2007.

Then working on his PhD thesis in history at the University of Stuttgart, he wanted to explore innovation from a historical perspective. Because he was also a watch fan, he approached IWC for access to its archives.

"They said: 'Of course. And by the way, if you want, we can offer you a job because we have an archive and we need to restructure it," he recalls.

He jumped at the opportunity. After all, he was no stranger to archiving, having worked as a historian at Mercedes-Benz.

Brand research had just started to take off during this period and was an interesting career option for history graduates.

"It was then a new area and it started in the car industry. Brands, including watch companies, wanted to take care of their heritage not only because they had a museum, but also because there was demand from collectors who wanted to know more about their history," he says.

IWC kept good records when he came on board, but there was no structured archiving system.

He likens the process to "exploration", which he found extremely satisfying.

"There were a lot of older employees, including retired ones, who were always happy to share or show me tools, old movements. So I listened to their stories, for instance, about how titanium was introduced to the brand in the 1980s."

A vibrant community of IWC collectors also kept him on his toes.

"They were very interested in pocket watches and kept challenging me, pointing me to this and that source. In the beginning, I was overwhelmed. But when you have to answer very detailed questions, you learn and learn," says Dr Seyffer.

Among the fascinating things he learnt was how the founder Jones divided watch assembly into 24 written steps.

"And the watch-makers had to sign every process. You say to yourself: 'Wow, this is like how we do it today except that this was already in place 150 years ago,'" says the curator whose knowledge and expertise comes in handy when IWC launches new iterations to its collections such as this year's Spitfire range.

In his 12 years on the job, he has helped to procure several interesting pieces for the museum, including an extremely rare 1879 Savonette Lady's Pocket Watch "Jones" a few months ago.

Although hundreds of these watches were reportedly produced in the 1870s, only three have survived, including the one Dr Seyffer bought from a man several months ago and which is now on display in Singapore.

"Until 2017, nobody thought it existed. I'd seen it in a photo, but it was the first time I'd seen it in the flesh," he says.

In addition to the Jones, two other gem-encrusted women's watches - one from the 1950s and another from the 1970s - are also in Singapore.

He points to the 1970s timepiece, rendered in white gold, with a stunning blue dial and a diamond studded bezel.

"When they think about IWC today, a lot of people would find it hard to believe that we ever made women's watches. But this is a typical IWC design in the 1970s. And although the management was not really pushing it, one-third of all watches sold were designed for women then."

His face scrunches when asked to name three pieces watch lovers should look out for in the exhibition. "That's tricky because I love them all."

When pressed, he names a hand-wound 1942 Portugieser (ref 325) and two Mark 11s, one from 1948 and the other from 1952.

The Portugieser came about because of demand from Portugal in the 1930s for a man's wristwatch with the precision of a marine chronometre.

The 1942 piece at the exhibition has a stamp on the left lug.

"It was literally hammered into the lug by Portuguese customs agents," he says with a grin.

IWC developed the Mark 11, incidentally Dr Seyffer's favourite watch, in the 1940s for the British government, which wanted a service watch for the pilots of the Royal Air Force.

To make sure the watch was protected against magnetic fields emitted by instruments in the cockpit, IWC introduced a soft iron inner case.

The 1948 piece features the original RAF radium dial used between 1948 and 1952, while the 1952 piece has a white triangular index marker at 12 o'clock to allow pilots and navigators to tell the time at a glance.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2019, with the headline 'Dream job at watch museum'. Print Edition | Subscribe