Minutes & Seconds

Using his spare time to make timepieces

Mr Kurt Klaus made use of a lull in the watchmaking industry to work on a prototype of a complicated watch adding movements like a calendar system with a date and moon-phase indicator. The IWC Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Chronograph was invented by M
Mr Kurt Klaus made use of a lull in the watchmaking industry to work on a prototype of a complicated watch adding movements like a calendar system with a date and moon-phase indicator. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
Mr Kurt Klaus made use of a lull in the watchmaking industry to work on a prototype of a complicated watch adding movements like a calendar system with a date and moon-phase indicator. The IWC Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Chronograph was invented by M
The IWC Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Chronograph was invented by Mr Kurt Klaus.PHOTO: IWC

As a young watchmaker, Mr Kurt Klaus made use of his own time to work on a prototype of a complicated watch for IWC

A serious crisis, a wit once quipped, should never go to waste. Instead, it should be used to attempt things never done before.

Mr Kurt Klaus - one of the most celebrated artisans in modern watch history - will probably agree.

It was the mid-1970s and IWC, like most other Swiss mechanical watchmakers, was reeling from the Quartz Crisis brought on by Seiko.

A few years earlier, the Japanese brand had introduced cheap and perfectly accurate timepieces regulated by a tiny, electrically charged quartz crystal, bringing the entire luxury watchmaking industry to its knees.

To cope, IWC cut its staff strength from 360 to 150 and reduced its work week from five to four days.

"Those were hard times," said Mr Klaus, then a young watchmaker with IWC.

"We didn't know if we were going to get our salary."

But he did not give up.

"On Fridays when I had no work, I was allowed to go into the workshop and do something for myself, and I decided to do something different," said Mr Klaus, now 83, who was in Singapore earlier this year to attend IWC's 150th anniversary exhibition at Orchard Ion.

Since the brand did not produce complicated watches then, he decided to add movements, like a calendar system with a date and moon-phase indicator, to pocket watches.

He beavered away in his workshop for a couple of years before coming up with a prototype to show his bosses.

Impressed, they agreed to produce 100 pieces to be presented at the Basel Fair of 1976.

The watch was a huge hit, with all 100 pieces sold out in just two days.

"I had to work for one year to assemble all 100 pieces by myself," he said with a laugh. "After this success, I was allowed to continue to execute nice ideas."

And he did. Mr Klaus, who has been described as a Swiss national treasure, is the man behind the IWC Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Chronograph in 1985.

The watch was groundbreaking because it boasted the first perpetual calendar mechanism where all the calendar indications, including the moon phase, were coordinated via the crown.

Nattily dressed and impeccably polite, Mr Klaus is the youngest of seven children born to a textile designer and a housewife in eastern Switzerland, near Schaffhausen, home of IWC.

Growing up, he was fascinated by micromechanics, the art of assembling things using microscopically small components.

At 16, he left to study watchmaking at a school in Solothurn in western Switzerland for four years. He went on to complete his national service upon graduation and worked briefly at Eterna before joining IWC in 1957.

His mentor was the company's technical director Albert Pellaton, another watchmaking legend.

"For him, everything must be the best. He turned me from a watchmaker into an engineer," said Mr Klaus who, despite his watchmaking credentials, had to start from the bottom like an apprentice.

In many ways, his 1976 Basel triumph marked the renaissance of mechanical watches.

He went on to create other innovations, including an integrated thermometer, on pocket watches, but the day soon came when these timepieces went out of fashion.

"The sales director came to me and said: 'I can no longer sell pocket watches, but continue to do the same, but on the wrist.'"

From 1981, he started working on what was to become the Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Chronograph.

With discernible pride, he said he did everything solo, sans engineers.

"I did all the calculations and drawings myself. I just had a designer to help me translate the drawings into technical drawings," he said.

The undertaking took the father of three five years.

Some of his best ideas came when he was out walking his whippets, which he raced on weekends.

The late Gunter Blumlein - who was then steering IWC - was also his greatest supporter.

"He was my best friend and the only man in IWC who believed in me. Each morning, on his way to his office, he would stop by mine and asked me how it was going. He encouraged me and gave me all the power I needed," he said.

He came up with three prototypes, made with his own hands, which debuted to a stupendous reception at Basel in 1985.

Although proud of his masterpiece, he is even prouder that he managed to get it industrially produced.

"After two years, we were able to produce 2,000 pieces, from 500 pieces. Today, I'm not sure how many we produce, it is a lot more," said Mr Klaus, who had a special-tribute Da Vinci edition named after him in 2015.

After retiring in 1999, he remained as a consultant and roving ambassador for IWC.

Many of the young engineers working at the company were trained by him.

"I've tried to impart my philosophy and I'm sure these young people will go in the right direction. I'm absolutely not afraid for IWC. it will have a good future."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2018, with the headline 'Using his spare time to make timepieces'. Print Edition | Subscribe