For any company in any industry, commercial or technical failures are an inevitability. For watches, these vary from unreliable movements to unsuccessful or unappealing designs. However, now and then a brand releases a watch which misses the mark in spite of its inherent qualities and historical importance. Today, I would like to present the chequered story of the IWC Ingénieur 3508, a watch which I find truly wonderful despite its somewhat spectacular flaw.
For IWC, the 1970s represented a total change to their legendary anti-magnetic collection: the Ingénieur. As is so often pointed out, the eminent designer Gerald Genta presented a new concept to the luxury watch industry in 1972. His creation of the luxury steel watch with an integrated bracelet in the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak sent shockwaves across the industry; it also inspired many lookalikes. Such was the impact of this change that IWC approached Genta himself in 1976 the intention of revolutionising the ageing Ingénieur.
The New Ingénieur is Born
What came of the collaboration was the IWC Ingénieur SL ref. 1832. Featuring an integrated bracelet, screwed bezel and patterned dial, it was as much Genta’s vision as the Patek Phillipe Nautilus. However, with a fully brushed surface, luminous dial and hands, and a soft iron core for a 1,000 gauss anti-magnetic rating, it remained a true Ingénieur. Thanks to its build, it even offered a 120m water resistance — a new feature for this collection. Technically speaking, it retained the 1,000 gauss magnetic resistance of its predecessors with a soft iron core: essentially a Faraday cage around the movement.
Mechanically, it also featured one of the truly great IWC movements of the 20th century. The movement chosen was the 8541ES, an anti-magnetic and hacking variant of their historic 8541B. Whilst retaining the winding system developed by Albert Pellaton in the 1940s and a tried and tested architecture, this was an innovative piece in its own special way. It used a Breguet overcoil balance spring to give concentric development and was mounted in rubber to absorb shocks. For these reasons, it seems unfortunate that this watch was so unsuccessful during its years of production with only a few hundred being sold. This all was all the more tragic since it essentially doomed the use of IWC’s in-house movements in a time of economic instability. Despite this setback, IWC did not relent with its new design, and updated the concept in 1983.
Refined & Slimmed
With this update, IWC created the ref. 3505 — the refinement of the concept and one of the many ‘skinny’ Ingenieurs released in the 1980s with more slender cases. Clearly based upon the ref. 1832, the new model featured a 34mm case with a similar design. The lugs remained their recognisable shape and the bezel kept its slots for easy removal. Despite these clear similarities, IWC did a significant job of modernising the original concept by sharpening its curves and thinning its bezel. The dial was also revised with a timeless ‘graph paper’ pattern and a more uniform set of golden markers. What I find most remarkable is that, whilst the ref. 1832 offered a rather hefty 40mm case, the ref. 3505 gave the same specifications in a 34mm case of only 9mm in thickness. As a result, it was a true successor to the anti-magnetic dress watches of the 1950s and 1960s produced by IWC. Admittedly, this quite staggering diet when compared to the 1832 came courtesy of new internals.
Mechanically, this watch took a turn away from the technical heart of the Ingénieur collection. Gone was the in-house movement and in its place was found the calibre 375. The origins of this movement were found in the ETA 2892, thus giving it the same 4Hz beat rate, flat balance spring and 21 jewels. From these specifications, one could be forgiven for establishing that IWC were easing back on this collection. In reality though, such an assumption would be rather misguided as this was an industry-wide theme as it became increasingly difficult to make a profit in the 1980s.
As a side note, it is also important to remember that the prejudice which many enthusiasts have against 3rd party movements in luxury watches did not widely exist in the 1980s. At the same time, for example, Omega used their own variant of the ETA 2892 in the Seamaster 200 as the cal. 1111 and developed it into a co-axial calibre as the 2500. This also a testament to the quality of the ETA 2892 which would have made it attractive to IWC.
Returning to the centre of this story, IWC had demonstrated its superlative abilities in anti-magnetic development with the creation of its Ocean 2000 titanium dive watches. Released in 1981, these 2000m dive watches used titanium for its corrosion resistance and light weight. They also engineered their way around needing a helium escape valve. Such specifications cannot be ignored as this watch, made in collaboration between IWC and Porsche Design, offered an unmatched water resistance and practical design. Crucially for this story, the Ocean 2000 was used extensively by the German navy, thus explaining the no-nonsense design. In this function they also created an entirely amagnetic version of the ETA 2892 for the ‘minesweeper’ military versions of this watch. These were conceived to avoid the detonation of mines through the presence of magnetism and used beryllium balances, amongst other radical measures. Whilst the aim here was to not emit magnetic fields rather than resisting external ones, the result was the same.
The Ultimate Engineer’s Watch?
In this context, it strikes me as unsurprising that IWC was keen to develop these innovations into a flagship model instead of a model more commonly associated with Porsche Design. This model ultimately came in 1989 with the introduction of the ref. 3508: a sort of super-Ingénieur. Retaining the 34mm case of the existing Ingénieur range, the 3508 was able to keep the same 120m water resistance and discreetly rugged charm. Yet, I think that what makes this particular reference so interesting to me is the fact that it could very well be the most elegant of all Ingenieurs despite also being the most overtly technical.
Where previous models had patterned dials and enhanced markers at 12 o’clock, this embodied a more austere, timeless aesthetic. The dial was glossy in black or white and the markers were golden and plain to match the hands. The only glimpse of the mechanical madness within the case was seen in the 500,000 A/m print on the dial. To put this rating into context, the benchmark for anti-magnetism at the time was 1,000 Gauss or 80,000 A/m. Even more impressively, this rating was a vast understatement of the movement’s true capabilities as it survived 3.9 million A/m in testing: just over 49,000 Gauss. To provide some perspective, the watchmaking might of Omega has only managed to push this figure to 15,000 Gauss. Meanwhile, most standard automatic movements can resist 4,800 A/m or 60 gauss: enough to handle most daily tasks.
However, as much as I wish that I could declare the watch an overwhelming success, this simply wasn’t the case. To return to the Omega comparison, the new movements produced by Omega have achieved this anti-magnetism whilst also providing immense accuracy and durability. By contrast, IWC achieved its anti-magnetism at the expense of those factors.
Certainly, one cannot deny the ingenuity within the ref. 3508 — ingenuity which perhaps came all too soon for the available technology at the time. During the 1980s, IWC had become aware that the soft iron core used as a shield to protect the movement of virtually every anti-magnetic watch had its limitations. As a result, to move beyond the 1,000 Gauss level of magnetic resistance, IWC needed the movement itself to be amagnetic. They responded to such a need with the cal. 35790: an evolution of the ETA 2892-A2 with a niobium-zirconium hairspring, an anti-magnetic escapement and ruby rotor bearings. The result was a watch which was actually 0.2mm thinner than the watch which spawned it, despite retaining its water resistance.
Unfortunately, the movement was fundamentally flawed. IWC chose niobium-zirconium for the hairspring in order to prevent magnetism from shortening it, thus causing the watch to run fast. However, the issue with this material was a lack of isochrony across different temperatures. Consequently, a small fluctuation in temperature rendered the watch totally inaccurate: an ironic issue for a watch virtually immune to magnetism, a far greater foe of clockwork. As you can imagine, with a maximum of 3,000 being made in the short production run from 1989 to 1992, this watch was a commercial and a mechanical failure.
Yet, I do not feel that this failure was as ignominious as it is often portrayed. Modern anti-magnetism has come courtesy of the wonders of silicon springs — a technology which did not appear until the year 2000. For a watch of the 1980s, this piece was radically ahead of its time, despite its inherent shortcomings. Should it have worked, it could perhaps have become the ultimate expression of Genta’s concept of a stainless-steel luxury watch.