The History of the IWC Portugieser

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The story behind the iconic collection

An icon of modern elegance, IWC Schaffhausen’s Portugieser collection is renowned for its ability to blend plus-size power with after-five elegance, offering the perfect balance between modern sensibilities and classical style. There’s also a long and rich history behind the Portugieser name, a tale that spans from Switzerland to Portugal, and even Ukraine. This is the strange story of a watch born in 1939, that was plucked from obscurity to become a modern-day hit.

Mysterious beginnings

In the late 1930s work had begun on the watch that would eventually inspire the modern-day Portugieser collection. Two Portuguese businessmen, Rodrigues and Antonio Teixera, had a need for a particular type of watch that did not yet exist. They approached IWC with a bespoke request; a modern wristwatch, cased in steel that offered the precision and accuracy of a marine chronometre. IWC met this challenge, developing an unusual watch, known only by the reference number 325. The reason this watch stood out was its size. Reference 325 had a case width of 41.5mm, which might not seem too large today, but in the 1930s it was very large indeed, especially considering that the average men’s watch would have been in the 34 to 36mm region. Of course, the reason for this hefty size was the fact that ticking away inside was a large and accurate pocket watch movement — precisely what the Portuguese gentlemen ordered.

The Ukrainian Link

The first reference 325 watches were sold in 1939. Somewhat surprisingly, they weren’t sold in Portugal, but the other end of Europe, in Ukraine. It wasn’t until three years later, in 1942 that the first watches made it to their namesake country. And while there’s no clear answer for the delay, it isn’t too hard to guess. Europe in the 30s and 40s was being torn apart by the Second World War, and even though the famously neutral Switzerland took no part, trade was unpredictable, disrupted and delayed, which makes the fact that the Portuguese first showed up in Ukraine, slightly more understandable.

One of the first Portugieser wristwatches, reference 325, sold to a Ukrainian watch wholesaler, L. Schwarcz in Odessa

Defining Features

From its earliest days, the Portugieser was defined by its form. The sizeable movement ensured the watch would have a large case and a sub-seconds dial. And while the colour of the dial and details have changed over the years, a few features remain constant: an outer minute track, clear Arabic style numerals and typically hands elegant ‘feuille’ or ‘leaf’-style hands. From 1939 till today, these are the hallmarks of the Portugieser’s distinctive style, details that are still evident in current models such as the new Portugieser Automatic Chronograph.

The Quiet Years

It’s fair to say that the Portuguese was not a best-seller early on. IWC’s records show that from its inception in 1939 until 1981, a total of 690 ‘Portuguese’ watches were made. These were divided into three distinct versions, with the watch proving particularly popular in the German market.

Given the scarce numbers and niche appeal of the reference 325, it would be reasonable to assume that the watches sold in 1981 were the last, and this beautiful watch would become a footnote in IWC’s history. But in 1993 something unlikely and remarkable happened, and it changed the fate of the Portugieser forever.

The Rebirth

Iw544101 Portuguese Anniverary Wrist Watch

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, IWC was, like many Swiss brands, busy recovering from the mauling the traditional Swiss industry had endured in the face of cheaper, mass-produced quartz watches, commonly referred to as the ‘Quartz Crisis’. But fine watchmaking was finding its feet again, and IWC was showing its technical capabilities with watches like the Da Vinci, a ground-breaking perpetual calendar chronograph designed by the ingenious watchmaker Kurt Klaus, and pioneering uses of ceramic in watch cases. The brand was also preparing for its 125th anniversary in 1993, and planning several celebratory special editions. In the lead up to this launch a board member visited the Schaffhausen manufacture with a vintage reference 325 on his wrist. It was immediately noticed and soon after the decision was made – the ‘Portuguese’ would make a return in 1993.

From Strength to Strength

IWC’s jubilee saw the brand release 1,000 models in steel, 500 in rose gold and 250 in platinum. The combination of heritage, timeless style and a case size that was in sync with modern trends ensured that it was a hit. Several other special releases followed, and in 1998 IWC released the famous Portuguese Chronograph, with sub-dials  at six and 12 o’clock. A perpetual calendar and tourbillon joined in 2003 and 2004 respectively. Still, it was the 2004 release of the Portuguese Automatic reference 5007 that saw popularity explode, pairing the by-now iconic style with the famous 7-days automatic movement from the 52000 calibre family.

A New Name

The Portuguese formally changed its name to the Portugieser in 2015, when the line celebrated its 75th anniversary. Along with a range of limited editions and a new Annual Calendar model, IWC announced that the Portuguese was now officially the Portugieser. The new name is German for ‘Portuguese’, and reflects both its origins in German-speaking Schaffhausen, and the original reference 325’s strong appeal in Germany. 

The Portugieser Today

The Portugieser has come a long way from its mysterious origins. Today it is one of the IWC’s most popular and diverse collections with colourful dials and numerous complications. In 2020 it was announced that the entire line is now powered by IWC-manufactured movements. Also announced were some significant new additions, like the Portugieser Automatic 40, which sees the iconic ‘Big Watch’ take on a smaller form than ever before. This model bears a strong family resemblance to the original reference 325 models, going to show that good design is timeless.

The other major innovation is the smartly proportioned IWC Portugieser Perpetual Calendar 42, a significant complication for the brand and a staple in the Portugieser family, now imagined in a slightly smaller size. If you ever find your way into an IWC boutique and try on one of IWC’s prestigious Portugiesers, be sure to give quick thanks to those two businessmen, Rodrigues and Antonio Teixera, without whom we might not have this wonderful watch.

This article is written by our content contributor Felix Scholz and Andy Green

Published 25 September 2020