Most of you have probably heard about the IWC Pilot’s Watch Mark XVII. This is the latest incarnation of IWC’s classic line of pilots’ watches with a central hour, minute, and second hand and a date function. In this presentation we are going way back in time in order to trace its bloodline, which is one of the most important in the history of horology. The Mark series of watches were created as life saving tools for aviators, designed in accordance with military specifications and nowadays have reached a cult status that few wristwatches attain.
At the start of the 20th Century, mankind began to make its first endeavors to conquer the skies. The time-keeping apparatus was an essential tool that progressed in parallel evolution with aviation and those first attempts towards proper navigation in the air.
Leading the development of the early navigation wristwatches was Prof. Philip Weems of the U.S Naval Academy and the “Seconds-setting” watch that he designed which was produced by Longines in 1929. Later, in 1932, Longines again used the input of the great Charles Lindbergh to produce the “Hour Angle” model. (See our previous article: The History of the Pilot Watch Part 4 – Longines and Lindbergh). These two models, were the archetypal aviation watches that ultimately led to the development of a vast array of dedicated aviation timepieces, with some of the most famous belonging to the Mark family and the B-Uhr family (see our previous article: The History of the Pilot Watch Part Five: B-Uhr) of Aviation/Pilot/Navigator watches. The Mark series in particular, are considered to be among the most iconic bloodlines of purpose built timepieces in the history of horology.
History and evolution of the Mark Series
The Early models (IX – X)
From the earliest advent of flight, keeping track of time was an absolutely crucial element of the whole operation. The aviators had to deal with vibrations, extreme temperatures, variable light conditions and most importantly powerful magnetic fields. The watches that existed in those early days were not designed to withstand all of these conditions. The first watch from IWC specifically designed for Aviators was the originator of the Mark series, produced in 1936. The Spezialuhr für Flieger (Special Pilot’s Watch) had a black dial, high contrast luminous hands, and a rotating bezel which helped its user to measure elapsed time accurately up to one hour. It was of course a hand-wound timepiece, with the caliber 83, being shock-resistant and tested and adjusted at extreme temperatures. This specific model was one of the pioneers of the timepieces that we identify today as aviator watches, and it became known as the Mark IX. It is important to point out that it was never labelled by IWC as a Mark IX. Its name derived colloquially the next model,which was classified as a Mark X by the British MoD (Ministry of Defense).
In the early 1940s the British compiled a set of specifications for military watches that they wanted to supply to their troops. The twelve companies that produced watches which were accepted by the MoD as meeting these specifications, would later become known among collectors as the dirty dozen: Buren, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, Jaeger LeCoultre, Lemania, Longines, IWC, Omega, Record, Timor and Vertex. The Mark X name was adopted by all the manufacturers and in 1944 the IWC Mark X was issued to the military for service. It had the caliber 83 as well, and it was signed with the Broad-arrow or Pheon (which denotes property of the British Crown) and the three letters W.W.W (Watch. Wrist. Waterproof). For 4 years it was used by a variety of military personnel including RAF pilots and navigators. However the real start of the mark family came in 1948 with the model that perhaps created and helped to sustain the legend of the IWC aviation timepieces.
The mark series mature (XI-XII-XV)
The Mark XI is considered by many collectors to be one of the finest military watches ever produced. The XI entered service in 1949, having been specifically built in order to help the RAF navigators during their dead reckoning duties. For the personnel of that time a chronometer and a sextant were adequate in order to calculate latitude and longitude. The MoD put out requirements for a navigation timekeeping wristwatch, that would have a highly accurate movement with hack-device, an inner soft iron cage forming a shield to protect the movement from magnetic interference, a stainless steel waterproof case with a screwed ring in order to protect the crystal from sudden decrease of pressure, and a black dial with luminous hands. The XI was introduced into the RAF (Royal Air Force) and the FAA (Fleet Air Arm) in 1949 and into the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) in 1950. At first IWC and JLC (Jaeger Le Coultre) provided the watches, however having bought 2,000 XI’s from JLC the RAF decided to buy only from IWC (up to 1953). The tests these watches passed in order to be declared ‘fit’ for active service were quite demanding.
Upon delivery, the MkXI was subjected to an exhaustive 44-day testing period for ‘Navigator Wrist Watches’. Each batch, then had to be sent to the chronometer workshop of the Royal Greenwich observatory in Herstmonceux. All watches had to be sent there from active units for maintenance as well. These, ‘fitness’ tests entailed a 14-day period rating in 5 positions and at least two temperatures, plus further tests for ensuring the antimagnetic and waterproof properties of each piece. After passing these tests, each watch marked for a 12 month interval were the tests had to be run again. The Mark XI was originally reserved for use only by navigators while later on it was issued to pilots as well.
Although the last XI was delivered to the RAF in 1953 the type was not officially decommissioned untill 1981. IWC actually sold watches, in the open market, though its commercial network (around 1,000 pieces) while XI’s were still been given to pilots and navigators of the BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation). The watch was rather small and unassuming by today’s standards (36mm in diameter) and it was equipped with three hands and no date display. It was driven by the IWC caliber 89, which is generally considered one of the greatest movements ever produced. The caliber ran at 18,000 bph and was equipped with a barrel bedded at both ends, a patented drive for the central seconds hand, and a Breguet hair spring. Precision and reliability were the key descriptors for this fine piece of micro-engineering.
The replacement of this legendary wristwatch came in 1993 when IWC introduced the Mark XII. It maintained the 36mm diameter and similar styling throughout but featured the addition of a date window, and, for the first time, an automatic movement. Interestingly, it was a Jaeger LeCoultre caliber 889/2 that was used as a base for the IWC caliber 884/2. The well-reputed movement had 36 jewels and ran at 28,800 beats per hour. As Michael Friedberg, moderator of IWC’s ‘in-house’ forum, wrote in an article in 2000, “The Mark XII is more than a watch; it is an homage to the tradition of fine Swiss watchmaking. It salutes military watches; it salutes flight watches and it salutes the heritage of International Watch Company… In some ways, the Mark XII is the ordinary watch par excellence’“.
Through the Mark XII the precision military aviation timekeeper transformed into an austere and classy civilian wristwatch; this metamorphosis was completed with the 1999 introduction of the Mark XV, the model we photographed for this article. The peculiar thing someone might notice and wonder about is, why name it the 15 instead of 13 or 14? The rationale was purely due to superstition. The number 13 is considered unlucky in the U.S and Europe while the number 14 is shunned for similar reasons in Asia.
The XV introduced two radical changes. Firstly it grew bigger (38mm) and secondly instead of a JLC movement, it used a caliber 37524 from IWC which was based on the ETA 2892-A2 movement. In all other aspects it was a spitting image of its predecessor, the MkXII. While the first change was welcomed by collectors and buyers the second one was not so well received. For the first time a member of the legendary Mark family had not a JLC movement but an ‘ordinary’ ETA. However, this was far from an ordinary caliber (28,800 bph with 40-hour power reserve). IWC’s changes to the base movement were such that you could almost describe it as a total revision. According to official statements, the factory bought the top version of the 2892-A2 (chronometer version) and then proceeded to replace all critical components along the path from the escapement to the mainspring. The caliber was gold plated and adjusted in 5 positions and at least 2 temperatures, sticking with the tradition of the family. This was the end of the traditionally styled Mark model because in 2006, IWC introduced its revised successor.
The ‘New Mark’ (XVI-XVII)
In that year, IWC decided to update its entire Pilot’s collection by giving them a more unified look. The Mark XVI adopted the flieger hands of the Big Pilot’s Watch which were longer and wider in order to better fit the larger dials and cases. The watch grew by 1mm while the dial changed font; the numerals 6 and 9 were also omitted. The XVI used the IWC 30110.cal (based on the 2892-A2) while it kept the antimagnetic and waterproof qualities of its predecessors. The crown’s characteristically small fish emblem (to indicate water resistance) also changed to a ‘Probus Scafusia’ stamp. Although a radically revamped model, and one that was not received well by the traditionalist fans of the Mark series watches, the XVI kept many of its family’s inherent qualities while also becoming fresher and more modern. Its production ceased in 2012 when the Mark XVII (see here) was introduced.
In the history of wristwatches, few designs have been more archetypal than the remarkable IWC Mark family. These wristwatches were created for the specific needs of a special breed of professionals, the aviators. They have remained in production from 1936 until today. A large portion of their design character was dictated by purely military requirements, hence mottos like “Form follows Function” & “Less is more” find their true meaning in these watches.
Through the years the Mark wristwatch progressed from strictly a military styled tool to a watch that managed to keep its austere design qualities but also become a highly desirable wristwatch in the market. Either a modern or a vintage Mark timepiece would be the perfect everyday companion, which IWC obviously has understood, since they have revised it and offered many variations in their catalog throughout the years. Just check out the Mark XII for SAAB and Mark XVII Special Edition “Le Petit Prince” that IWC introduced last year.
From the point of its inception to the present day, the Mark has managed, like no other, to be associated with the aviator watch and nowadays it is classified, deservedly so, as one of the most important and influential timepieces in history.