The Classic Pilot’s Watch, The IWC Mark XII
A classic pilot’s watch design that stays true to its military heritage.
Our last subject on The Collector’s Corner was the Cartier Tank Américaine, and though we’re sticking to the theme of the classic time-only watch for a little bit longer, this week we’ll look at one with a very different flavour. The inaugural article in The Collector’s Corner was about the IWC Doppelchronograph reference 3711. In 1993, one year after that reference was released, IWC followed up with a classic time-and-date-only pilot’s watch that stuck to the utilitarian design of the military watch Mark XI, yet added some refinements to make it a more compelling product for the civilian population. That’s right. We’re talking about the Mark XII, the first in a long line of civilian pilot’s watches in IWC’s Mark collection. No other model line has stayed as true to its inspiration and is as instantly recognizable as an IWC as the classic Mark. And, it especially makes sense to talk about the Mark XII now, since IWC has released the latest generation of the collection, the Pilot’s Watch Mark XX.
Time for a condensed history lesson. IWC’s resurgence out of the quartz crisis is largely thanks to the tireless efforts of Günter Blümlein. Much as it was the case for IWC’s Richemont stable companies Jaeger-LeCoultre and A. Lange & Söhne, it was Blümlein’s management of and vision for the brands in Les Manufactures Horlogères that allowed them to forge their own distinct identity. It is difficult to describe Mr. Blümlein’s accomplishments in the span of a single paragraph, so feel free to read our in-depth feature remembering Mr. Blümlein, 20 years after his passing. Blümlein’s IWC marked a clean break from the old-fashioned company of the past. The new IWC was masculine, bold, no-nonsense, and more importantly young – a company that put engineering at the fore and made watches for adventurers. Not only did the new IWC innovate with novel materials, but it also made great strides in bringing complications to the masses, with clever engineering solutions that allowed it to offer high complications at a fraction of the cost of its competitors’ offerings. Blümlein also made IWC’s iconic pilot’s watch available to the general public, first with the mechaquartz chronograph reference 3740, then with the Mark XII ref. 3241.
IWC and the Dirty Dozen
Like so many other watches that were built to a specification, the IWC Mark series has its roots in a military brief. The Mark series’s design was more or less dictated by a British Ministry of Defense’s contract during World War II (though IWC also could draw inspiration from its own Special Pilot’s Watch ref. 436). Twelve watchmaking companies were commissioned to fulfil this contract, leading to the “Dirty Dozen” moniker. Given that these watches were meant to be worn into the field, they had to be built to exacting specifications:
- The watches had to be regulated to chronometer standard
- They had to be waterproof and shockproof
- They had to have a black dial with Arabic numerals and a railroad minute track, with luminous hour and minute hands and luminous hour markers
- The watches had to be fitted with a shatterproof crystal and a stainless steel case
Watches in the Dirty Dozen were engraved with two serial numbers on the caseback. The first was the military store number, and the second was the civilian manufacturing number. The caseback was also engraved with the broad arrow marking, designating it government property, and WWW designation, which stands for “Watch, Wrist, Waterproof”. It is believed that a total of around 150,000 units were built and delivered, though it is difficult to determine the exact number since each of the twelve companies manufactured different numbers. Additionally, it is possible that many of the watches were later destroyed due to the presence of the radioactive isotope Radium-226 on the dials.
IWC’s contribution to the MoD brief was the Mark X. Neither the rarest of the lot nor the most common, it is estimated that between 5,000 and 6,000 examples of the Mark X were manufactured. What makes the Mark X especially desirable to collectors, however, is the reliable and beautiful calibre 83 inside. When the Mark X was phased out of production in 1948, it was replaced by the Mark XI, which was again a military-only timepiece. Entering service in 1949 and finally decommissioned in 1984 when the last pieces were sold, the Mark XI upped the size of the case from 35mm to 36mm and introduced the updated, chronometer-grade calibre 89, which featured centre seconds with hacking and an antimagnetic soft iron shield to protect the calibre inside.
In 1993, IWC sensed the potential in selling a civilian version of the Mark XI; the rest is history, as they say!
The IWC Mark XII – The Basics
The Mark XII ref. 3241 is a discretely-sized watch at 36mm. Across all case metals offered, the case is entirely satin-finished. Seen head-on, the tops of the lugs are brushed with a circular pattern. The circular brushing extends to the narrow conical bezel, which is slightly set back from the case flanks and has a small vertical portion. In contrast, the case flanks, characterized by the blended lugs that are integrated into the case band, are longitudinally brushed.
The back is a simple affair – the circular-brushed caseback is engraved “IWC” and “Die Fliegeruhr Automatik”, the automatic pilot’s watch. Underneath the caseback, there is a secondary caseback, made of soft iron, which acts as a shield against magnetic fields. The screw-down crown is sharply knurled and features the IWC fish logo, a testament to the six-bar water resistance of the watch. The steel or 18k yellow gold Mark XII references came either on a leather strap with an IWC-signed pin buckle or on a bracelet in the matching case metal. The bracelet is an elaborate affair – small links, in alternating rows of five and six links, entirely brushed, with a double-folding deployant clasp.
Now we come to the dial, which is designed with legibility front and centre. The colour scheme is white on black – large Arabic numerals mark the hours on the matte black dial. The numeral 3 is omitted to free up space for a date window, black on white for maximum legibility. A large triangular index indicates the 12 o’clock position. A simple minutes track lies outboard the hours, and four plots of tritium lume mark out the quarters. Baton hands inlaid with tritium and a white lacquered, counterweighted seconds hand that reaches to the very outer point of the minutes track complete the picture.
The Mark XII uses the automatic Jaeger-LeCoultre cal. 889/2, doing work as the IWC Cal. 884. The use of a JLC movement in an IWC model is not surprising, as both companies were operating under the LMH umbrella at the time and technology was shared. The 889/2 is known to be a thin movement, over-engineered in typical JLC fashion, with a balance that beats at a modern frequency of 4 hertz, is adjusted in 5 positions, and has 38 hours of power reserve.
Why should you consider the IWC Mark XII?
Let’s get one thing out of the way: I like the Mark XII. Sure, looks are subjective and something that piques one collector’s interest can be considered borderline boring by a different collector. There are no fancy bells and whistles on the Mark XII. Everything about the watch is a repetition of the mantra “just enough, just right”. The watch doesn’t announce itself and it doesn’t scream for attention. It does everything it needs to do, and it does so quietly and unpretentiously. The dial is matte black to prevent glare, but it is also ever so slightly textured. Then there’s the size and positioning of the date window. Sure, would the Mark XII have been even better without a date? Yes, I think so. But here, the date is positioned perfectly, right in line the circle formed by the Arabic numerals. Could the watch have been larger? Yes, but it does not need to be – the goldilocks size of 36mm makes the watch perfect for day-in, day-out wear. Finally, even though I’m not a bracelet guy, I think the beads of rice bracelet deserves a special mention. Though the endpiece looks slightly dated, with its two attachment points (five in the Mark XII’s successor Mark XV), there’s no denying the build quality of the bracelet, thanks to the use of solid links throughout and a fully screwed construction.
Another reason I like the Mark XII is that there is a reference for everyone. Do you want the classic tool watch in steel? You’ve got it. You want your Flieger to be a bit more dressy? IWC has you covered, with a luxe version in 18k gold (reference IW924101 came with a full 18k bracelet in the same beads of rice style as the one in steel). IWC also made several limited editions of the Mark XII for various markets, rewarding the patient collector who wants something rarer than a standard Mark XII (source: “Special Edition IWC Mark XII and Mark XV Watches” by Nelson Herring, Hans Goerter and Adrian van der Meijden).
- IW324104: steel with black dial, Edition “Cathey Pacific”, limited edition of 1,000 pieces
- IW324107: platinum with blue dial, limited edition of 420 pieces
- IW324108: gold with black dial, Edition “Cathey Pacific”
- IW324109: platinum with black dial and poire hours hand, special model for Asian market, limited edition of 80 pieces
- IW324110: steel with black dial and red seconds hand, special model for IWC Denmark, limited edition of 25 pieces
- Patrouille Suisse: steel with black “Swiss Red Cross” dial, limited edition of 30 (estimated) pieces
- Emilio Fontana: titanium with blue “EF”dial and no date, limited edition of 100
- Giorgio Latuada: titanium with blue “GL” dial, limited edition of 100
- SAAB “Mellow Yellow”: titanium with dark grey/black “SAAB” dial, limited edition of 210 pieces
The “EF”, “GL”, and “Mellow Yellow”, though modelled after the Mark XII design, are not Mark XII watches, strictly speaking. These three models have the “3242” base in their reference number (e.g. IW3242xx), as opposed to the “3241” base for the Mark XII (with the 18k yellow gold standard reference IW924101 being the odd one out). Apart from their titanium cases, what also separates these models is their use of the calibre 37522, a decorated and heavily modified ETA 2892A2. The 1997 “Mellow Yellow” marked the transition from the use in the Mark family of JLC movements, which were not considered robust enough for a tool watch, to ETA movements.
Every watch company has that one defining model. For Jaeger-LeCoultre, it’s the Reverso. Rolex has its Submariner. Omega has the Speedmaster. I would argue that for IWC, the classic time-and-date pilot’s watch is arguably the watch that is most recognizably IWC and has maintained the closest design continuity to its inspiration over its lifetime. The Mark XII ref. 3241, as the progenitor of the civilian’s pilot watch, has cemented its place in the hall of fame of IWC greats.
We’d like to thank the team at Analog:Shift who provided all photos of the standard stainless steel IWC Mark XII watches that illustrate this article. www.analogshift.com.
This is just great. This article will now only boost the prices of these watches on the secondary market 🙁
One of my first watch purchases and I still enjoy seeing it on my wrist