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The History & Evolution of the IWC Mark Series

IWC Pilot's Watch Mark XX Illustration

War has always incubated innovation, and that certainly goes for precision timekeeping – crucial wherever combat ventures next. That’s as true with the early, artillery shell-defying trench watches as it is in the cockpit, the latter being where some of the most iconic mil-spec pieces ever assembled are most at home.

This is perfectly illustrated by a more recent ‘Hollywood watch moment’ back in 2017, Dunkirk. After all, if there’s one director likely to get things bang-on, it’s Christopher Nolan. So, when Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot repeatedly pulls back his shearling cuff to note in chalk his dwindling fuel reserves, you know Nolan will have kitted him out with an authentic military-spec pilot’s watch. Not only is it a genuine Omega from WWII, but it’s not even the CK2292 model that less detail-oriented directors would have plumped for (the Omega that constituted most of the Swiss marque’s 110,000-strong supply to British forces over the course of the war).

Omega CK2129 worn by Tom Hardy in the movie Dunkirk.

No, Hardy’s fighter ace wears a particularly early iteration Omega, panic-ordered by the RAF in early 1940 to the tune of just 2,000 units. Its novel rotating ‘bezel’ around the dial aided navigation (remember those tiresome time, distance, speed calculations in GCSE maths?) and cleverly, a second crown at four o’clock locked the bezel, so timing couldn’t be affected by accidental knocks in a cramped cockpit.

These are all the sorts of considerations that come into a military-specification, or ‘mil-spec’ pilot wristwatches. Ultra-utilitarian details and Boy’s Own anecdotes that not only make for vivid selling points, let alone real-world practicality, but have pushed forward the humble wristwatch’s development more than any other purpose.

It’s why, for military-watch aficionados – right up there with those Omegas, the Longines Weems and pre-1970s Panerais – there’ll always be a particularly treasured niche for the Mk series IWCs. And it’s why this year’s biggest blockbuster saw Maverick’s hotshot recruits flinging their F/A-18 Hornets through mountains sporting the latest Strike Fighter Tactical Instructor chronographs made for the US Navy’s actual ‘TOPGUN’ by IWC.

IWC Mark IX Circa 1936

IWC Mark IX circa 1936, image credit: Phillips.

With all due respect to Omega, Thomas Hardy should probably have been sporting IWC’s original Mk, the Mark IX – specced for the RAF in 1935. But once WWII started in earnest, the newfound strategic import of air dominance meant every Swiss, British, French, German, Japanese, and American watchmaker couldn’t kit-out the wrists of fighter and bomber crews nearly quickly enough.

Mark IX certainly contributed to victory throughout the Battle of Britain and beyond, keeping Spitfire and Hurricane pilots in no doubt as to their fuel reserves, thanks to a glass bezel to mark take-off time. With a black dial (small hacking seconds for a definitive, unobscured read-out), shatterproof dome, and large luminous numerals, it set the pilot-watch agenda – managing also to be the most rugged wristwatch yet built.

After all, it had to weather extreme plunges in temperature at altitude, vibrations fed back through the control stick from the engine, and turbulence acting on ailerons and rudder, plus extreme g-forces both negative and positive – all the while maintaining nigh-on-chronometer precision. Into the bargain, a soft-iron inner case, which protected IWC’s calibre 83 mechanics from the magnetism of all the solenoids populating the era’s ever-more-sophisticated cockpit instrumentation.

IWC Pilot's Watch Mark XI circa 1948

IWC Pilot’s Watch Mark XI circa 1948

Collectors still go the maddest for IWC’s longest running flying machine, the magnificent Mark 11 (or Mark XI, depending on your – or indeed IWC’s – version of history). But what of the intervening ‘X’? Don’t get us wrong, X is still the Holy Grail on the scale of mil-spec collectability, but only when dubbed ‘W.W.W.’ and accompanied by 11 other near-identical models from 11 other watchmakers. A complete set is fondly known – yes, you know already – as the Dirty Dozen.

The Mk 11 was primarily military issue, therefore hard to come by until the MoD jettisoned them as surplus. The last consignment was delivered in 1978 to the Australian Air Force, but Mark 11 remained in service well into the eighties. By the time the mechanical watch revival hit, it was a bona fide collector’s item and an auction catalogue regular. Something that didn’t go unnoticed by IWC, who in 1988 introduced the Pilot’s Watch Chronograph MechaQuartz (Flieger Chronograph Ref. 3740) with styling drawn from the Mark XI and ticking to the tune of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s analogue quartz chronograph calibre 631 – one of the first to be developed.

IWC Pilot's Watch Mk XII

IWC Pilot’s Watch Mk XII

IWC Pilot's Watch Mk XV

IWC Pilot’s Watch Mk XV

A brief hiatus, then a tentative toe back into pure pilot territory, with the Mark XII. It was produced in hen’s teeth numbers, though; regardless of any lack in military credentials, or heft on the wrist, pounce if you see one.

Which brings us to 1999, and the launch of the Pilot’s Watch Mk XV Classic. Finally: Mark XI desirability recaptured, in faithfully mechanical form. Size-wise, perfect at 9mm thick and 38mm across – 2mm up on the Mk XII. Helmets and goggles off to IWC for keeping these proportions reined-in over the ensuing years, despite contemporary tastes. The XX of 2022 is still just 40mm of corrosion-resistant stainless steel, sitting comfortably beneath fitted flying gloves.

IWC Pilot’s Watch Mark XX

IWC Pilot’s Watch Mark XX

In many ways, the Mark XX is the final form of the IWC classic. It shares many similarities with the previous model, but with the kind of quality-of-life minute adjustments that suggest someone at IWC has been trawling watch forums. The various indexes have been enlarged, the iron sights have been moved closer to the ‘this way up’ 12 o’clock triangle and the whole thing has been made slightly slimmer, all the better to slip under a cuff outside of a cockpit. Even the date window has been shifted out a millimetre and changed colour.

And while a date window is of little use at Mach 2.0 (let alone any hope of clean dial design) all other aviation credentials are intact, too. The high-contrast dial with white, luminous numerals and indices, the triangular index at 12 o’clock for absolute orientation, and precision ensured by the IWC-manufactured 32111 calibre with automatic winding and a power reserve of 120 hours – based on the geometry of ETA’s bulletproof workhorse, 2892, but made by Richemont Group’s Valfleurier facility, boasting an antimagnetic, isochronic silicon escapement.

IWC Pilot's Watch Mark XX and XI

IWC Pilot’s Watch Mark XX and XI

The Mark XX is still the clean, clear, ultimately legible pilots watch that made the Mark XI a grail watch. It still has the hefty look and feel of a modern military piece. And it proves why IWC is still the reigning champ of the skies, whether that’s the cockpit of a Spitfire or a starring role in Top Gun.

If you feel the need, the need for speed, then IWC is still your wingman, any day.

More details at IWC.

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About the author

Alex Doak

Alex is a freelance writer and editor based out of his east London home office/yoga studio/classroom (lockdown has brought its distractions, needless to say). Specialising in watches, you can find Alex’s timely words under mastheads as diverse as CNN, Evening Standard, GQ, Port and Mr Porter himself.