On April 25, 1981, attendees at the European Watch, Clock, and Jewellery Fair in Basel got their hands on something completely new. IWC introduced the Porsche Design Titan chronograph, the first titanium watch available for sale. The revolutionary material caught the watchmaking world off guard, and the Titan helped IWC and their partner Jaeger-LeCoultre survive the quartz crisis. This is the story of the watches created by legendary designer Ferdinand Alexander Porsche and the radical utilitarian watch designs he created with IWC. It’s also a story of how materials and design can spark customer enthusiasm and sales.
This article accompanies Episode 8 of The Watch Files, a podcast from Europa Star and Grail Watch. Listen to “Porsche Design and the Titanium Watch” and subscribe now!
Early Titanium Watches
Titanium emerged as a “super material” after World War II and was used in many military, aviation, and aerospace applications. Although it was an obvious material for sports watches, the difficulty in working with the material was a major issue. It would be decades before the first production titanium watch would appear.
Omega may be the first company to make a titanium watch case. Though it appears that only prototypes were made, Omega received some press in 1970 and 1971 for a titanium version of their specialist Seamaster 600 “Ploprof” watch. It used a case machined from a block of titanium, making it incredibly strong and light.
Contemporary coverage suggests that titanium Seamaster 600 watches were used during the Janus expedition in Corsica in September 1970. Just such a watch is pictured in late-1970 issues of all Europa Star magazines, with specific attention given to the use of titanium. A long-form article about Omega and the Janus project in 1971 goes into great detail about the benefits and construction of the titanium case for the Omega Seamaster 600.
But was such a watch ever produced for sale? OmegaPloprof.com notes that a Finnish advertisement also specifically lists a titanium version of the watch. But this impressively-detailed site also says that it was simply a “proposed” model and does not list it among the known models.
Citizen of Japan also produced an experimental titanium watch that same year. Their X-8 Chronometer was produced in limited numbers to test the usefulness of titanium as a space-age watch case material. This test must have failed, since the company produced less than 2,000 examples and did not make another titanium watch until the Atessa in 1987!
Although Citizen can rightly claim to have produced one of the first titanium watches, the X-8 had no impact on the market, either in terms of sales or trends. It was not mentioned in the European press and is not included in Citizen’s own contemporary promotional or technical materials. Like many companies, it took Citizen many decades to perfect mass production of titanium watch cases.
The Mystery and Beauty of Titanium
Although it is extremely durable and shock-resistant, titanium has an unusual patina. A solid titanium watch looks quite different from a steel one, and the surface texture is not often described as beautiful. But it is unusual, and this leads us to the next use of titanium in watches.
A company called Metaux Precieux SA came to the Basel Fair in 1973 to promote “the mystery and beauty of crude titanium.” Their prototype watches have a very unusual look, with previously-unseen color and texture. Although still difficult to work with, a bezel or dial could be produced economically.
Cyma appears to have created just such a watch, with a chemically-treated titanium dial, in 1974. Another company, Heno Watch, used a titanium dial in their 1975 Blue Dream for ladies, as did Neuchâtel-based Home Watch Company in 1977. These were produced in greater volume but, like many jewelry pieces from the 1970s, they are quite rare today.
All of these watches featured the unusual texture and finish of titanium for aesthetic purposes, but none leveraged the unique structural properties of the metal. Still, interest remained high in alternatives to brass, gold, and steel in watch cases.
Porsche Design: From Orfina to IWC
Porsche Design was founded in 1972 by Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, grandson of legendary car designer Ferdinand Porsche. After graduating from the College of Design in Ulm he rose within his family’s company to become Director of Design. It was F. A. Porsche who designed the famous 911, unveiled in 1963, but his favorite was the 904 Carrera GTS racing car.
After reading a biography of Soichiro Honda, who espoused professionalization over family involvement, Ferry Porsche excluded all family members from management roles at the company. This gave F. A. Porsche the impetus to start his own design bureau, and Porsche Design was created as an independent company from the famous car maker.
F.A. Porsche’s design language was said to be sober and objective, following the credo “form follows function.” He later worked on many common household items, but first his attention turned to watches.
In 1974, the first Porsche Design watches were unveiled. Manufactured and marketed by Orfina of Grenchen, the cases were covered in a special hardened black coating for durability. They borrowed the sober tachometer-inspired look of previous watches like the Omega Speedmaster but took the design to a new level thanks to Porsche’s sensibilities.
The Ref. 7750 Chronograph 1, as it was known, used the then-new Valjoux 7750 automatic chronograph movement, while a smaller companion watch, Ref. 7050, used a simple automatic movement. There is some controversy today about which year this watch was introduced, but I am confident that it was late 1974, with a grand debut at Basel in 1975. A future article will look deeper at the stories of an introduction as early as 1972, which is certainly incorrect.
These were marketed with the Porsche name and were connected in advertisements to the Porsche racing team and Ferdinand Porsche’s legacy if not the consumer car brand. And Porsche himself was able to get them into unusual retail locations, including car dealerships.
With Orfina a lesser-known company, their name was replaced on the dial with a “pd” logo in 1977, as a new line was released using the Lemania 5100 movement. These are distinguished by their four-hand stack (with minutes and seconds counters in the center) and a 24 hour dial at 12:00. They were issued by many global militaries, and these “Military” dial versions are in much demand today.
Due to its association with Mario Andretti (allegedly one was stolen from his wrist and replaced by the company) and its later use in the film Top Gun, these later Porsche Design Chronograph 1 watches are heavily in demand today. But even so, decent examples can be had for under $5,000.
IWC’s Porsche Design Kompassuhr
Still, F.A. Porsche wanted to create something truly different, and Orfina lacked the resources and technical capabilities he desired. He replaced his manufacturing partner the following year, selecting another Swiss German company. IWC signed on to manufacture and market Porsche Design watches just as the company was facing its darkest hour. Battered by the inflation of the Swiss franc relative to the US dollar, IWC was also beginning to feel the heat of Asian and American competition in quartz watches. The company needed a differentiator to continue marketing mechanical watches, and saw this in F.A. Porsche’s designs.
The first IWC Porsche Design watch was the unusual Kompassuhr (“Compass Watch”). Introduced in 1978, the dial had a secret: It hinged open, revealing a magnetic compass below the time module! This was possible because of the thin automatic Cal. 2892 recently introduced by ETA.
The Compass Watch was an oddball but the design language was pure Porsche Design. It featured a plain bezel and simple markers and hands. The crosshair dial suggested the compass inside, while the simple stick markers were reminiscent of automobile gauges. The lugs and bracelet were unusual as well, with a square utilitarian profile and exposed hardware.
The movement was modified to work so close to a magnetic needle. It used ruby bearings instead of steel balls to support the oscillating weight and anti-magnetic components were used throughout. Orfina could not manufacture such a watch, since they had no experience modifying movements in this way.
Porsche specified an unusual material for the case of the Compass Watch. It was constructed of black anodized aluminum, which superficially resembled the Orfina watches but was lighter, anti-magnetic, and more durable. This material had been used previously in horology but only rarely and never with an anodized coating.
IWC would produce a version with a moon phase indicator at 12:00 in 1985 as well as a titanium Compass Watch with the crown at 4:00 by 1992. IWC’s Porsche Design Compass Watch was unlike anything else on the market and found a following, if not massive sales. But it also laid a path for future offerings from the two companies.
IWC Porsche Design Titan Chronograph
The IWC Porsche Design Titan chronograph, introduced in late 1980, was truly a remarkable achievement. It was the first full-production watch with a titanium case and bracelet, and the design was instantly recognizable.
Although obviously an evolution of the earlier Chronograph 1 (and carrying some design cues from Omega’s Speedmaster Mark II), the new Titan chronograph case was entirely unique. Rather than carry forward F.A. Porsche’s rounded design, it blazed a new trail with integrated lugs and a shaped case that suggested a tonneau shape below the round bezel. The chronograph pushers were unique, integrated into the flat band around the case and spring loaded for tactile feel.
The dial was pure aerospace cool, taking the subdued technical look of Omega’s Speedmaster to the next level. Intended to evoke the gauges in Porsche’s 911 as well as the cockpit gauges of a military aircraft, the Titan dial exudes his form-over-function aesthetic.
But it was the titanium case and bracelet that drew everyone’s attention. Introduced in the beginning of 1981, the use of titanium wasn’t just a technical achievement but the primary selling point for the watch. The use of this lightweight metal provided a surprising contrast to the relatively large, bulky 42 mm case. IWC advertised it heavily, and soon every company in the industry was scrambling to catch up. Although a raft of titanium-cased watches were eventually released in 1985, IWC and Porsche Design dominated the market for the first half of the decade, the heart of the quartz crisis.
A companion Chronograph 02 was added in 1987. It featured a black anodized aluminum case with a circular profile more reminiscent of the original Chronograph 1 along with an integrated bracelet that resembled the Ocean. The integrated design gives it a thick profile despite a steep bevel on the integrated bezel. Despite the unusual shape, this model presaged the new direction Porsche would take in the future.
IWC also produced a smaller quartz version of the Porsche Design Titan chronograph by 1992. Although it lacks the “TITAN” engraving, the case is titanium like its predecessor.
IWC Ocean Dive Watch
The next great product of the collaboration between IWC and Porsche Design was no less important. The “Ocean” line of dive watches had a unique design reminiscent of military SCUBA equipment and were water resistant to an incredible 2000 meters! This was accomplished through the continued use of titanium for the case and bracelet but also because it was equipped with a special platinum and silver gasket and triple-sealed crown.
The automatic movement with date was paired with a dial that was a masterpieces of Porsche’s utilitarian design ethic. Simple markers, with wider sticks on the hours and a split triangle at noon allow the wearer to instantly orient the dial. And the flat stick hands have no concession to aesthetics.
But it was the bezel that caused the biggest stir. The coarse grain of titanium, combined with alternating raised and angled sections, gave the watch a military feel unlike anything else. In an era of two-tone gold and Genta-esque porthole bezels, the IWC Porsche Design Ocean was like nothing else. And the bezel featured a unique uni-directional ratchet system and minimalist marker, allowing it to be used for dive timing.
IWC claimed that the Ocean was the result of an order from the West German Navy, and the watch certainly looked the part. It came with a velcro-backed nylon strap in addition to IWC’s unique adjustable link bracelet, and a special screwdriver was included to change the straps. The original Ocean watch was relatively massive, measuring over 42 mm across, but wore well thanks to the lightweight titanium construction and integrated bracelet.
The 2,000 meter Ocean was later called the “Ocean Mido” once a 500 meter “Ocean 500” was added by 1987. This watch was simpler, with a screw-down crown and conventional gaskets, and measured a more manageable 34 mm diameter.
A Radical Sporty Watch Line
Although the titanium case was the most technically significant aspect of IWC’s work with Porsche Design, it was the aesthetics of the entire line that made the most impact. At a time when mechanical watchmaking was saved by tradition and craftsmanship, most watches (including IWC’s own Da Vinci) were quite fussy and formal. But the Porsche Design was radically different, with simple shapes, unique materials and finishes, and minimalist decoration.
Perhaps the closest competitor was Carlo Crocco’s Hublot, which also mixed simple shapes with innovative materials like his signature rubber straps. Indeed, the IWC Porsche Design Sportivo and later Titan models from the 1990s strongly resemble Hublot!
Another designer with similar sensibilities was Marc Newson, who created a line of Ikepod watches in the 1990s that also bore a resemblance to the work of F. A. Porsche. Newson’s Ikepod Seaslug watches, launched in 1995, definitely follow the same path as the IWC Porsche Design line.
F. A. Porsche’s own designs evolved over his two decades of collaboration with IWC. The Hublot-like rubber strap seen on the Sportivo line would replace the novel bracelet seen on the Titan and other watches, and its Hublot-like shape would spread across the line as well. And Porsche relaxed his famously strict design sensibilities, allowing IWC to add numerals and traditional frills to some of the Porsche Design watches.
Not all of the IWC Porsche Design line had titanium cases either. Many used aluminum or bead-blasted steel, but some included a gold bezel or other unexpected decoration.
The final F. A. Porsche design for IWC was a return to titanium. The Titan Automatic and Lady Titan brought together 20 years of design, with an “all-bezel” case, simple dial, and shield style lug covers, the design resembles the original Kompassuhr more than later models.
By this time, F. A. Porsche’s disagreements with his family were well resolved, and the companies were reunited. The Porsche family considered buying IWC from Mannesmann in the mid 1990s but was unable to separate it from Jaeger-LeCoultre. They also reportedly made an offer for Vacheron Constantin before it was acquired by Vendôme in 1996 (which incidentally ended up with IWC as well four years later). Instead, Porsche acquired Eterna in 1995, terminating their agreement with IWC in March of 1998.
By that point, the Porsche Design collection made up as much as 20% of IWC’s sales, and helped re-establish the brand. It was one of the longest-lasting co-branded watch experiments to date, but the time had come for both companies to separate. IWC followed the Porsche Design collection with their GST line, which used gold, steel, and titanium in innovative combinations. But it is their Aquatimer, produced under Georges Kern a few years later, that truly re-established IWC in the sports watch space.
Porsche Design, with Eterna, moved down-market to achieve higher volumes. The line moved from the 1500-to-4000 franc range in 1996 to the 500-to-2500 franc range a few years later. The company also took over distribution of their own products, bringing them out of watch retailers and into more visible environments. But this strategy did not work out, with production drooping to 25,000 watches per year by 2011. The company (and brand license) was sold to China Haidian Holdings (now called Citychamp) for a reported 25 million Swiss francs.
Porsche Design continues to produce watches in Switzerland, selling them worldwide alongside eyewear, luggage, accessories, and electronics. The company has occasionally reissued classic designs, but most are part of new collections. F. A. Porsche died on April 5, 2012 as Honorary Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Porsche, a title originally held by his father.
The Grail Watch Perspective
The design legacy of Ferdinand Alexander Porsche is undeniable, from the Porsche 911 to the titanium sports watches on today’s wrists. Looking back at the original Chronograph 01, we see the launch of a minimalist and modernist design trend that is reflected in every over-sized PVD-coated watch. And his trick of combining materials like rubber, titanium, aluminum, and steel is reflected in the “fusion” concept that made Hublot such a success under Jean-Claude Biver. His utilitarian design ideals, reflected by Marc Newson and Jony Ive, even impacted the great nemesis of mass-market watches, the Apple Watch! Porsche was truly one of the great designers of the horology industry.
One more thing: The first specific watch I ever wanted was a titanium Timex. I was fascinated by titanium as a material, given its aerospace and technology applications, and this watch was the coolest thing I ever saw. Looking back, I can see that this was an homage to the Porsche Design Ocean, though a kid in Connecticut wouldn’t have been exposed to such a watch. This just shows how Porsche’s ideas permeated the industry in the 1980s!