Today we look at one of the most interesting watches to come along in a very long time, the beautiful IWC “Tribute to Pallweber Edition 150 Years.” We’ll just be calling it the IWC Pallweber for short. Join me as I discuss the history, aesthetics, and movement of this brilliant watch.
By now you’ve probably spied the key detail to the Pallweber, and that those numbers you’re looking at aren’t a big date complication. Yes, like a tiny number of other mechanical watches, most notably the Lange Zeitwerk, this is a digital watch, or I suppose technically, ana-digital, thanks to that relatively conventional seconds subdial. That’s owing to a contribution by Austrian engineer Josef Pallweber.
In 1883, Pallweber developed the “jumping numeral” mechanism that made the original IWC Pallweber models work. IWC released Pallweber pocket watches for just a few years in the mid-1880s. The Pallweber model seemed like a pretty big hit, with an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 models produced (most estimates are closer to the higher of those two numbers), but for reasons unknown to me, the design was put away. Today’s Pallweber models are not reissues, of course, as they are wristwatches and not pocket watches, but they do get remarkably close to the aesthetic of the original.
And what an aesthetic it is. It’s remarkably austere. If it weren’t so beautiful, I’d almost be tempted to compare this with tool watches in terms of legibility.
But I won’t do that, because although extremely clean and functional, this is all in service of beauty. Just look at that stunning blue lacquer dial as it transitions into a lovely glow as the light hits it more directly.
The blue is actually much darker in poor lighting, more of a navy. In good lighting, it becomes a solid, clear blue, but it’s when it’s in bright, direct light that it really shines, literally and figuratively, gaining a beautiful and dynamic glow.
But this is really the part you’re interested in, the digital hours and minutes displays. The hour ring has, to oversimplify, basically the shape and size of a large date ring on any ordinary watch. The minute disks, conversely, function more like a big date complication, with the right numeral rotating every minute, the left numeral rotating only once per ten minutes. Combined, they cover nearly the entire mainplate of the watch behind the dial, hence part of the need for a large case (45mm).
One of the things that surprised me most about the Pallweber complication is just how seamless and functional it is. For one thing, I expected the numerals to be too small to read on the wrist, but quite to my surprise, it was very easy to read, even with my poor eyesight. Likewise I was concerned that the minutes or hours wouldn’t change over exactly when the seconds hand reaches 60, or that there might be some gradual progression of the disks. Those fears were unfounded, with minutes, tens of minutes and hours all changing over exactly at the 60 second mark, and instantaneously at that.
Another surprising aspect of the watch is just how loud it is. I’m not talking about the sound of the escapement, although it is a bit louder than what I’m used to, but rather, the sound of the numerals changing over. The more numerals change (from 11:59 to 12:00, for instance), the louder it is. It took me a few minutes to recognize where I’d heard this precise sound before–it’s the sound two dominoes hitting each other. It’s not so loud that it’ll wake you up at night, but it is certainly audible from the wrist in a quiet room, particularly at hour changeovers. Whether this is a charming eccentricity or an annoyance is up to the owner, I suppose, but I will say that it is at least a pleasant, refined sound.
Perhaps the only conventional part of the entire watch can be found in the analog seconds hand, dutifully ticking 8 times per second. The seconds hand does hack, for those who want to set their watches very precisely (which, I suspect, is the kind of person a design this austere would appeal to, namely myself). I can only guess why IWC, and Lange as well, have used an analog seconds hand with digital hours and minutes, but my speculation is that it would have been prohibitively inefficient from a power consumption point of view. Even with large dual mainsprings, the watch manages “only” 60 hours, so perhaps the power draw to rotate one step per second would have been too great. Of course, you could have used a smoothly rotating disk, like the old TAG Heuer Grand Carrera models but that might have been even more incongruent.
The steel case, like the dial, does a great job of honoring its predecessor, although its task is admittedly more challenging, given that its inspiration is a pocket watch. Nonetheless, the resemblance is quite clear, with a simple and elegant barrel shape.
As a consequence of the size of the movement, the watch is also quite large at 45mm. As you will see when we look at the back, there was basically no way to make it any smaller, so while I don’t know what the original pocket watch’s dimensions were, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were pretty close in this way as well. Regardless, it provided the space needed for extremely large numeral disks, so legibility was enhanced. Despite the addition of Pallweber’s mechanism, it remains reasonably thin at 12 millimeters.
The crown is quite large and classical, necessary to wind the dual mainsprings, which have quite a bit of resistance. Despite this, it’s a very smooth winding watch, and thankfully, easy to set as well. As you would expect of a hand-wound watch, it does not screw down.
Now let’s take a look at this gorgeous and horologically impressive cal. 94200, part of IWC’s exotic 94000 family. This is the same family of movements that powers watches like the Constant-Force Tourbillion and the Siderale Scafusia, so this is a legitimately high-end part by anyone’s standards. Before we get knee-deep in how this all works, we can take a moment to appreciate just how beautiful it is. IWC movements are consistently among my favorite, in terms of aesthetics, for two reasons. One is that they fill the entire case back, but another is that they really showcase the complexity of the movement. IWC tends to be Germanic when it comes to aesthetics, but Swiss when it comes to movements, and the lack of a German 3/4 plate allows us to appreciate all of the separate components.
The Pallweber models also feature a lovely little gold medallion on the movement, far more impressive than the simple “limited edition” engraving you get on the back of most LEs.
The 94200 is an incredibly complex movement, but I’m going to start with what we can see of the components that make Pallweber’s digital complication work. What we’re looking at here is the very center of the movement, specifically the bridge over the release lever. You can also see the release wheel, northwest of the bridge, and the cam wheel, southeast of the bridge. Think of the release lever (you can see a little spring, part of the release lever, revealed under the bridge) as the connection between two different movements, the timekeeping components and the digital components. Once every 60 seconds, the bridge is connected for just a moment, and the single minute disk is allowed to rotate, and potentially the 10 minute disk and hour ring as well. This is what causes the digital time to stay stationary on the dial even while the timekeeping progresses on the seconds hand.
Unfortunately, the other components of this mechanism are hidden, but I’ll try to explain how this all works. On a fundamental level, the release lever works as a kind of second escapement, allowing the energy already stored (more on that later) in the digital part of the watch to advance at precise intervals. This happens because a cam wheel is sliding across the elegantly designed release lever, and when the slope of the cam falls off, it, in essence, opens the gate for the digital side of the watch to advance one step. The way the digital side of the watch advances in such a coordinated fashion is beautifully simple, with the single minute disk operating as cam. A lobe between 9 and 0 (but nowhere else, thus this only happens once per ten minutes) engages the first Maltese cross wheel, connected to the ten minute disk. The Maltese cross wheel is a uniquely shaped gear and it’s why the time advances in discrete steps, instead of in a smooth, sweeping way like the seconds hand. Likewise, a second Maltese cross wheel, this time connected to the hour ring, is advanced by a lobe on the 10-minute disk. The whole thing is very efficiently designed and quite remarkable in action.
The watch has a 60 hour power reserve, which, while about 50% more than the industry average (not to mention the Zeitwerk), isn’t quite what you would expect for a movement with two enormous mainsprings. But there’s a reason for that.
While both barrels are wound together, they’re responsible for entirely separate parts of the watch. The top barrel (left in this diagonal image) is solely dedicated to the digital complication. Apparently, this complication takes a huge amount of energy to operate, and if it’s powered by the same mainspring that supplies the escapement, it can affect timekeeping (in addition to shortening the power reserve, of course). There are a variety of technical solutions for this kind of problem, but IWC simply gave the complication its own dedicated power source. The mainspring on the right, conversely, powers the rest of the watch in the way any ordinary mainspring might.
Specifically, it powers this, the escapement, and as usual with high-end IWCs, this has basically all of the features of a very well-designed movement. In this instance, we see a free sprung balance, which is used by many respected brands (among them Rolex, Omega, Patek, JLC and many others) to enhance performance, as opposed to the smooth balance/regulator combination that is found in the vast majority of mechanical watches, like the ubiquitous ETA 2824 or the Valjoux 7750.
Here you can see the screws in the rim of the balance, which I’ve highlighted for you. Since free sprung balances lack a regulator to make changes in timekeeping, a pair of these screws can be screwed in towards the axis of the balance wheel or unscrewed away from it, which will either increase or decrease the rate of the watch.
It also employs a Breguet overcoil, which while very small, I’ve also highlighted in red. Unfortunately, this is as close my equipment will take me, so hopefully it’s still adequately visible. Very few companies use Breguet overcoils, among them Rolex and, of course, Breguet, but they are another hallmark of high-end watchmaking.
The Pallweber is a fascinating watch, not merely due to its exotic mechanical digital nature, but rather, due to how surprisingly practical this watch is. Unlike much of haute horology, the Pallweber really could be your everyday watch. It’s perfectly legible, aesthetically versatile and quirk-free, minute-changing noise notwithstanding.
But behind its beautiful, yet simple, facade runs an incredibly sophisticated and complex movement, as technically impressive as it is lovely. Here you have a watch not only with a rare complication, but with an entire mainspring dedicated to that complication, making it nearly two movements in one. It’s a uniquely restrained watch, in that way, with very little fanfare as to its nature.
It should be self-evident that this watch (in this instance, we’re looking at the IW505003 in particular) is not inexpensive, and you’d be right. This blue Pallweber is $23,100, but to keep that price in perspective, we can compare it to the Lange Zeitwerk. Even if we use the gold IW505002 for a more apples to apples comparison, which is $36,600, that’s only about half as much as the comparable Zeitwerk, the 140.032. I don’t point that out to suggest that many are cross-shopping the Zeitwerk and the Pallweber, merely that the price isn’t outrageous for the complication.
The crucial point, for me, is that this is a watch that delivers on every level. That’s exactly what I look for in my own watches. The watch has to be interesting, aesthetically, horologically, and even historically if that can be arranged, and the Pallweber models do all of those things. And they do it in a uniquely reserved way, in the sense that, while a watch like the IWC Siderale Scafusia or Zenith Christophe Colomb is undeniably awesome, it’s also not a watch you’d realistically wear every day. The Pallweber really could be your main watch if you wanted it to be. It’s yet another instance of a limited edition (in this case of 500) that I wish were full production. I’d much rather have one of these be in the permanent collection than another perpetual calendar or tourbillon, but alas, it was not to be.
If you’d like to learn more about the IWC Pallweber, please click here, or call us at 214-494-4241 to see if we still have any remaining.