The IWC Portugieser Automatic
by Walt Odets
In the late 1930's, IWC received an order from a Portugese customer for a wristwatch the same size and accuracy as a pocket watch. It was delivered, in a steel case. In 1995, IWC released the first contemporary Portugieser, the Ref. 5441. Using the calibre 9828--a 19 jewel "pocket savonnette" movement with a diameter of almost 38mm--it was a very large watch at 43 mm and a thickness of approximately 10mm. It was also priced at US$12,500 in rose gold. The 9828 was derived from IWC's own older 982 calibre, and is shown in figure 1. It is a beautiful, classically finished movement. The watch quickly became a collector's item and difficult to obtain.
Because of the size, cost, and rarity of the original--and some might say, real--Portugieser, IWC recently released some smaller Portugiesers, including the Ref. 3531 in either red gold or steel. At a diameter of 35mm and thickness of 8mm, it is a more conventionally sized watch. In the steel version reported on here, the watch carries a retail price of US$4,995. The 18K version is US$7,995.
What the Ref. 3531 shares with the original Portugieser is the styling of the dial, which is almost identical in detail; the styling and details of the case; and the sapphire back. What it does not share is the movement.
The movement of the Ref. 3531 is a Jaeger
LeCoultre calibre 891/2, as currently used in the JLC Master Day
Date (as the calibre 891/447 with calendar plate). This movement,
similar in design to the well-known JLC 889, is a 36 jewel, 28,800
bph automatic, using the familiar JLC bidirectional switching rocker
automatic wind mechanism. Like the JLC version, the movement is
fitted with a Triovis fine rate adjustment device and smooth
Glucydur balance. Although IWC advertises the Ref. 3531 as having a
21 kt. gold winding rotor segment, the rotor in this watch (case #
2678896) was fitted with a heavy base metal segment, probably a
beryllium alloy. (Perhaps the gold segment is only used in the gold
version of the watch, although this makes little functional sense.)
While JLC adjusts the movement in six positions, IWC adjusts it in
movement in the Ref. 3531 is clearly finished by IWC and differs
from the typical JLC style of finishing. Rather than using Geneva
bars, IWC has used a handsome, simple version of circular graining
on both the rotor and movement bars, and anglage on the edges of all
visible components. The overall finish is slightly less classical
than JLC's finishing of the same movement, but has a quietly
elegant, craftsman-like appearance. In "feel," the finish is not
unlike the movements of Frederic Piguet, which is to say, very
well-done. Some technical details are discussed at the end of the
Out of the box, the watch showed excellent performance. In daily use, it consistently gained only a second or two a day. Figures from two consecutive days on the Elma Watch-matic timer demonstrated that the watch had been carefully adjusted at the factory. The figures below are the average of the two tests. All rate figures are in seconds per day. Beat error is shown in milliseconds of difference between the contact of the pallet fork with the balance pin and contact of each pallet jewel with the escape wheel. Amplitude is shown in degrees of arc of travel in each direction of balance rotation (averaging the two directions).
Most noteworthy was the very clean trace, the relatively small variations of rate, beat, and amplitude between positions (with horizontal positions typically faster), and the excellent performance in the normally untested position, crown right. The crown right position is sometimes used to "put" errors that cannot be otherwise eliminated from tested positions. The beat was properly set, and the amplitude was strong in all positions (270 degrees would normally be considered minimum acceptable amplitude in the dial up position).
The case is very similar to the original Portugieser, though in smaller dimensions. The bezel is narrow, and includes an unusual, small, deeply convex section. The crystal is slightly domed, and unlike that of the original Portugieser is sapphire (the original had a plexi). The snap-on back also includes a sapphire porthole. Rated to a water resistance of 3 ATM (30 meters), the watch, surprisingly, has a "fish" symbol on the crown. The brushing of the case sides gives the case an element of refinement that is important in the overall effect.
THE DIAL AND HANDS
The 3531 uses a dial almost identical to the original Portugieser. Classically silvered, it uses a sunk
subsidiary seconds at six o'clock, which is finely engraved (or perhaps stamped) with concentric circles. Very thin red gold Arabic numerals are used along with red gold (or plated) feuille (leaf) hands, and red gold (or plated) cabochon minute markers. If I have a serious complaint about the watch it is the dial. The
Arabic numerals are not applied (i.e. cut from gold and applied as separate pieces to
the dial surface) but stamped into the dial and plated. Although it takes a loupe to confirm this, the impression (of softness) is quite apparent with the naked eye. The joint where the bottom of the numeral meets the dial surface is not sharp enough, and the gold plating does not quite extend to the dial surface. Incidentally, the original Portugieser also had a stamped dial, but the upper edges of the numerals (where the sides meet the top) were sharper than on the 3531 and thus give a finer impression. The upper edges on the 3531 are relatively soft. It is possible that the Arabic numerals are too thin to apply, but this seems dubious to me. Oddly, the cabochon minute markers are extremely well done, and, in fact, appear to be applied (set down into the dial) both to the naked eye and under a loupe. They impart the quality that the entire dial should have had and are reminiscent of Patek's use of cabochon minute markers. In a watch of this cost, IWC should have spent more money on the dial. As stamped dials go, it is very well done. As dials in US$5,000 watches go, it is
mediocre. As is, the dial slightly spoils the very pure, craftsman-like, elegant integrity of the watch.
The beautiful 891/2 movement employs many typical JLC features, and these are worth noting in some detail for those not familiar with these movements. Figure 2 illustrates the escapement. (1) is the cap jewel on the escape wheel pivot. (2) is the Triovis fine regulation mechanism, with the adjustment screw at (4). (3) is the smooth Glucydur balance with its characteristic spoke showing at 2:30 o'clock. (5) is the KIF shock protection spring for the top balance pivot.
Figure 3 illustrates the classic JLC switching rocker that allows bidirectional automatic winding. Wheels (2) and (3) are mounted together on the rocker. The transfer wheel (1) is driven by the gear on the winding rotor (the latter hidden under the rotor plate at left). When the winding rotor is winding in a counter-clockwise direction (as in this photograph), power is transferred from wheel 1, to 2, to 4, and then on to the mainspring barrel. If the rotor were winding in the clockwise direction, the switching rocker would "switch," disengaging 2 from 4 and engaging 3 with 4. Wheel 4 would rotate counterclockwise in both cases, allowing it to always wind the barrel.
I find the Ref. 3531 a handsome classic watch, very much in the IWC tradition. It uses a first rate, distinctively finished movement. I believe that the stamped dial is its single failure, though not a fatal one in my opinion. At a retail of US$4,995, the watch is too expensive, regardless of the dial. For example, the wonderful (and much more complex) JLC Reserve de Marche with its 45 jewel caliber 928 lists for US$200 less (US$4,800) in a comparable steel case. At a typical discount price of about US$3,000, however, the 3531 is a reasonable buy. While it is not mechanically unique in any way, it is of very high quality, it reflects a piece of IWC tradition, and its particular aesthetics are not available elsewhere.