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IWC Portuguese: the complete history

Portugal is the country of many great navigators and explorers, just think to Vasco da Gama, Bartolomeu Dias or Fernão de Magalhães - better known as Magellan - to name the most famous.

But this is not what inspired the Portuguese name for the famous IWC watch that was introduced in 1939 and that today is the most popular and recognizable IWC wristwatch.

The origin dates back to the end of the 1930s when two Portuguese businessmen - Rodrigues and Teixeira - operating in the watch industry visited the IWC (then International Watch Company) headquarter in Schaffausen proposing the development of a large stainless steel wristwatch housing a movement that could match the precision of a marine chronometer. 

Perfect readability and the highest precision: the only way of meeting their request was with a pocket watch movement. 

An example of IWC hunter pocket watch featuring Calibre 74 - 1928

Taking the superb 74-calibre bar movement in savonnette construction as a starting point, IWC made a hunter-style wristwatch. The hunter was a natural choice, because its crown – like that of a wristwatch – is located on the right-hand side of the case instead of at the top.

IWC Calibre 74

From an IWC catalogue: easily recognizable for the finger bridge, Calibre 73 adopted Lépine construction (crown at 12 o'clock) while Calibre 74 adopted Savonnette construction (crown at 3 o'clock)

With a diameter case of 43 mm, the first Portuguese (or Portugieser in German) was considered huge compared to wristwatches popular in 1939 - generally below 33 mm - not matching the zeitgeist of the time, oriented to small watches in Art déco style. Nonetheless the Portuguese - the first wristwatch using a pocket watch movement - was a precursor of today's big-sized wristwatches.

A Portuguese ref. 325 with Calibre 74 sold in 1942 

The key design elements of the Portuguese were a streamlined dial with Arabic numbers, a very thin bezel contributing to make the watch look even larger, leaf hands and a large sub dial at six o’clock for the seconds. Nonetheless, IWC used a great number of dial variations, hands and indices for the Portuguese ref. 325 although the most often used combination was represented by silvered dial, embossed Arabic numerals and leaf ("feuilles de sauge") hands.

Dial variations in two Portuguese watches ref. 325 with Calibre 74: the black one on the left was sold in 1941, the silver white on the right was sold in 1942

For most of the Portuguese produced during the 1940s and the 1950s, IWC used the Calibre 98, an evolution of the original Calibre 74.

IWC Calibre 98

A Portuguese ref. 325 with Calibre 98 - 1946

A few other pieces (the so called "German Edition" because they were mainly sold in Germany) were produced in the 1970s till 1981 using the enhanced Calibre 982 which added shock protection.

In those years IWC sold a small number of Portuguese watches, never quite enough to justify large scale production of the pieces. A total of 304 Calibre 74 Portuguese were produced while 371 were the pieces integrating the Calibre 98 or its further evolution Calibre 982.

Apparently the Portuguese was headed for a silent decline. But, luckily, a twist of fate happened at the beginning of the 1990s. According to Kurt Klaus - the legendary IWC watchmaker nicknamed the Einstein from Schaffhausen for the invention of some of the most exciting complications of the swiss manufacturer - during the visit of a customer to the atelier they noted that he was wearing an original Portuguese wristwatch reference 325. He recounts that, as they gathered around him, they declared, "this is such a uniquely beautiful watch; we should make it again". 

Plans were quickly made to revive the Portuguese, developing an entire line around this model from the past. The 125th anniversary of the Schaffhausen-based company, occurring in 1993, was the perfect occasion to introduce the new Portuguese in a celebratory limited edition often referred to as the Jubilee. 

The Portuguese ref. 5441 had a case diameter of 42 mm and a thickness of 9 mm, silver dial, applied platinum Arabic numerals and dots indexes and typical feuille hands. It was produced in 1750 pieces: 1000 in stainless steel, 500 in rose gold, 250 in platinum. 

Portuguese ref. 5441 made for the 125th anniversary of IWC  - 1993

For the first time, the transparent sapphire back offered the view of Calibre 9828, basically an evolution of the Calibre 982 with special Jubilee engraving.

Detail of the Calibre 9828 used in the Jubilee Portuguese ref. 5441 - 1993

A  beautiful image showing three IWC Portuguese wristwatches: the first on the left is a Reference 325 with Calibre 74, the one in the middle is a Reference 325 with Calibre 98 and the third, in pink gold, is a Reference 5441 with Calibre 9828 - Courtesy of an anonymous collector

In 1995 IWC released the Portuguese Minute Repeaters ref. 5240 in only 550 examples (50 in platinum, 250 in rose gold and 250 in yellow gold) featuring IWC's repetition minutes module adapted to calibre 95 (calibre 95290).

Portuguese Minute Repeater ref. 5240 - 1995

Thereafter, IWC presented the manual winding Chronograph Rattrapante, ref. 3712 which was followed by the Automatic Chronograph, ref. 3714 which, thanks to the perfectly organized dial layout and the sporty elegance of the 40.9 mm case, became the most successful IWC watch ever produced.

Portuguese Automatic Chronograph ref. 3714 

In 2000, after four years of development, IWC unveiled the Portuguese Automatic with a new in-house movement.

The Calibre 5000 - 38.2 mm wide and 7.2 mm high - incorporated a bidirectional automatic winding system identical to IWC's famous patented system designed in the early 1950s by Albert Pellaton. It also offered a remarkable seven-day power reserve with indicator on the dial. The Calibre 5000 was a milestone for IWC and the platform for several Portuguese variations by adding specific modules.

Limited to 2000 pieces, the Portuguese Automatic 42.3 mm case was available in stainless steel, pink gold and platinum.

Portuguese Automatic Calibre 5000 - 2000

IWC Calibre 5000

A new complication, the Portuguese Perpetual Calendar of 2003, featuring the newly developed perpetual calendar mechanism, was further proof of IWC innovation at its best. The case diameter was 44 mm.

Portuguese Perpetual Calendar ref. 5021 - 2003
Below, a drawing of the calendar mechanism

 In 2008, a Portuguese Hand-Wound was launched as part of the IWC Vintage Collection. With its railway track-style chapter ring and arched-edge front glass, the watch bore a striking resemblance to the 1939 original but, from a technical point of view, was state of the art.

Portuguese Hand-Wound Vintage Collection 
Ref.  5445-05 in platinum on the left and ref. 5445-01 in stainless steel on the right - 2008

In 2010, IWC celebrated the Portuguese introducing the Portuguese Grande Complication, a grande complication  - for the first time in a Portuguese case - featuring a host of the greatest achievements in watchmaking, including a perpetual calendar mechanically programmed until 2499, the perpetual moon phase display, a chronograph and a minute repeater. Available in red gold or platinum, the 45 mm case is characterized by an engraving of a sextant on the back cover – a typical symbol of marine navigation particularly appropriate when you consider that the development of the Portuguese started with the goal of of developing a large  wristwatch that could match the precision of a marine chronometer.

Portuguese Grande Complication ref. 3774 - 2010

For the 75th anniversary of its most iconic watch, in 2015 IWC presented twelve new Portuguese models (or Portugieser to use the newly introduced name), including the new Automatic Reference 5007 powered by the manufacture 52010 calibre which further improved the 50000-calibre family making the self-winding mechanism practically wear-free thanks to new ceramic components.

2020 marked the launch of several new Portugieser references including the new Portugieser Automatic 40 IW3583. With this automatic model housed in a compact case diameter of 40 millimetres, IWC brought back the iconic design of the original 1939 model: a streamlined dial with Arabic numbers, a very thin bezel contributing to make the watch look even larger, leaf hands and a large sub dial at 6 o’clock for the seconds. Visible through a sapphire-glass back, the self-winding IWC-manufactured 82200 calibre features a Pellaton winding system with components made of virtually non-wearing ceramic.  

IWC also updated its Portugieser Chronograph equipping it with the new IWC-manufactured 69355 calibre, a robust and precise self-winding chronograph movement in classic column-wheel design whose quality finishes can be appreciated through a sapphire-glass case back.

By Alessandro Mazzardo. 
Latest update: October 30, 2023. 
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Time and Watches | The watch blog: IWC Portuguese: the complete history
IWC Portuguese: the complete history
History of the IWC Portuguese. The iconic watch, also known as IWC Portugieser, was launched in 1939 when the Schaffausen manufacturer was known as International Watch Company.
Time and Watches | The watch blog
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