It is an irony worth savouring that IWC’s longest-lasting model was designed not by the Swiss but by bureaucrats from Britain’s post-Second World War Air Ministry, for whom it would go into service for 40 years. Rediscovered in the 1990s and a staple of the manufacturer’s offering ever since, it is a design that has endured as the archetypal military aviation watch, celebrated this year in a newly stripped-back form: the Mark XVIII Replica.
Originally known as the Mark 11, the watch’s heritage actually stretches back to the wartime missions of RAF Bomber Command and a post-war survey which revealed that less than five per cent of bombs had been on target. Poor navigation was cited as the primary cause, so the old system of “dead reckoning” (determining your present position by projecting your course and speed from a known past position) was abandoned and the focus turned to astro-navigation. This required three key elements: the use of a star chart, a bubble sextant and – last but not least – an extremely accurate timepiece , along with someone trained in their use .In 1946/7, the Air Ministry issued Specification G943 for a new watch to be used for this purpose and Goldsmiths & Silversmiths (G&S) was the firm appointed with providing the British Armed Forces with an appropriate model.
G&S, which had worked with names such as Omega, Zenith, Movado and Longines during the war, sent the specification to a number of watchmakers but only two came back with specific proposals: Jaeger-LeCoultre and IWC. This was probably because the replica watches had to perform to exacting accuracy standards, and to be protected from magnetic interference caused by radar equipment and other electromagnetic sources in the planes. A soft iron inner case – much like a Faraday cage – was therefore used to enclose the movement, shielding it from magnetic forces. But ask what defines the Mark 11 and in most people’s eyes it’s the dial: matte black with luminous bar indices at the quarter hours.