In Conversation With Christian Knoop

Interview by PATRICK BOYLE and THORE DAMWERTH

We sit down with Christian Knoop, creative director of IWC, in the Swiss watchmaker’s newest boutique in Rotterdam to discuss how the brand connects with its customers, watch design, and the creative process. The recent boutique opening marks the first in Europe to receive the “updated” architectural concept from IWC, with a fully immersive environment centering around its most iconic product lines and highlighting key aspects such as the brand’s engineering and materials competence.

What is the importance of physical stores for IWC?

I think that it is a question of mix. We as a brand have embraced technology and digital very early. Social media, strong online presence, ecommerce, we see this as a growing part of the brand and the communication but we cannot do without physical spaces. Our ambition is to create multiple touchpoints for different clients and different client journeys. They might start physical, they might start digital, and in the end, it is up to client if they want to buy through ecommerce or through the physical store. For us it is about both journeys being connected to allow people to switch and to recognise what they have explored in a different channel. So, this is why the new boutique concept is also based on bringing digital technology to the physical store. Using for example the watch displays where customers can digitally explore the product features, accessories, the price, sizing options and so on. We have the screen on the other side of this wall where we can feature social media content in real time. What happens on IWC’s Instagram can be displayed here right away. If we have digital campaigns like a new product animation or product film we can also run these campaigns on this screen. This is operated centrally so this allows us to synchronise digital communication that starts in Schaffhausen through our stores worldwide. Another element is that we didn’t do traditional window decoration with watches but we see the store as the window. We left the window open so people can look inside the store, explore the brand, see the collections, see what’s happening and then have a second layer of interaction in the lounge rooms like where we are sitting here to learn about the technology, the materials, the movements that are specific to IWC watches. 

How do you see design in the watch industry changing?

It is hard to say that there is one overarching trend, but what we have seen over the last two years is that there is a trend towards sports watches. This might be inspired or supported by the general changes that happened in Covid times. People dressed differently and that also reached the watch industry as being part of someone’s outfit. There is a strong trend towards sports watches and more expressive watches and at the moment vintage watches and classic watches are less popular than they used to be in the past. We also see this reflected in our product collections with collections like the Pilot watches and particularly the ceramic watches being more popular than ever. But this trend might also change in the next couple of years. 

You were an industrial designer before entering the world of Swiss watches. What advantages has this brought you in your current role at IWC?

I think that my design background in industrial design helps me to understand technical products in various industries. I worked for so many different product categories, be it furniture, consumer electronics, lighting, medical products, even aircraft interiors so this gives you the ability to understand a technical product and to collaborate with a product development team consisting of different disciplines and different experts. Also managing different aspects of the product, the technical integrations, the technical developments, timelines, packaging, collateral material and so on. This all comes with a complex technical product. The fundamental difference for me starting in the watch industry was to discover the emotional impact that the product has on people. Other than a piece of furniture or a beautifully designed electronic device, the mechanical watch really gets people emotionally involved. It is a product that people attach a lot of emotions and memories too because they are watches that they have inherited, purchased or received at special moments in their lives. These moments and memories are always connected to the product. Also, the brand and the product involve so much passion when it comes to the collectability of the product, product lifecycle, product history. There is so much human passion for this product and this brand that I haven’t experienced in any other industry before. This is still something that is super motivating and satisfying for me to see how much our products mean to people. How much they like the product, how much they care for the product. This is still fascinating and touching at the same time. 

What element of watch design do you enjoy most?

I must say I am still very conceptual in the way that I like the early concept phase and deciding the expression of the watch, material, the movement and then bringing this together. What is sometimes asking for a lot of patience, I am a very impatient person, is the development times we are facing in the watch industry. We have a product that is designed for eternity or designed for generations. Sometimes we have tests on our products that simulate the lifespans of twenty or thirty years. You don’t have this in any other product category. So, if we have these test methods compressed, it still takes months to test and approve a material. To develop a material sometimes takes years to have a material that is new to the watch industry, certified and approved for use at IWC. Sometimes I am very impatient and this is the part that I like least. When it comes to the aspect of making the watch concept, really seeing the material and colour combination together with a special function is very exciting. That is very exciting and is really a lot of fun for me to work on. 

How do you approach the creative process when designing a new watch?

Typically, when we design a watch we try to do something that finds its roots in the history of the brand, finds its roots in a material or watch that we did in the past or is based on the design codes or DNA we have established in different factions. We then combine this with a new idea. A new material, a new collaboration, a new movement that is completely new to the brand that surprises our customers, something that is unexpected. This balance between, it is familiar, it comes from the brand, from the history and is recognisable as an IWC product, but there is still the aspect of being unexpected that is important in bringing the novelty factor. In the first part of this creation we very much discuss how these two are linked. What material, what history element can be paired with what type of innovation we have developed or identified as the creative team. Then there is typically around about a year of design explorations where we do design renderings, technical prototypes and 3D prints to test the ergonomics and the overall expression. We do a lot of 3D renderings, 3D simulations and animations. Our designers work with the same 3D modelling software as the engineers so they can transfer data. When the design has matured and comes to a final prototype after a year, we take about one year to finally launch the product in the market. This second year is the long-term testing of the product, building machines and tools, ordering pre-produced materials, pre-produced watches and then ship them so that at the moment of the launch we have sufficient product in the market. This takes a second year. So typically, if the watch movement exists, it takes about two years from first sketch to product launch. 

Finally, a more personal question. What watch are you wearing today?

It’s the Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Top Gun Edition “Lake Tahoe”. This is one of the recent releases. This year we took a new angle on our Pilot’s watches which are one of the iconic lines in IWC inspired by professional instrument watches IWC started in the 1930’s. We now have a big range of Pilot’s and aviator watches with different aesthetic expressions. The Top Gun collection which started in 2007 is the most technical and most advance one. Initially these watches were known for black ceramics in combination with titanium, two technical materials from IWC. But this year we do the colours of Top Gun. We opened this collection up to five colours in total and we built this in collaboration with Pantone, making Pantone a design and creative partner. This year, for the first time, we don’t talk about aviators and Pilot’s watches anymore. Well not only, not all our customers want to be Pilot’s or aspire to be an aviator, but we see a good translation of colour codes that come through aviation into the worlds of lifestyle and fashion together with a partner like Pantone. All the designers know it, we work with Pantone on the colours since I have started designing and it is such a universal language that unites all creatives. No matter if they work in fashion, in interior, architecture or product. This allows us to position our product outside of the world of aviator watches as a kind of contemporary lifestyle product that is ideal for our target group from the world of creatives. 

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