The Swiss watchmaking house IWC Schaffhausen has been working with the descendants of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry since 2006. Inspired by the aviator and author of The Little Prince, the brand creates timepieces in homage to the fictional prince and his philosophical adventures.
American actor and director Bradley Cooper spent the most important evening of his career accompanied by the Little Prince. On February 24 in Hollywood, his movie A Star is Born was in the running for eight Oscars including Best Picture. Cooper was sporting a timepiece bearing the likeness of Saint-Exupéry’s renowned protagonist. A unique model designed by the watchmaker IWC.
The midnight-blue dial and its three luminescent hands are sober in style. The homage to the French writer is found on the back of the watch, where one of Saint-Exupéry’s watercolors featuring the Little Prince standing on the B 612 asteroid is engraved into the 18-carat rose gold case. There is also a quote taken from the iconic book — “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly [what is essential is invisible to the eye]” — the secret shared by the fox at the end of chapter 21.
While Cooper did not pick up the coveted Oscar, his chronometer won over fans in the high watchmaking world. Nicknamed the Big Pilot’s Watch Single Piece and assembled by the white-gloved watchmakers at IWC, the model was sold at Sotheby’s for 75,000 dollars. The entire sum was donated to the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Youth Foundation.
Applying the “American System” in Europe
IWC was founded in 1868, 32 years before Saint-Exupéry was born. After the American Civil War, U.S. watchmakers Florentine Ariosto Jones and Charles Kidder moved to Schaffhausen, in German-speaking Switzerland, where they created the International Watch Company, or IWC.
They then applied the American system of watch production inspired by the weapons factories of Springfield, Massachusetts, and Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. The production process was centralized in a single site, interchangeable pieces were mass produced, and meticulous checks were introduced.
In 1885, IWC began selling the first pocket watches with digital time displays, featuring large digits printed on rotating discs indicating the hours and minutes.
This was followed in 1936 by the Special Watch for Pilots, a wristwatch with an unbreakable glass dial capable of resisting temperatures from -40°F to 104°F, and a rotating bezel enabling the wearer to record takeoff times. The different models in this series were worn by pilots in the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force, and forged the company’s reputation. Today it has boutiques across 26 American states and in Washington D.C.
IWC watches have been spotted on the wrists of Sylvester Stallone, Quentin Tarantino, John Malkovich, and Michael Jordan. The basketball player was wearing a blue platinum model when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2016. But was Saint-Exupéry himself a client? Who knows? The brand has been coy about confirming or denying the claim. However, this has not stopped IWC from working with Olivier d’Agay, the pilot’s grandnephew and president of the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Youth Foundation, to create new models and limited editions to be sold at auctions.
A for Antoine
In 2006, a special edition of the Pilot’s Chronograph watch accompanied the 75th anniversary of the publication of Night Flight, Saint-Exupéry’s first literary success. The writer’s portrait was engraved on the back of the case, and the letter “A” from his signature was engraved above the number six on the dial. This was followed by a watch in homage to Wind, Sand, and Stars, a memoir published in 1939, and another commemorating the 100th anniversary of the young Antoine’s first flight during the summer of 1912. Most recently, a watch was released to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Saint-Exupéry’s transatlantic flight from Biscarosse, in the southwest of France, to New York.
Two new models were unveiled for the 70th anniversary of the publication of The Little Prince in 2013. The Pilot’s Watch Mark XVII in light steel featured the caped prince engraved on the back, while the Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar in pink gold was available as a limited 270-piece series sold at $46,100 each. In an elegant finishing touch, the latter featured a lunar phase display depicting the Little Prince on his asteroid at the top of the dial.
Saint-Exupéry crashed while flying over the Mediterranean on July 31, 1944, during a reconnaissance mission in preparation for the allied landing in Provence. The wreckage and the writer’s bracelet were recovered in the early 2000s, but his body has never been found. And neither has his watch. As part of the 70th anniversary of Saint-Exupéry’s final flight, IWC honored his aircraft, an American P-38, with a special timepiece in 2014. The pilot’s silhouette, eyes fixed on the horizon and goggles perched on his forehead, is engraved on the back of the Pilot’s Chronograph watch, whose model is aptly named The Last Flight.
Article published in the May 2019 issue of France-Amérique