On my first trip to National Geographic headquarters as one of their newly-minted “Explorers” (grantees of the National Geographic Society) years ago, I found myself utterly and completely lost.
Leaving a meeting, I got on an elevator and pressed the button for the ground floor to no effect. The door closed. I stood there for a few minutes before the elevator went to a different floor, another National Geographic Explorer got on, and we became trapped together. Over the next five minutes, we collected other Explorers who, without the necessary keycards and not knowing where the nearest stairs were, became comically trapped with us until the elevator was finally called to the ground floor.
There we were, all “National Geographic Explorers” in name, who couldn’t navigate our way out of an elevator.
I think about that each time I see an advertisement that touts the life of adventure you could live if only you had “this watch.” A cynic might say that such watches are a solution looking for a problem. But throughout history watches have often been truly ingenious answers to real-world headaches.
That’s why I have such a love for the IWC Porsche Design Compass Watch, or Kompassuhr. Complex for their time, these watches with built-in compasses and emergency signaling mirrors were born in 1978. While important in both IWC and Porsche Design history, in today’s era of GPS and smartphones, the watch is anachronistic – the perfect analog watch for an “Explorer” like me who apparently can’t explore his way out of a wet paper bag.
So, in pursuit of adventure and a deeper understanding of this particular watch, take a second to get your bearings (pun intended), and let’s dive in.
The Man of Porsche Legend
It was 1972 and Prof. Ferdinand Alexander “Butzi” Porsche, the grandson of Porsche founder Ferdinand Porsche and designer of the Porsche 911, had just departed the family business and founded Porsche Design Studio (now Studio F. A. Porsche).
Following in the footsteps of Enicar which released the first black-coated watch – the Sherpa OPS – in the 1960s, F.A. Porsche released Porsche Design’s first product, the Chronograph 1. Similarly black-coated, successes would take it from motorsports to the military, and even movie fame.
But according to Christian Schwamkrug, Design Director at Studio F. A. Porsche, the company’s second watch was designed to fulfill a more personal request from “Butzi” Porsche.
Schwamkrug started at the then-Porsche Design Studio nine years after the release of the Compass watch, so to elucidate the watch’s story he reached out to former colleagues for more information, resulting in a trove of never-before-seen photos and stories from the brand’s early days.
It was 1977, five years after the Chronograph 1, and the team at Porsche Design was still small. The handful of staff spent their time brainstorming their next big project. One day “Butzi,” an avid outdoorsman, dog lover, and hunter mentioned the desire for a watch with a built-in compass.
Countless modern quartz and digital watches include everything from a basic compass to a GPS, but GPS didn’t become commercially available until 1983 and was first portable in 1999. Plus there were technical challenges to installing a compass inside a watch.
It’s hard to imagine that Porsche didn’t know about strap-mounted compasses or using the sun to way-find with a watch (a system with a wide range of inaccuracies). Either solution, however simple, was likely far too unrefined for F.A. Porsche who once said, “design is not simply art, it is elegance of function.” Watches were no exception.
“He was an absolute aficionado of watches,” recalls Schwamkrug, who worked alongside F.A. Porsche for years. “He had a watch collection and was very, very, focused on the details. From the knurling on the crown to any other part, he was an absolute watch fanatic.”
Sketches by then-lead designer Bernd Meyrspeer show that early designs included Arabic numerals. Others resembled what would become a later titanium version. By August 1977, the team landed on a matte black minimalist dial with large white hands, white minute hashes, larger luminous dashes as the hour markers, and a color-matched 3:00 date window. Finally, quadrisecting the dial are lines reminiscent of the hunting crosshairs that inspired the compass watch.
“Mr. Porsche never regarded a watch as a piece of jewelry, a watch is a timepiece,” Schwamkrug says. “It should show the time in an instant glance. That’s why he wanted to create the maximum contrast – the black and white.”
Meyrspeer built a one-to-one brass model of the case with a hinge at 12:00 and buttons on the side of the case at 5:00 and 7:00 to allow the movement and dial to lift, unveiling the compass.
Early compasses were supplied by Lufft, a German manufacturer, and denoted by a stylized cursive “L” on the sapphire. The compass itself could be easily removed from the case and used independently.
On the back of the movement was an emergency signaling mirror – a hail-mary for a lost explorer trying to get the attention of a passing search aircraft.
Finally, there was the bracelet, as practical and integral to the overall design as any other part, with easily removable links exactly 5mm wide to be used as a ruler.
Elegant, functional, and forward-thinking, the watch was “Porsche Design.”
The Start of a Partnership
In September 1977 Porsche Design took a meeting in Schaffhausen with the International Watch Company.
In the early 1970s, IWC’s lineup looked vastly different from today’s, with none of the current pilot watches in their portfolio, largely focusing on classic designs and precious metal jewelry watches. But as the price of precious metals started to rapidly rise and the quartz crisis grew, companies turned to steel sports watches.
IWC Museum Curator Dr. David Seyffer said the opportunity to work with F.A. Porsche was an important chance for IWC to make something sporty and unique, and to expand into a more youthful market to survive the quartz crisis. The two companies had been courting each other, so as Porsche Design arrived at IWC headquarters with a nearly ready-made design for a new watch, IWC wanted to show that only they were up for the challenge.
A case of such a radical design was a difficult undertaking but due to the quartz crisis case manufacturers were looking for any work, no matter how challenging. A case manufacturer in the Jura Mountains rose to the occasion, creating anodized (again, not PVD-coated) aluminum cases and bracelets for the first generation of watches, fitting F.A. Porsche’s specific request for an ultra-lightweight watch. Next came the biggest hurdle: the compass itself.
Installing a compass on a watch seems easy until you remember a compass is just a magnet on a free-floating pivot and magnets don’t play well with watch movements. A compass near the movement, let alone underneath it, would magnetize internal parts like the main and balance springs, making them highly inaccurate or non-working.
But, in a stroke of luck for Porsche Design, a classified project was underway at IWC to provide antimagnetic movements and watches for a client with life-and-death consequences: the German Navy’s anti-mine specialists, the Minentaucher.
The Minetaucher needed a truly antimagnetic dive watch so they could approach and diffuse underwater mines without accidentally triggering them. “It was a highly confidential project for the German Navy,” Seyffer says. “But it was a great coincidence for us and Porsche Design. The movements IWC made were highly tuned ETA 2892 movements with replacement alloy springs, wheels, and other parts made from alloys which have very little magnetic field.”
Under the technical leadership of Jürgen King, the IWC-tuned ETA 2892 became the IWC caliber 375.23, a 22 jewel, 4Hz movement with shock absorber and straight-line lever escapement. The watch also had monometallic balance, self-compensating flat balance spring, index regulator, ball-bearing rotor, and hacking seconds function, with a rotor made of 21 karat paramagnetic gold.
Using the Compass Watch project as a platform for experimentation also allowed IWC to perfect the antimagnetic Ocean Bund for the Minetaucher.
“By gaining all this experience, IWC had the advantage to push further with the Ocean Bund,” Seyffer explains. “In the end, the mine divers’ watch caliber was used inside the Ocean 2000 Porsche Design divers watch as well.”
It took 12 years for IWC to deliver 50 of the Ocean Bund Ref. IW351901 mine divers watch to the German Navy, but Porsche Design got their new reference 3510 Compass watch on the market in less than a year from their first meeting with IWC, releasing both black and “NATO olive” green watches in 1978.
IWC marketed these watches with F.A. Porsche’s dream in mind: to make a purpose-built explorers’ watch. Advertising touted all the features of the Compass Watch, saying:
“This combination is especially intended for all those who must or wish to use a compass to find their bearings: yachtsmen, sportsmen, amateur pilots, rally racers, hikers, military people – not to speak of strollers following their nose in strange big cities.”
The first and most classic reference of the IWC Porsche Design Compass, 3510, was released in 1978, in both black and “NATO olive” green. The black reference 3510 is the most common by far but it’s unclear the ratio or the total number of production.
The watch measured 39mm wide and 12mm high with a case and compass that were watertight to 30 meters. The glass protecting the dial is hardness 9 sapphire crystal with a glare-free coating. The compass, when removed from the watch, has the same sapphire crystal on both sides so you can use it independently and lay it on a map without obscuring your view.
From my research, the watch came in at least two dial variants and only two bracelets over its production life.
Each dial has text on three lines at 12:00. In the first generation, “IWC” was sans-serif, “International Watch Co.” in cursive script, and “Schaffhausen” in capitalized serifed italics. The second generation has the same text but “IWC” at the top is in a serif font while “Schaffhausen” now matches the line above it in elegant cursive. On both, “Porsche Design” is in capitalized sans-serif at 6:00 with the company’s logo below.
The most obvious change over the watches’ production was the bracelet. Original bracelets were aluminum with a unique zig-zag steel buckle and button to release the clasp to allow the bracelet and watch to be laid over a map to calculate a distance with the 5mm links. Ingenious. Maybe too ingenious.
According to collectors and accounts from Porsche Design and IWC, that innovative bracelet design was fragile and could even release unexpectedly. Whether it was due to users wearing out the button by fidgeting with it or the softness of the aluminum case, the bracelet was a proven point of failure. They can also be somewhat uncomfortable.
The solution was to redesign the bracelets in innovative Delrin plastic with titanium clasps. These bracelets don’t have a release button at the side and their deployant design is more standard.
The emergency signaling mirror is there, which over the last week I was reminded by folks around the office also works well as a mirror to check your hair or makeup before a meeting (or coming back to civilization after being lost in the wilderness).
Over time the red second hand, a callback to Porsche Design’s Chronograph 1, often faded to an orange hue. The olive green dials, according to Schwamkrug, were never perfectly color-matched. Instead, they had a slightly green-brown cast which over time and almost without fail, fade to a nearly perfect and quintessential “tropical” dial. One of these watches appears occasionally in photos from our friend John Goldberger’s collection.
After seven years of moderate success with the reference 3510, IWC and Porsche Design released the reference 3551 black compass watch in 1985, with a bold moonphase aperture at 12:00 on the dial.
To account for the moonphase, the logos were reduced to just “IWC Porsche Design” in block text on two lines beneath the aperture. The case is around one millimeter thicker to account for the moonphase module and the watch has the reference stamped into the case back below the serial number.
The watch is a curiosity and maybe my favorite standard model. It reminds me of the joke about dive watches with dates: “if you need to know the date underwater, you’re in trouble.” Well if you need to know the moonphase while you’re lost in the wilderness, I don’t know what you are except probably still lost.
I’ve asked dozens of friends, including pilots and real explorers, if they can think of any practical use for a moonphase on a tool watch and never found a satisfactory answer. So a purpose-built exploration watch with moonphase makes the reference 3551 just plain goofy and all the more iconic for it.
I even put the question to Christian Schwamkrug and David Seyffer, who found the moonphase as comical and confusing as I do.
“The inclusion of the moonphase for novelty was interesting in a sports swatch, but it doesn’t make much sense,” Schwamkrug says. “Functionality and legibility were always the main goals. The moonphase disrupts the dial. Yet the fact that it’s even there there is why I like it as well.”
In 1991, IWC and Porsche Design announced their biggest change to the Compass Watch, releasing the reference 3511 in all its titanium glory.
“Aluminum was very, very difficult in many ways for watchmaking. Aluminum was not the most appropriate material for many reasons, from the sealing of the watch to the patina. It’s a very soft material,”Schwamkrug says, “So that’s why IWC decided from that point on, all Porsche Design watches have to be in titanium. So we had the chronograph, we had some dress watches. But the compass watch was instilled as a classic part of the collection.”
While the movement remained the IWC 375, the dial design was changed slightly, with shortened hour markers and logos simplified to read “Porsche Design by IWC” in block text at 8:00 on the dial. The crown, now an interestingly ribbed texture reminiscent of a hand grenade, was moved to 4:00, and the date at 3:00 is no longer color-matched to the dial. The case also has a ribbed texture on the sides.
The non-IWC reissue Porsche Design P6520
Made in a limited edition of 911 watches, this reissue is what I’d consider an honorable mention. Released in 2011, nearly 15 years after the last IWC and Porsche Design Compass collaboration, and after the end of the two companies’ partnership.
The case and bracelet are made out of titanium (the clasp is at least partially stainless steel) and enlarged to a more modern 42mm and 14.6mm thick, but back in the original black color and placement of the words “Porsche Design” at 12:00 on the dial and the addition of “Compass” in all caps at 6:00, similar to the reference 3510 dial layout but with different font. Inside is an automatic Sellita SW300 with 42 hours of power reserve and the watch has a specified 50m of water resistance.
The most interesting design component, however, is that the compass housing is transparent and there is no bottom to the portion of the case holding the watch, meaning that instead of a display case back for a movement, you get one for the compass.
Schwamkrug has one in his personal collection, but it is a piece unique (by his own design).
“I have to admit I thought it didn’t look as good as the original on aluminum,” he told me. “So I took it all apart, disassembled the watch, and had it sandblasted. And now it’s just pure titanium, which is really nice.”
Reference 3510 Khanjar
While he might be better known for his love for owning (and gifting) Rolex watches signed with Khanjars, the national emblem of Oman, the late Sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said was an avid collector of a number of brands and emblazoned the Khanjars on a number of IWCs. However, reference 3510 was an apparent favorite, and he was pictured wearing the watch in official government photos.
Chris Youé, now a specialist at Phillips in London, was working for another employer in the early 2000s when a request for watches came in from the Sultan’s staff. Looking for guidance on what might fit the Sultan’s tastes, his butler replied that His Majesty had always regretted giving away “a black watch with a compass underneath” which Youé confirmed as reference 3510.
If he never found a replacement, his successor had one of his own. A photo taken a year after Sultan Qaboos’ death in 2020 showed Sultan Haitham bin Tarik wearing an olive Compass Watch as he sat in the cockpit of an F-16C while touring the Royal Air Force of Oman’s Thumrait Air Base.
It’s no surprise, then, that at least a handful of compass watches were emblazoned with the Khanjar, reference 3510 in black and green. Curiously, these watches had cases stamped reference 3551 but lacked a moonphase, suggesting that they were possibly leftover cases turned into watches built on special order for His Majesty.
Reference 3510 Mecca Indicator
Another model made by IWC for the Middle Eastern market and by far my personal grail (as someone who studied the Middle East and Arabic in college) is reference 3510 “Mecca Indicator” or “Qibla compass” which was designed to help observant Muslims find the direction of prayer (qibla) toward the Kaaba in Mecca, the most sacred site in Islam. The watch was made in both black and olive green.
The mirror is replaced by a circular stylized cursive “Basmala,” shorthand for what in English is “In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful,” one of the most important phrases in Islam. In the center of the compass, in gold, you will see the Arabic words for “The Holy (or Honored) Kaaba,” the central point to which Muslims pray.
Finding the direction to pray can be difficult in a new city and because a compass cannot be set to point toward a specific location other than north and south, the Arabic on the dial acts as a guide.
For instance, just below 9:00 (the text is inverted if you keep 12:00 at the top) you will see “بانكوك بومباى” or “Bangkok” and “Bombay”. Opposite these cities at 3:00, you’ll see a large number of listings, ” كوناكرى، بليساو، داكار، جدة، نواكشوط” for Conakry, Belizeau (Belize), Dakar, Jeddah, and Nouakchott. The user would align the north compass magnet with your nearest city, then pray in the direction of the arrow on the dial.
How cool is that?
Reference 3510 in Bark-finished 18k Yellow Gold
If world history or religion isn’t your thing then you might be interested in hunting down what is potentially the rarest Compass Watch: the solid-gold 18-karat yellow gold reference 3510 with a carved bark-like finish.
Its origin seems to be a bit of a mystery to both Porsche Design and IWC but David Seyffer says that the understanding was these watches, whenever they were made, were targeted at the growing Middle Eastern market.
“If you have this piece in your hand, it weighs like 250 grams or something,” Schwamkrug says, who has handled the example in the Porsche Design collection in Zell am See, Austria. “It is unbelievable. And it exactly marks a contradiction of Mr. Porsche’s intention [to make timepieces and not jewelry].”
The watch didn’t find buyers as quickly as hoped, so it was quietly discontinued with less than 10 made. My research has only shown three on the market in the last 20 years and photos are rare, so happy hunting!
Aside from the difficulty in finding certain rare references, the biggest challenge in collecting the Compass Watch is their condition. Due to their anodized coating and materials, these watches show their wear more than most.
While they’re not PVD-coated and not as fragile, anodized aluminum cases can lose their coating, especially on the hard right angles of the case and sides. Titanium also shows scratches more than steel but Delrin bracelets aren’t as durable as steel and show impressions, dents, and gouges.
While some watches can be found on straps, these are replacements for missing (or temperamental) bracelets. The bracelets are such integral design elements that I’d be hard-pressed to buy anything but the rarest references without them. But be warned, extra links can be expensive.
So if you’re like me and dream of owning one of these watches, it means you have a difficult decision. Most collectors will tell you to buy the best condition you can afford for any watch, but a buyer has to decide if they are willing to risk “new old stock” to wear and tear. This is one of the rare instances where I’d consider a slightly worn example.
So for all the issues, why am I talking it up? Sometimes the coolness of a watch is just hard to argue with, especially for the price.
State and Future of the Market
It’s hard to imagine that the standard Compass Watch will shoot up in value. Unlike another famously-coated watch from the period, the Heuer Monaco “Dark Lord“, neither the reference 3510 and 3551 have the same rarity, nor do they have the pop-culture prestige that the Porsche Design Chronograph 1 gained after featuring in Top Gun or its practicality. Even at the time, the compass watch wasn’t particularly well received.
“If you look back from a marketing perspective, to come up with a watch in the late ’80s that was a combination of a watch three-hand watch and compass was not exactly what the people were looking for. It was a niche product,” Schwamkrug says. “So what does it tell us? Mr. Porsche was not interested in making big money. He was interested in doing interesting things. Not shiny, not luxurious, but interesting in the way they were designed and what features they had. At the end of the day, that makes the watch iconic and a very important watch Porsche Design. In terms of establishing a brand DNA, it was definitely one of the major pillars.”
Luckily for collectors, the commercial mediocrity makes for an iconic vintage watch at a reasonable price.
When you cruise for these watches online remember that asking prices are aspirational from the seller. Look to get a black reference 3510 or 3551 for anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000 depending on price. The olive watches are so striking that you’ll likely have to pay $4,000 to $5,000 for one. Finding a watch with a box and papers with these watches seems uncommon, so I’d suggest forgoing the search to just enjoy the watch.
The titanium 3511, which Christian Schwamkrug called “very rare,” is aesthetically not to my taste, but may hold value better over time and seem to show wear far less than the anodized aluminum or aluminum heads on Delrin bracelets. Recent sales of the 3511 online have ranged wildly from $3,500 (with box and papers) to $8,000 within recent months. I’d imagine that $5,000 or lower is a fair price if you’re patient.
The heritage reissue seems to come up around the same price as a good vintage 3510, a heck of a deal for a neo-vintage titanium watch. At least two are for sale online (one in brand new condition), as of publication, at just over $4,000.
Just as with signed Rolex and Pateks, the more unusual variants of these Porsche Design watches will likely rise in value as more people understand their history and rarity. I spent years looking for Khanjar-stamped ref. 3510, which sold at auction for $2,000 in 2006 – ages ago. That search continued until one recently sold on LoupeThis for over $10,000. It pains me to say, I think this might be a fair price and now out of reach for me, but who knows how long it will be until another comes to market.
If a Mecca indicator Compass Watch came to market, I’d expect to see prices over $10,000. One last sold at Christie’s in 2008 for 6,000 CHF. An argument could be made that the Khanjar is more noticeable but to a Middle Eastern collector, Mecca may mean far more.
As for the extremely rare gold ref. 3510, take any previous high estimate of mine and double it. With the price of gold and this watch’s rarity, with at least one already in the collection of Porsche Design, your guess is as good as mine.
If you navigated your way through this article kudos. You probably needed a Compass Watch to do it.
By now I hope some of you have, like me, become enamored with a watch that is a bit out of place in the modern era but iconic and historically important for two major brands. As for the whole “reading a map” thing, I’ll leave that up to you.
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The HODINKEE Shop features a selection of pre-owned and vintage IWC and Porsche Design watches. To learn more about IWC and Porsche Design, visit their websites.