From Issue Five of Gear Patrol Magazine.
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Glashütte, a municipality a 25-minute drive from the Czech border with a population of around 7,000, has all the hallmarks of any other sleepy town in the German state of Saxony: steep hillsides, serene forested surroundings and cozy architecture. It is, however, home to the makers of some of the most coveted watches on the planet. More amazingly, most are, at least in their current forms, less than 30 years old.
It isn’t that watchmaking is new to Glashütte. In fact, it first came to the town in 1845, at the hand of Ferdinand Adolph Lange, whose pages upon pages of letters to the Saxon government convinced them that watchmaking could suitably replace the town’s dried-up silver mining industry. Lange eventually secured a loan from the government, hired 15 apprentices and began making luxury pocket watches under the Lange name.
Lange would come to devise several innovations, like a three-quarter plate that improved the stability of the movement, the jumping seconds hand (which ticks only once per second), new guilloche-movement-finishing techniques, and the use of a lathe in watchmaking. His watch company spawned and fostered an entire community of watchmakers in Glashütte. By the 20th century, much of the town’s population worked in the industry.
But like many other places in Europe, the town suffered greatly as a result of WWII. At the start of the war, the town’s watchmakers were enlisted to fulfill orders for watches and instruments used by the Third Reich. The town spent almost the entirety of the war unscathed until it was heavily bombed in a Soviet air raid on the very last day of the war in Europe, leaving it in ruins. What little was left of the town’s watchmaking tools and machinery was sent to the Soviet Union as war reparations.
As per the Potsdam Agreement, military occupancy and responsibilities of Germany’s reconstruction were divvied up into four zones, controlled by the United States, France, Britain and the Soviet Union, whose piece of Germany would soon become the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a Soviet satellite state. That entailed a restructuring of East German enterprises into Volkseigener Betrieb, or state-owned companies. As such, the watch companies of Glashütte were expropriated and pooled into one conglomerate, VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe (GUB).
This left GUB to carry on Glashütte’s watchmaking legacy for the next several decades. It produced millions of sturdy and affordable, if otherwise unremarkable, mechanical and quartz watches, many of which were sold in department stores in West Germany, while others remained behind the Iron Curtain. At its peak, GUB employed over 2,000 individuals, but by most accounts, it was a bloated, outdated operation.
But in November 1989 came the fall of the Berlin Wall, and with it the subsequent reunification of Germany. With new opportunities for entrepreneurship, watchmakers wasted no time in bringing the art of luxury watchmaking back to the town of Glashütte. Today, several watchmakers reside in the town, producing most, if not all, of their movements in-house, with finishing and design that has captured the admiration of collectors and enthusiasts worldwide.
This is the story of how five of those watchmakers brought the art of fine watchmaking back to Glashütte.
A. Lange & Söhne
Along with around 3.8 million East Germans, F.A. Lange’s great-grandson Walter Lange fled to West Germany before the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, where he worked for various other watchmakers. Lange was unable to rebuild his family’s legacy until Günter Blümlein, the CEO of Les Manufactures Horlogères (LMH), the watchmaking group that owned both IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre at the time, realized the business potential of revitalizing the historic Lange name and contacted him after the fall of the Berlin Wall. On December 7, 1990, 145 years to the day after the initial founding of his great-grandfather’s company, Lange registered A. Lange & Söhne as its own company.
“It took two to help make that dream become a reality,” says current A. Lange & Söhne CEO Wilhelm Schmid. “Walter Lange called himself a bridge from history into today, but the mastermind behind it was Güenter Blümlein in many ways.”
Blümlein, who is credited as the individual who saved both IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre during the 1980s, proved to be a valuable resource and partner. After the privatization of industry in East Germany, most of the watchmakers at GUB found themselves out of work. Many were recruited by Lange and Blümlein. While they already possessed extensive experience in watch manufacturing and assembly, they were nonetheless sent to IWC in Switzerland for weeks of training, where they learned new decorating skills and computer-aided design in order to reach the level of finish and complexity A. Lange & Söhne hoped to achieve.
Despite backing from Blümlein and LMH, A. Lange & Söhne was working with limited resources. According to Schmid, the town of Glashütte had no telephone lines in the early 1990s, and though its employees were eventually trained in computer-assisted design, A. Lange & Söhne only had one computer at the time. Workers had to take turns using it.
Even so, in 1994 the brand shocked the world when it revealed its first four watches — the Saxonia, the Arkade, the Tourbillon Pour le Mérite and the Lange 1. “There are many milestones in this company, but probably one of the biggest and the most important one was that first presentation,” says Schmidt. “And, you know, if you asked me what was the most important moment for the brand, I would say it’s the unveiling of the Lange 1 … We wouldn’t be talking today if we never made the Lange 1.”
With its off-center dial layout, outsize date and exquisitely decorated movement, the Lange 1 was a radical design for the time, and set the tone for the brand’s watches to come. And despite its stratospheric 27,000 Deutsche Mark starting price (around $27,300 today), it proved to be a surprising sales success. Sales helped the brand attract new talent and invest in training. Not much longer after that, in 1997, the brand even established its own in-house watchmaking school.
In the time since, A. Lange & Söhne has firmly established itself in the highest echelon of watchmakers and is a darling amongst collectors — in part because its comeback is a particularly refreshing foil to the standard story of Swiss watchmaking. “To see that somebody was hidden behind the Iron Curtain and came back within such a short period of time, while not coming from a traditional watchmaking country .. everybody loves oddballs,” says Schmidt.
On July 1951, the GDR pooled the remaining watchmakers in Glashütte into one state-owned conglomerate, VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe (GUB). For nearly 40 years GUB carried on the town’s watchmaking legacy. Though Glashütte’s history of watchmaking had been characterized by beautifully finished, high-end timepieces, the economic reality in East Germany was that these pieces were far too expensive for the average consumer. Much like the humble automaker Trabant, GUB’s products were affordable and built with what resources were available to the isolated country.
“Under very difficult economic circumstances, they created solid but innovative products just right for that time,” says Glashütte Original CEO Thomas Meier. Watches like the compact, automatic-winding Spezimatic were minimally decorated and produced en masse (more than 3 million were made in total). The isolated economic and political situation also forced GUB to produce almost everything it needed, movements and tooling included, by itself.
Though the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 opened up new economic opportunities for new, incoming watchmakers, it created a more dire situation for GUB, which was not yet equipped to contend with “a different market environment, international competition and new demands and standards,” according to Meier. During its peak in the communist era, GUB employed over 2,000 staff, about half of Glashütte’s population, but once privatization was underway that number decreased dramatically. After a failed merger with France Ébauches, GUB was purchased by Bavarian entrepreneur Heinz W. Pfeifer in 1994, who changed its name to Glashütte Original and started over with just 72 employees.
“The firm had to reinvent itself and its product philosophy completely in order to be compatible,” says Meier. The renaissance of the mechanical wristwatch offered that chance; after the so-called Quartz Crisis of the ’70s and ’80s, an embattled mechanical watch industry, not just in Germany but worldwide, found itself once again making mechanical watches as high-end luxuries.
Pfeifer invested heavily in revitalizing the company and redeveloping and redecorating the old, purpose-built GUB movements to better compete with other luxury brands, while new movements would follow. The company also delved straight into the realm of haute horlogerie complications. In 1995, Glashütte Original launched the Julius Assmann 1, a tourbillon watch with a perpetual calendar movement — two of watchmaking’s most intricate complications — named after one of the town’s most prolific 19th-century watchmakers.
In 2000, Pfeifer sold Glashütte Original to Swatch Group, which has helped the brand flourish. Today, along with names like Breguet and Blancpain, Glashütte Original occupies the top tier of Swatch Group’s portfolio. It even runs its own watchmaking school in Glashütte. Much like GUB during the communist era, Glashütte Original continues to produce the bulk of its movements and even its tooling in Glashütte, while its dials and cases are made in the German city of Pforzheim. Only this time, instead of quartz timepieces and utilitarian watches, it’s a master of tourbillons, chronometers, perpetual calendars and other high-end complications.
Before she started her own independent manufacture, and before she worked at Glashütte Original and A. Lange & Söhne, Christine Hutter had no plans to work in the watchmaking industry after earning her bachelor’s degree. But after a friend turned her on to the beauty of old mechanical clocks, Hutter began working as an apprentice at a clockmaker in Munich. “He showed me old pendulum clocks, pocket watches, and chronographs with fantastic movements — some of the best calibers in the 19th and early 20th century,” she says. “I began to restore old timepieces within a matter of months.”
It was during this stint in watch and clock repair when Hutter first realized she wanted to start her own brand. “I was fascinated by their quality of craftsmanship, and found out how many admirers are out there who share this appreciation,” she says.
After stints at neighboring Glashütte Original and A. Lange & Söhne, in 2008 Hutter acquired the rights to the name Moritz Grossmann, a prolific 19th-century German watchmaker. For the first few months, Hutter worked from her home in nearby Dresden, before eventually renting out an old shop in Glashütte. Two years later, Moritz Grossmann announced its first timepiece: the Benu, a simple, three-hander featuring an in-house, hand-winding movement. It was a limited edition of 100 watches.
Though the Benu and subsequent Moritz Grossmann watches generally resemble the Teutonic style of Glashütte’s other watchmakers, Hutter’s aim is to rethink small decorative and technical aspects of the watches she makes. For example, the watchmaker’s Benu Tourbillon uses a brush made out of human hair (because it’s softer than synthetic material) to gently stop the seconds function when the watch is being reset. And while most Glashütte watchmakers use a heat treatment process to make their screws and other parts a blue shade, Moritz Grossmann strives for a unique brownish-violet hue instead, which Hutter says is a more difficult effect to achieve. Hutter also says that her company is the only one in Glashütte to make its own hands.
Things have progressed steadily for the young brand. In 2013, Moritz Grossmann opened the doors to its current manufacturing facility in Glashütte which currently accommodates 49 employees and churns out a relatively small number of watches powered by Moritz Grossmann’s 10 mechanical calibers. According to a company spokesperson, Moritz Grossmann will produce fewer than 500 watches in 2017, though it has ambitions to hit 1,000 watches per year.
While Moritz Grossmann has become more and more visible amongst watch enthusiasts, first debuting watches at Baselworld just a few years ago and receiving acclaim from media outlets like Hodinkee, Hutter acknowledges the difficulty as a small brand competing with some pretty big and prolific manufacturers. “It’s difficult for us because the market expects from us the same or similar products as from big brands or groups, but we have limited budgets and staff members,” she says. “We knew from the very beginning it wouldn’t be easy … unfortunately, there’s no manual available that teaches you how to found a watch manufactory.”
“In Glashütte, we have a real history,” Thilo Mühle, CEO of Mühle-Glashütte, says with pride. He should know. In 1869, in the early days of Glashütte’s growing watch industry, his great-grandfather Robert Mühle founded his own company, not making clocks and watches, but building measuring instruments for neighboring watchmakers. Mühle’s company began to grow and by the 20th century was manufacturing speedometers for companies like BMW and Maybach.
Like the rest of Glashütte, the enterprise was devastated by WWII and its aftermath, but the Mühle family proved tenacious. Though his resources were confiscated, Robert Mühle’s son Hans restarted the company from scratch. His son Hans-Jürgen had been running his father’s company since 1970, but after GDR expropriation in 1972, he was forced into a role as as operation manager. By 1980, the company was once again shaken up when it was folded into the GUB conglomerate. Hans-Jürgen was stuck selling ship chronometers to other Soviet satellite states.
When the Berlin Wall fell, the German government attempted to merge GUB with France Ébauches, which had shuttered its ship clock division. Mühle quit soon after. “My father said ‘I have the knowledge, I have the customers,'” Thilo Mühle recalls. “He asked them if they wanted to buy from him if he developed his own system. They said at the right price, with the right technology, of course they would.” By 1994, his company was refounded under the name Mühle-Glashütte, and with just two employees, he was building his own ship chronometers.
The decision to make wristwatches came shortly after, when A. Lange & Söhne’s Günter Blümlein suggested it to Mühle as a viable venture. In 1995, Mühle-Glashütte received its first inquiry from a shipyard to produce a series of water-resistant watches. Today, by Mühle’s estimate, the company’s business is about 90 percent watches, 10 percent maritime instruments.
Mühle-Glashütte’s business has since relied on modified versions of Swiss ébauche movements, though trouble brewed in 2007 when Glashütte neighbor Nomos sued Mühle for violating the “Glashütte Rule,” which stipulates that at least half of the work in producing a movement must be done in the town in order to brand watches with the Glashütte name. An ensuing investigation found that some of Mühle-Glashütte’s movements didn’t meet the requirement. The company was forced to pay 63 million euros as a penalty, and became insolvent. Around this time, Hans-Jürgen’s son Thilo took over as CEO.
“It was difficult for us, so we decided to change everything and go deeper into the movement,” says Mühle. Today, the brand makes significant modifications to its Swiss-supplied ébauches, including making its own three-quarter plates, rotors, decoration and shock-resistant regulating system.
Mühle acknowledges his family’s company is unlike his neighbors in Glashütte, its watches more affordable and utilitarian. Much like his family’s history, he takes it as a point of pride. “We make watches for people who want to use the watch,” says Mühle. “They aren’t afraid that they might break anything inside.”
“I’m neither Swiss nor a watchmaker by training, and I didn’t have any money to build up a company,” says Roland Schwertner, who founded Nomos Glashütte in 1990, mere months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Schwertner’s only real experience in the watchmaking industry was limited to IT consulting for a watch brand in Düsseldorf. He knew of Glashütte’s watchmaking legacy, however, and saw its potential to yet again become a luxury watchmaking mecca.
“As you can imagine, the beginning was hard,” says Schwertner. With what little resources he had, he hired three watchmakers, set up shop in a three-bedroom apartment and got to work on developing Nomos’s first four watches: the Tangente, the Tetra, the Ludwig and the Orion. All four watches launched two years later, making them, by Schwerner’s account, the first new mechanical watch models from Glashütte to be brought to market after the reunification of Germany.
To start, Nomos relied on Swiss-made mechanical calibers to power its watches; its relatively low-cost watches were able to help the company grow. But since the beginning, Schwertner’s ambitions were for something bigger. “Developing our own calibers was something I wanted to do from the very beginning — I wanted Nomos Glashütte to become a watchmaking company that does everything in-house,” he says.
It’s a goal the watchmaker has steadily worked toward. In 2005, Nomos released its first movement manufactured in-house, the Alpha, based on the design of the hand-winding Peseux 7001 that powered the brand’s earlier watches. That year it also launched the Epsilon, its first automatic — and has only used in-house movements since. More remarkably, in 2015 Nomos launched the DUW 3001, a super-thin automatic featuring Nomos’s own in-house, proprietary escapement, the tiny, complex part that transfers the watch’s wound energy to the hands. Few other watchmakers can claim that accomplishment, which Nomos pulled off thanks in part to millions of euros in grants from the German government and help from the Technical University of Dresden.
Today, Nomos is the largest producer of mechanical watches in Germany. According to Schwertner, 95 percent of the manufacturing cost of Nomos’s calibers is accounted for by in-house production at the company’s Glashütte manufacture. Yet despite its incredible in-house work, it produces some of the most affordable watches to come from Glashütte. Of course, given that Nomos is perhaps best known for the clean, modernist designs penned at its Berlin design studio, few are actually aware of the incredible in-house manufacturing inside. “We combine award-winning design from Berlin and high-quality craftsmanship from Glashütte,” says Schwertner. “I think that’s what makes us unique in the watchmaking world.”