Watchmaking in Germany

Glashütte: a 170-year-old watchmaking start-up


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January 2017

Glashütte: a 170-year-old watchmaking start-up

Ruined, oppressed, plundered – Germany’s watchmaking stronghold has succeeded in rising from the ashes several times over. Its “quartz crises” were real wars, blockades and wholesale dismantling. As Swiss watchmaking suffers the throes of a deep-seated crisis, we travelled to Glashütte to investigate what has been accomplished there since the fall of the Wall. Everything had to be rebuilt from scratch and (almost) everything has been.


e’re sorry we’re not Swiss. But we’re German!” This is the response of Yann Gamard, the CEO of Glashütte Original, when asked if it was really possible to produce attractive non-Helvetic watches. His Saxon colleague Alexander Philipp from the Tutima brand backs this up: “There are already so many watch brands on the market. When a retailer already has ten Swiss brands in his portfolio, being German sets us apart a little.”

So, how about travelling a little way north of Switzerland? At a time when the Swiss watchmaking industry is experiencing a slowdown of a magnitude it has not seen in a very long time, it does you good to cross the border and head for Glashütte, a small, quiet town surrounded by hills between Dresden and the Czech Republic. This temple of German watchmaking has experienced a remarkable expansion in recent times. One of the best examples of this is Nomos: ultra-edgy and much admired by urban chic aesthetes, the brand allows itself the luxury of offering in-house movements starting at 1,000 euros, and the irony of having a collection of made-in-Glashütte watches christened Zurich.

Glashütte: a 170-year-old watchmaking start-up

Little Germans versus big Swiss

The Glashütte watch industry, identifiable by its threequarter base plate developed by the “patriarch”, Ferdinand Adolph Lange, which distinguishes it from its Swiss cousins, acknowledged for the quality of its finishes and attention to detail, and praised for its moderate pricing, could almost teach Swiss watchmakers a thing or two. Although many Swiss businesses proclaim themselves to be “manufactures” while buying everything in, integrated skills have long been a reality in this Saxon valley – including control over their movement assortments.

Nomos developed its own in collaboration with Dresden University of Technology. Nomos director Uwe Ahrendt enthusiastically shows us his new, automatic DUW 3001 movement, at the same time noting a difference in spirit of the “start-up” Glashütte with the well-established Swiss watch industry, for obvious reasons: “A giant and reliable movement maker like ETA, for instance, developed its models in the 1970s; they’re hard-wearing, tried-and-tested and they sell. So why change?”

Nomos , which posted growth of more than 30% in 2015 and produces around 20,000 watches a year with a staff of 240 people, intends to double in size over the next three years. Like its fellow manufactures in the region, it can count on a solid domestic market, but also a breakthrough into the US market. It has just expanded its machine tool inventory (which is Swiss) in response to rising demand, and is set to build a second additional workshop.

Courteous respect and subtle digs

As for A. Lange & Söhne, their new building is already built, inaugurated with pomp and ceremony by Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2015. Wilhelm Schmid, CEO of this haute horlogerie brand, takes a look around him: “In Glashütte, almost all of us work in different segments, so there’s very little overlap between our niche markets and we’re all working to develop regional watchmaking, with certain quality standards. They differ, of course, depending on the price segment, but in my view, no cheap watch should ever come out of Glashütte. That would be detrimental to everybody.”

At Glashütte Original, it is even explained to us that there exists a “gentlemen’s agreement” between the brands, according to which “one does not poach other companies’ employees”. So, an idyllic world where peace and serenity come before individual self-interest? Let’s not kid ourselves – behind the official discourse is the usual backbiting, and employees switch from one company to another, just like in Switzerland. The current CEOs of Nomos and Moritz Grossmann are, incidentally, formerly of A. Lange & Söhne, the veritable mothership of the watchmaking industry.

While courteous respect reigns between the brands, competition is crystallising around the Glashütte legacy, in particular. Every brand has its pride and believes that it best embodies the original spirit of the place. All of them resumed their former names in the 1990s and 2000s. Yet this legacy cannot be taken for granted, given the turbulent history of the region, which has been reduced to rubble on several occasions. In fact, everything in Glashütte rose out of the ruins. Let us take a closer look.

Glashütte: a 170-year-old watchmaking start-up Glashütte: a 170-year-old watchmaking start-up


Automaton clock “drumming bear” (around 1625)
Automaton clock “drumming bear” (around 1625)

Saxony’s finest hours

To understand the history of watchmaking in Glashütte, you have to start with a visit to Dresden and the magnificent Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon of the Zwinger Palace. Peter Plessmeyer, the curator, welcomes us for a tour of its storied halls and its extraordinary mechanical and scientific objects, such as the seventeenth-century mechanical bear with a drum.

Designed as an orangery for the king of Saxony, by 1728 the Zwinger had evolved into a palace of science modelled on similar entities in London and Paris: from this period, you can see a cabinet with giant burning mirrors and huge lenses. “The palace gradually came to specialise in astronomy and, as the instruments demand great precision, that paved the way for the development of watchmaking,” Peter Plessmeyer explains. “Since Dresden was not a major watchmaking centre, the city acquired its know-how from outside, notably from British designers of naval chronometers.”

The Saxon watchmaker Johann Heinrich Seyffert (1751-1818), in particular, set out to rival his English counterparts. He gave rise to a whole line of great and extremely productive watchmakers, as the teacher of Johann Christian Friedrich Gutkaes (1785-1845), who was himself the mentor of Ferdinand Adolph Lange (1815-1875). Together, the two men designed the famous Fünf-Minuten-Uhr in Dresden’s opera house which, with its two huge rectangular apertures, still influences design at Lange.

Although the mentor dreamed in vain of industrialising watch production, his pupil did succeed, after countless trips to Paris, London and Switzerland and the filing of numerous patents. Our next appointment is at the German Watch Museum, inaugurated by the Swatch Group in a former watchmaking school in Glashütte.

Why Glashütte?

In the mid-nineteenth century, Glashütte was a destitute village. Its economy was dependent on metal mining and the mines had dried up. Just as Ferdinand Adolph Lange was asking for financial support from the king of Saxony, a development programme was being put in place for several villages in that rural area. Eleven villages vied with one another to host this new watchmaking centre. The timing was just right, as with the advent of the industrial revolution, demand for pocket watches was rising.

Glashütte, the poorest of the localities, was chosen partly because it offered to pay for some of the investment, but also because of its proximity to Dresden. So it was that Lange arrived in 1845, accompanied by 15 apprentices and fellow watchmakers; they were the “founding fathers” of the industry in Glashütte and combined their efforts to produce the movement typical of the region. However, for many years Lange and his successors would continue to inscribe ‘Dresden’ on their watch dials.

To start with, Glashütte was a carbon copy of the Swiss watch industry – the result of Ferdinand Adolph Lange’s discovery of the établissage system during his travels in Switzerland. By around the year 1900, this loosely grouped manufacture comprised some one hundred tiny workshops. But gradually, the “copy” began to develop its own interpretation of watchmaking, the most famous characteristic being the three-quarter base plate, a “sandwich” design, whereas the Swiss tended to work more with bridges. As new markets opened up, the tiny Saxon town began to carve out an international reputation for itself.

When Switzerland rebuilt Glashütte

Things fell apart at the end of the Second World War, when the east of Germany was occupied by the Red Army. Glashütte, an important supplier for the army, was bombed at the end of the war. The Soviets loaded all the production machinery onto trains bound for the USSR, to increase their own watchmaking capacity, and the village had to start again from scratch. In the planned economy, all the Glashütte companies were forced to merge to create a watchmaking conglomerate, Glashütter Uhrenbetrieb (GUB), for mass production. Exports to West Germany resumed in the 1960s.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, there were no more than around 70 people still working in the watch industry in Glashütte. Yet another new start was called for! Two men, Günter Blümlein and Walter Lange, joined forces to launch quality production anew and revive the tradition of fine watchmaking in Glashütte. The names of the past re-emerged. And behind them, Swiss investment, with the takeover of Glashütte Original and Union Glashütte by the  Swatch Group, and that of A. Lange & Söhne by Richemont at the turn of the century. Today, the two most important brands in this German village are in Swiss hands. From the outset, the support was not solely financial, but also technological. Ideas circulate between Geneva, Le Sentier, Bienne, Schaffhausen and Glashütte.

“The watchmaking histories of Switzerland and Glashütte have always between closely intertwined,” stresses Yann Gamard. “Now, we have our place at the heart of Baselworld, and we’re proud to be able to be there, vying with the great Swiss names!” Incidentally, it is strangely ironic that the museum bearing the name of Nicolas Hayek, the “saviour of the Swiss watch industry”, is located in – Germany.

Towards joint lobbying?

Today in Glashütte, three brands occupy centre stage, with more than 200 employees and global visibility: A. Lange & Söhne (Richemont ), Glashütte Original ( Swatch Group) and Nomos . But behind them, a buzzing backstage of smaller brands is also carrying on the region’s watchmaking tradition, most of them bearing well-known names from the past: Moritz Grossmann, Tutima, Bruno Söhnle and Mühle-Glashütte. As for Wempe, they have installed their observatory in the town, providing the equivalent of the COSC, the official Swiss chronometer testing institute.

So where do these independent brands stand? Thilo Mühle of the eponymous brand believes that they need to team up to find the best sales opportunities in the face of the large groups: “Each brand is doing its own development and losing money in the process. We’re stronger together, for example when buying tools or materials, or when negotiating with the distribution networks in Germany.” For the moment, no such alliance has emerged.

So why not join forces to promote the visibility of the Glashütte name internationally? “I believe that the fact that all the brands here bear the name of Glashütte on the dial is already a considerable feat as far as promoting the region is concerned, and it also means that we’re proud to be here,” replies Wilhelm Schmid. “The name is well known to all enlightened watch-lovers. Among the broader public, I wonder how many people have heard of the Joux Valley?”

No bling-bling, no stars

Another characteristic also strikes you when you visit this Saxon valley. While the Swiss watch ecosystem has spawned a whole array of futuristic, extravagant and ultra-modern brands during the past fifteen years, such as Richard Mille, Urwerk and MB&F, Glashütte has not experienced any comparable breach with tradition, although it has experienced fundamental breaks in its history – the Second World War and the Cold War – of a kind unknown in Switzerland.

Here again, Wilhelm Schmid’s response is: “We’re only 25 years old, we’re still a start-up ourselves! Today, Glashütte occupies the place it deserves on the world watchmaking map: we shall never be as important as Switzerland, because we’re just a few brands in a tiny town. But I see an exciting future: every brand has to contribute to the success of this little valley, each in its own segment, face to face with its own competitors. Each and every one of them has to explain that a watch from here is different from a watch from elsewhere.” So does that mean there is no room for any new start-ups? “One day there will be a Philippe Dufour of Glashütte, maybe one of our current apprentices, but for the moment we’re too young. There are already lots of start-ups here!” Incidentally, the very young average age of the watchmakers in Glashütte is another characteristic trait – several brands have their own watchmaking schools. Yann Gamard supplies his version: “We’re in a region that has survived through solidarity and doesn’t offer much scope for individualism. So I’m not sure that we’ll see any stars of watchmaking, really big names like the ones that have emerged in the industry in Switzerland in recent years. Here, it’s anything but bling-bling.”

Thilo Mühle offers a more nuanced opinion: “There will be scope for young watchmakers and start-ups, but not if we follow the Glashütte tradition, the niche is already saturated. In fact, the brands that were relaunched after 2004 have had far greater trouble developing than their predecessors.” Entrepreneurial ventures can indeed also end in failure in this Saxon stronghold, as demonstrated by the bankruptcy of the C. H. Wolf brand last spring. In Glashütte’s streets, filled with whispers of the past, some ghosts are born again as others are laid to rest.



Glashütte: a 170-year-old watchmaking start-up