Starting with a handicap, the German fine-watchmaking industry offers a competitive package to connoisseurs, characterised by a distinct style and top mechanical performance at a reasonable price. As a curious guest of Glashütte Original I discovered the creative town the company calls home and their manufacture.
The 3 o’clock wake up that usually knocks me out for the day has mixed this time with the razor sharp air and the noises of the late autumn. Just landed in Glashütte from the daily routine. It’s a welcoming land; peace lives here.
On the way here in Dresden, I relived the fuzzy childhood memories about the city – that time the Frauenkirche was being rebuilt. Today, it stands proudly in front of my hotel. Saxony has written long chapters in the history books. Its marvels were erected, burned (thanks to the collective stupidity of humankind) and rebuilt again. Glashütte, the German centre of high precision watchmaking is 40 kms far from here to the south, just minutes from the Czech border.
Watchmaking in Glashütte
When looking around, you see a small town not significantly bigger than few centuries ago. The 15th century village was given city rights by the Duke of Saxony Georg “The Bearded” in 1506, who as the landlord received his shares from the then rich yields of the silver ore mine. The layout is typical of that age: streets and houses run along the crossing creeks, Müglitz and Prießnitzbach, overlooked by the church in the centre. It was also shaped by the industries people lived from: first the silver mining and from the mid-19th century onwards: watchmaking. Engineering reengineered it to its own needs – a bit like in La Chaux-De-Fonds where windows turned towards the sun – here too, the workshops queuing up next to one another raised giant eyes to the outer world seeking the planetary optimum position.
The industry settled in Glashütte when the Saxon state government sought the way out from poverty caused by wars, epidemics and the exhaustion of the mine. It was Ferdinand Adolph Lange, son-in-law of the Dresden master watchmaker Johann Christian Friedrich Gutkaes, who pursued the government to establish a watch industry hub based on the Swiss model in Glashütte. He studied the specialised parts manufacturing eco-system of the Jura on his journeys and concluded that it allows higher efficiency and quality in the process. In December 1845 he began to produce pocket watches with 15 apprentices.
The traditional German hunger for precision boosted by the new processes ended up with an industry that is still flourishing today. Companies here constantly face the dominance of the Swiss watchmaking sector and therefore they must look for ways to differentiate themselves. This pressure has made them work harder and develop a distinct style and package, which competes with the Swiss firms in its own right – and with increasing success. Credit must go to the Swiss conglomerates that although they keep a shareholding control in major German players; they leave space for walking their own path.
Companies in a 50km diameter include for example Glashütte Original, A. Lange & Söhne, Nomos Glashütte, Lang & Heyne, Moritz Grossmann, Mühle and a number of specialised parts manufactures.
Creative freedom and competitiveness depend much on the in-house and local supplies of parts. During the Cold War, the area belonged to the Communist bloc, which didn’t do much good for the manufacture production structures. Small shops were consolidated under one large roof, called VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe (GUB). The production of precision wristwatches, special fine mechanical tools and marine chronometers stayed in Glashütte but other product lines (e.g. clocks) were moved elsewhere. After the wall was broken down, GUB was restructured into a limited company, which in 1994 became privatised – since then the brand is called “Glashütte Original”. In 2000, the Swatch Group acquired the company.
Glashütte Original can produce over 90% of parts they use in-house. They also create many of their own tools. To make sure that they can always keep up with the growing demand from watch and toolmakers, the company runs its own school, the Alfred Helwig Watchmaking School. Alfred Helwig lived in Glashütte and was a former instructor at the German School of Watchmaking (est. 1878) as well as the inventor of the flying tourbillon. The school today is affiliated with the Swatch Group and the 20-24 annual graduates can complement their German diploma with the WOSTEP certificate (Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program) upon completing the course.
At the 2015 edition of Baselworld, which coincided with the 200th anniversary of Ferdinand A. Lange’s birthday, Glashütte Original showcased an exhibition, entitled “360° – The Facets of Glashütte Original”. In 2017, the same can be seen upon entering the company’s HQ, in the 23-meter high atrium. The renovated manufactory building houses a 10,000 square meter production site.
On our trip, we were invited for a manufacture tour and three exciting workshops: we took a glimpse into different production processes and tried our patience and skills on a balance wheel. Then we explored the new manifestation of German precision, the Calibre 36 movement, introduced in 2016. The third was focusing on heritage pieces from the museum. We also talked about restoration and watches which served as an inspiration for today’s Glashütte models.
A glimpse into the manufacturing process
Mechanical watchmaking, which today is more about love than necessity, requires more than just blind love – such as trust and honesty. Therefore, GO has put much emphasis on transparency. For instance, they open the manufacture for any interested visitor. Anyone travelling to Glashütte can look behind the scenes and peek into the watchmaking processes. The company offers guided tours and I was actually surprised how sleek they made it: watchmakers (by the way many of them at the early 20s, fresh and excited out from the school), construction engineers, product designers, technicians, toolmakers or engravers work behind huge glass windows. Although the site might get busy for a work that requires such attention, they are not disturbed by the crowds. Yes, you cannot bend over the piece in progress, but the whole system is designed to make the audience a natural companion in the building. Watchmakers work in peace, while competent guides escort guests who might be GO owners, horology enthusiasts, or simply just individuals interested in Glashütte’s past, present and future.
The story continues with Calibre 36 and the museum pieces here.
Photo credits: Glashütte Original, Loupiosity.com.
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