All too often dominated by names from the big luxury groups, watchmaking in Saxony has a lot more to offer than just the usual suspects.
Nothing happens in a vacuum, so it might seem odd to credit one man with turning the sleepy German village of Glashütte into a Teutonic equivalent of Neuchâtel. One would prefer to attribute this to a series of events, a “perfect storm” as it were, but the late Günter Blümlein deserves recognition above all others for reviving German watchmaking and elevating it to a level on a par with the Swiss, for quality if not yet quantity.
It was Blümlein who, with Walter Lange, masterminded the rebirth of A. Lange & Söhne in the mid-1990s. As modern horological developments go, it was an event that surely served as the catalyst for breathing new life into a region which had suffered for a half-century under stifling Communist rule. Instantly alerting the then-burgeoning watch community to the forgotten horological riches of the area, Lange’s phenomenal – and rapid – success was followed by the return of Glashütte Original.
In their wake, enough brands – new and resuscitated – arrived to create the above likeness to the equally sleepy Neuchâtel, if on a smaller scale. The German watch industry, which includes brands not sharing the geography of Glashütte, encompasses around 40 companies of varying degrees of “manufacture-ness.” Glashütte’s are far more accomplished than that: the five I visited, roughly half of the village’s makers, either possess coveted manufacture status to one degree or another, or are responsible for certified chronometers.
At the same time, they embrace different types of watchmaking, from a maker of affordable timepieces with in-house movements to extreme haute horlogerie, completely new maisons or back-from-the-dead, a store’s own brand, one with “auteur” status and even a prodigal son. Yes, all of those elements can be found among the handful of companies selected by the organisers of Dubai Watch Week for a press visit.
The high-end one: Moritz Grossmann
Christine Hutter, who worked with Günter Blümlein, learned well from the maestro. Also cherishing Glashütte’s heritage, she chose to honour one of the region’s four founding fathers, who – along with Adolph Lange, Julius Assmann and Adolf Schneider – established its reputation for horological excellence.
Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, Moritz Grossmann is of the no-compromise school of high-end watchmaking. Its purpose-built factory nestles up against a mountainside, the solidity reflected it watches that are utterly Saxon in their execution. Conceived, designed and produced entirely in-house, the company’s watches range from the entry-level, time-only, manually wound Tefnut to the Benu tourbillon.
Common to all are what the company refers to as “typical Grossmann hallmarks”. This means a belt-and-braces approach to everything, like three screws to hold in each raised gold chaton, hand-engraved German silver bridges, a cantilevered balance cock boasting one of Moritz Grossmann’s designs, a micrometer screw adjustment, pillar construction for the support of the bridges and hands made in-house.
Added to the sheer sophistication and competence of each piece is something else valued by aficionados. Moritz Grossmann only produces a couple of hundred watches each year, limited by the man-hours required to make each one. One suspects that the elegant and accomplished Ms Hutter had the spirit of Blümlein guiding her along the way. In under a decade, she’s created one of the classiest watch families on the planet.
The exclusive one: Lang & Heyne
Technically, this astounding manufacture isn’t a Glashütte brand: it’s located in Dresden. But let’s be flexible, because it certainly adheres to the mores of Saxon watchmaking down the strasse apiece.
Fifth-generation watchmaker and founder Marco Lang is very much of the culture that has given us Kari Voutilainen and Messrs Greubel and Forsey. Lang – “I designed my very first watch shortly before the millennium” – is a purist and a perfectionist, but his devotion to the region is all-encompassing. He even named each of his watches after a Saxon king.
Like Moritz Grossmann watches, Lang & Heyne timepieces are instantly identifiable as German. They employ massive three-quarter plates, chatons held securely by screws and other details that enhance watches, which are adventurous despite the adherence to tradition.
If one had to choose a single model to represent this remarkable auteur it might be the rectangular Anton Flying Tourbillon. Turn it over. It’s atypical in this family as it is not round, and it features no three-quarter plate. Instead, look at its “bow-tie” bridge for the tourbillon, its “half-bows” for the remaining bearings, its massive rectangular baseplate and construction to make a grown watchmaker weep. This is art, and Marco Lang shares more than a last name with Fritz.
The cool one: Nomos
Among the best-known of the German brands, and easily among the most relevant in the real world thanks to the affordable nature of its products, Nomos has achieved much in a mere 28 years. History buffs will note that the company emerged within months of the fall of the Berlin Wall, making it one of the first manifestations of the freedom offered by the end of Communist rule in East Germany.
This is a modern company in every sense of the word, the only historical aspect being the choice of Germany’s traditional watchmaking centre as its base, and the use of a former train station for the precision machining department. Instead, its ethos is based on the pure style of the forerunner to Bauhaus: the Deutscher Werkbund. They’ve turned this into one of the very few watch ranges that actually deserves to be described as “cool”.
A look at their catalogue, at the minimalism exercised in everything from the square-cased Tetra to the clever Neomatik to the new and deliciously affordable Campus shows how they have stayed true to this by producing some of the most cleanly styled timepieces on the market. With around 260 employees in Glashütte, as well as employees in London, New York City, and Berlin that bring the total closer to 300, Nomos is no speciality brand: it sells watches in the thousands, all with in-house movements.
With the value placed on manufacture status so crucial to a certain type of watch buyer, Nomos’s achievements cannot be overstated. I was staggered to see a factory to rival larger, longer-established makes, but precious few can boast the exclusive use of in-house-developed and produced calibres. Modern the brand may be, but made-by-hand is the dominant skill set, used for milling plates, bridges and wheels, bluing screws and hand-bevelling edges.
There is another whiff of the historical to Nomos: the CEO drives a 60-year-old Mercedes-Benz 190.
The returning one: Tutima
Unlike its neighbours, Tutima has been in continual production since 1927 – but they relocated from Glashütte to West Germany following the Second World War. While having to leave the place of its birth, Tutima was spared the degradation inflicted upon its fellow watchmakers by spending the dark years away from the Commies. A sense of longing, though, meant a return to Glashütte in 2011, not far from its original works.
Here surprises were numerous, because my knowledge of the brand was restricted to its chronographs, mainly those made for the Luftwaffe in the Second World War. Of course, there had to be more to the brand than reissues of military chronographs, and I soon discovered a catalogue encompassing dress watches, diving watches and chronographs of a more modern mien for use by various professional services.
What looks set to elevate Tutima, however, from a tool watchmaker of note to part of the haute horlogerie community is what they describe as: “The first minute repeater to be completely developed and produced on German soil.” I suspect that may be a dig at their neighbours, perhaps intimating that others may have had help from the Swiss. But the Tutima Hommage Minute Repeater – whatever the claim – will prove a rarity: only two in rose gold and five in platinum will be produced. Keeping it pure are the traditional Glashütte touches of a three-quarter plate and wave decoration.
The prodigious one: Wempe
Marking 140 years since its founding in 1878, Germany’s largest watch and jewellery retailer entered the manufacturing of timepieces back in 1905. It is one of those brands that honed its skills with genuine marine chronometers and this historical component informs its current activities.
Again, the visit was an eye-opener, not least because – like Nomos – Wempe seems to have missed the general horological directive to overcharge. And unlike most store-branded watches, Wempe makes its own, instead of simply sticking its logo on someone else’s dial.
Wempe has been producing two watch ranges in Glashütte since 2006. The Zeitmeisters use movements from outside suppliers, which are modified by Wempe and regulated to surpass chronometer testing to the DIN standard. The Chronometerwerke timepieces feature manufacture movements, also subjected to chronometer testing, and it’s here that Wempe demonstrates its unique status.
Wempe carries out its own testing in the rather cool, thoroughly renovated Glashütte Observatory building. Its 30 or so staff produce 31 different models in the Chronometerwerke line and Zeitmeister accounts for 145 different models. But the real delight was finding a couple of models worthy of Beer Budget Bargain status. Hot tip: if you fancy a three-hander aviator watch and want to stay below £2,000, the 38mm, stainless steel Zeitmeister Aviator Watch Automatic is a knock-out.
With Glashütte now a hive of horological activity, with A. Lange & Söhne earning plaudits at the highest level, with generations of dispossessed German watchmakers restored to pre-Communist glory, I like to imagine Günter Blümlein in the hereafter, basking in well-earned glory. He left us far too early, at the age of 58, but whatever else his future might have held, when it came to reviving a country’s horological heritage, modern Glashütte shows that his work there was done.