Horological Culture • 21 Feb 2019
Turbulence to Triumph: The Revitalisation of German Watchmaking
The snow is falling gently outside a café window onto a small street just off Munich’s busy Ludwigstrasse. Students and professionals alike brave the cold and stride confidently towards their destination. Behind these persistent pedestrians sits a contrasting architectural backdrop of neo-classical arches next to contemporary red-brick façades. I cannot help but consider this to be the image of contemporary Germany: composed, self-assured, and walking the delicate line between history and progress. As political and physical walls began to fall in the capital of Berlin at the end of the 20thcentury, Germany started to find its feet after decades of turbulence. Around the same time, German watchmaking awoke from an involuntary hiatus and commenced the process of revitalisation.
A Town Called Glashütte
To the east of Germany in the state of Saxony sits a town which is undeniably the focal point of contemporary German watchmaking. During the 19thcentury, the renaissance city of Dresden was the vibrant and thriving Saxon centre for arts, politics, commerce and innovation. Conversely, the nearby town of Glashütte was impoverished and struggling. However, Dresden-born Ferdinand Adolph Lange decided that Glashütte would be the ideal location to realise his bold ambition of producing the finest precision timepieces.
The founding of A. Lange & Söhne created an industry that would have a lasting impact not only on local employment and prosperity, but on the national culture of watchmaking. Glashütte is now synonymous with the very best of German horology – both historic and contemporary. So revered is the Glashütte label that at least half of a watch’s movement must be made in the town for it to bear the name. Unsurprisingly, a veritable triumvirate of companies from Glashütte stand out in the watch market of today.
A. Lange & Söhne
From aspirational origins, A. Lange & Söhne has risen to become the gold (or platinum) standard of German watchmaking. Despite the elegance and precision of their timepieces – craftsmanship which rivals the very highest echelons of Swiss manufacture – their illustrious history suffered a lengthy interruption due to continental political instability. When post-war Germany was divided and the east amalgamated into the Soviet bloc, the property and production facilities which belonged to the company were nationalised and the renowned brand disappeared.
Their mid-century disappearance might have proved simply too much for any other brand, but A. Lange & Söhne was started by a bold vision in 1845, and in 1994 it reappeared with equally noble aspirations. Walter Lange, the great-grandson of the founder Ferdinand Adolph Lange, wanted to rebuild the family company to once again make the finest German timepieces. Over forty decades since their fade into obscurity, A. Lange & Söhne returned to the watch world by releasing an exquisite collection of four new watches – the most notable of which was the iconic Lange 1 which has come to epitomise the very essence of the brand. A. Lange & Söhne seek inspiration from their heritage – a distinctly Glashütte heritage – to produce bold and refreshingly unique timepieces which stand amongst the finest available to the contemporary watch enthusiasts.
Again, when the Iron Curtain descended and East Germany became a satellite state of the Soviet Union, Glashütte watch companies were nationalised and merged into the single state-owned manufacturer Volkseigener Betrieb (VEB) Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe. Communism had formed a conglomerate to swallow the proud legacy of luxury timepiece craftsmanship in Glashütte. It is not until many decades later that Glashütte Original comes in.
Rather ironically, Glashütte Original formed as a result of the privatisation of VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe in 1994, and consequently inherited the expertise of more than a century of precision watchmaking in the area. What Glashütte Original represented was a tangible reclaiming of the town’s prestigious watchmaking tradition, excellence and enterprise – all of which occurred alongside the reunification of Germany itself.
However, the company has not rested on the success of the past. Glashütte Original pioneers a refined attitude towards contemporary design with models such as the Senator, and references the distinctive legacy of Glashütte traditions with the Pano. Indeed, the company plays an important role as the successor to a priceless heritage of precision watchmaking.
Nomos began in 1990 with the release of four watches which are still produced today. Undeniably the brand draws inspiration from the clean and functional aesthetic of the Bauhaus movement – a movement which had lead early 20thcentury German design until it was scorned by the fascist regime and its proponents duly exiled. Yet Nomos is not merely a tribute to the German artistic endeavours of the past. Rather, Nomos is a confident expression of a youthful, vibrant and cosmopolitan 21stcentury Germany.
The inspired collection is designed at their Berlinerblau studio in the trendy suburb of Kreuzberg, and then assembled only a two-hour drive away in Glashütte. In 2005 Nomos released an impressive first for the brand: the entirely in-house Epsilon movement. Since then, except for a leather strap here and a crystal there, their movements have been produced almost entirely in-house. The Tangente is their most recognised, best selling and emblematic model. Testament to the relevance and ingenuity of their design process, the Tangente neomatik 41 even earned Nomos the coveted Challenge Prize at he 2018 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Geneve. The young brand is certainly gaining a reputation well beyond its years.
Companies like A. Lange & Söhne, Glashütte Original and Nomos Glashütte are amongst the leaders in German watchmaking today. Whilst their identities vary, they are all linked by their common origins in an otherwise ordinary town nestled in the Saxon countryside. Duly, what these brands each represent in their own way is a reclaiming of German innovation and prestige production. Since reunification, Germany has ticked on as a forward thinking, European story of economic and social success. In a similar spirit, German watch companies have wound their cogs to embrace ideas of progress and build on the traditions of their high-minded horological heritage.