In the aftermath of World War II, the tiny German watch-making town of Glashütte faced a crisis from which it would take decades to recover. Virtually unscathed for the duration of the war, despite being enlisted to make instruments and watches for the German military, it was heavily bombed by the Soviets in one of the last hostile acts of the conflict.
Worse was to come, as the town’s watchmakers were then stripped of their valuable machinery and tools and confiscated by the Soviet Union as war reparations. Few would have predicted that Glashütte could ever again be a force in watchmaking, let alone hailed as a global hub of horological excellence. But this year, as it celebrates 175 years since the first timepieces were made in this picturesque Saxony town, Glashütte and its resident watch manufacturers can look back on the last three decades as a stunningly successful period of re-emergence.
It’s incredible how Glashütte became anything more than just another nondescript Saxony village in the first place. What began as a few rural small-holdings was transformed into a boom town in the early 15th century when a silver ore mine with rich deposits was discovered, ushering in an era of economic growth and a population spike. Yet by the late 17th century these mines were exhausted, bringing an end to this era of prosperity.
Step forward Ferdinand Adolph Lange, a master watchmaker and businessman, who in 1845 convinced the Saxony government that watchmaking could revive the town’s fortune. Having secured a loan, he hired 15 local apprentices to train as watchmakers and set about building a sustainable business. This company, A. Lange & Söhne, would emerge as the town’s pre-eminent watchmaking firm.
After much hardship, which saw him pour both his own and his wife’s family’s fortune into the business, Lange eventually turned it into a success. And his apprentices – former straw weavers, miners and artisans - went on to form the bedrock of the watch industry in the town, making all the components needed to build a timepiece, which in turn attracted other watchmakers. The town thrived once more until the end of World War II when it faced yet another existential crisis.
Four years after the end of World War II, having already been bombed and seen its factories stripped of their specialist equipment, Glashütte found itself being swallowed up by the communist Eastern Bloc. Under the East German state, founded in 1949, the only watch company allowed to operate was the state-run Glashütte Uhrenbetriebe (GUB), essentially a conglomerate formed by all the companies of Glashütte being forcibly pooled together.
GUB focused on making mass-produced timepieces that were nowhere near the quality of those made in the pre-war years. It did, however, ensure Glashütte didn’t completely lose the horological skills it had taken so long to develop, and GUB lasted for the duration of East Germany’s existence.
Glashütte weathered another assault in the 1970s when the tradition of mechanical watchmaking worldwide was severely threatened by the arrival of quartz-powered watches. But the town’s traditional skills survived thanks to a clutch of old watch-making families. After the reunification of Germany in 1990, Glashütte was finally free to re-establish itself as watch-making powerhouse.
Instrumental in the revival was Walter Lange, Ferdinand’s great grandson. Walter had fled to West Germany as the Berlin Wall was being constructed in 1961 and, fortuitously, had remained in the watch industry. Approached by Günther Blümlein, the CEO of Les Manufactures Horlogères (LMH), a group that owned companies like Jaeger-LeCoultre and IWC, Walter was given the opportunity and investment to revive the hallowed name of A. Lange & Söhne and he grasped it with both hands. It took A. Lange & Söhne till 1994 to design, manufacture and release its first watches of the post-communist era and its current CEO Wilhelm Schmid admits it was ”a venture into the unknown.”
“Not only did the founders have to answer the question of what a modern A. Lange & Söhne should look like after a hiatus of forty years,” says Schmid. “They were also faced with many variable factors offering countless options. And yet, decisions had to be taken quickly, in the awareness that every detail could mean the difference between victory and defeat.”
Fortunately, the four brand-new models of the modern era unveiled by the company were a huge success and forged the path of quality and superb craftsmanship that it has resolutely stayed on ever since, paving the way for other old companies such as Glashütte Original, Muhle-Glashütte and Tutima to join the revival.
New brands have sprung up in town too, the most notable being Nomos Glashütte, no longer a fledgling company, having been founded in 1990. Very much a luxury watch brand but not commanding the kind of prices of the more established brands, Nomos has proved a huge success story, becoming Germany’s largest producer of mechanical watches.
Asked whether Nomos feels fully integrated into the Glashütte watchmaking family despite its relative newcomer status, founder Roland Schwertner is emphatic in his response. “Certainly! We have Glashütte in our name and on every one of our watches because our products fulfill the ‘Glashütte rule’, which states that at least 50 per cent of a caliber’s value must be produced locally. At Nomos, we far exceed this requirement, since all our calibers are developed and built in-house. Nomos Glashütte was also the first independent watchmaking company to be founded after the fall of the Berlin wall, and the first to bring new Glashütte watches onto the market,” he continues. “So we’ve become a part of the history of Glashütte, even if we haven’t been around for 175 years yet.”
As with all companies in Glashütte, Nomos owes its existence to Ferdinand Adolph Lange, but also to the fall of the Berlin Wall, which made it possible for independent companies to operate in former East Germany. “The more established companies may have a longer history to look back on; but they were unable to operate for 40 years during the GDR,” says Schwertner. “So like Nomos Glashütte, they were founded in their modern form in the early 1990’s. We appreciate their contribution to the reputation of this famous watchmaking town, but now we all have our role in continuing this rich heritage—including Nomos Glashütte.”
To commemorate the town’s 175th anniversary of watchmaking this year, several of Glashütte’s manufacturers, including Nomos and A. Lange & Söhne have brought out special edition watches, which promise to be even more highly sought after than their regular models. And one suspects there are many more anniversaries to come. Asked what the company hopes to achieve by the time of its 200th anniversary in 2045, Wilhelm Schmid says, “I hope that in 25 years’ our watches will still be in high demand among passionate watch connoisseurs all over the world, and that my successor can say that one of the reasons for the strong market position is that we set the right course in the 2020s.”