It was Ferdinand Adolph Lange who put the German town of Glashütte on the horological map in 1845 when he established his manufactory here. An hour’s drive from Dresden, Glashütte would eventually be transformed from an agricultural village into a modern industrial town.
The town flourished as Germany’s watchmaking hub right up to the end of World War II. After the war, the East German government nationalized the watchmaking companies in Glashütte into one state-run enterprise called the VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe (GUB). Post the reunification of Germany in 1990, the GUB was dismantled and marked for privatization, an event that would lead to the re-establishment of A. Lange & Söhne and spawn the birth of brands like Nomos. In less than two decades, the town would re-establish itself as the heart of German watchmaking again.
The core of GUB eventually transformed into Glashütte Original. But there was much turmoil along the way. In 1989, the state-run GUB employed roughly 2,500 people. Not only did it make spartan and functional timepieces for East Germans, it also produced devices like time switches for washing machines. Post re-unification and the privatization of GUB, only 74 employees survived.
The Glashütte Original we know today was established thanks to the efforts of entrepreneur Heinz Pfiefer, who bought the manufactory with a vision of turning it from a mass producer of functional timepieces to a luxury haute horology watchmaker.
Glashütte Original was eventually bought over by the Swatch Group, the world’s biggest producer of timepieces in 2000, and with the help of the group’s marketing muscle and investment, the brand has been able to show sustained growth over the years. From 74 employees in 1994, Glashütte Original today has close to 750 employees, a thoroughly modern manufactory in their hometown and a dial factory in Pforzheim. Today, the brand makes up to 95 percent of its components in-house.
Glashütte Original is not shy when it comes to welcoming visitors. Every year more than a thousand visitors walk into the manufactory’s bright, airy atrium, with its impressive 23-metre high ceiling. Behind the high walls lie the various ateliers, workshops and departments responsible for the manufacturing and final assembly; they are all connected to each other along the corridors of the four floors and together occupy more than 10,000 square metres.
We begin our tour of the manufactory by visiting the divisions that produce the various components that go into making the movement. We start with the Spark Erosion department where the tiny levers like the rückerzeiger, used in the characteristic Swan Neck regulator, are made. Spark erosion is a process wherein a taut wire, after receiving an electric current, sparks and cuts pieces of copper and iron into tiny components. It is an efficient way of working because you can stack up plates and cut through them in one go. Think of it as a wire slicing through a piece of cake. Incredibly precise, some of the components are within 0.005mm of the specified measurement.
In another room, giant CNC machines cut the wheels, barrels and screws used in the movement from the two-to-three-meter long steel or brass rods. The metal turns on an automatic lathe and a cutting tool removes the undesired material until the desired shapes are produced. While these machines cut most barrels, gear teeth and screws, more complex ones are used to cut teeth with unusual profiles. Some of the screws made here as small as 0.5mm wide.
Glashütte Original uses mainplates and bridges that are machined out of brass. CNC machines stamp out the movement blanks, which are then milled into shape. The milled bridges are then blasted with brass particles in a machine to remove burrs. A technician then inspects these components to manually remove any remaining burrs and checks for any surface irregularities.
A profile projector is then used to check for tolerances in the components that are produced by these processes. A video measuring device checks the parts for accuracy. According to a company representative, these profile projectors can check drill holes, radii and diameters at more than 100 different points. Incidentally, Glashütte Original has a tool-making department that produces the tools used in the production of these components.
Once the components are produced, they go to the finishing department. The hallmark of a haute horology timepiece is its exemplary finishing, and Glashütte Original is no different. In the town’s time-honored tradition, the brand uses the three-quarter plate and the striking screw balance with swan neck fine adjustment in the creation of the movement. The movements are lovingly finished with top grade flourishes like perlage, beveled edges, and the characteristic Glashütte stripes.
In the finishing department, the edges of the bridges and plates are beveled at a 45-degree angle. The balance bridge is hand-engraved and the lettering is cut into the bridge. The brass bridges are first nickel-plated in the galvanics department before it is gold-plated. A protective lacquer is then applied to the engravings and once the lacquer hardens, the plates are given their decorative finishes like the traditional Glashütte ribbing.
Once the line finish is applied, the bridges are rhodium-plated in a galvanic bath to give it its silvery hue. The lacquer bits are then washed off after a dip in an ultrasonic cleaner to reveal a silver movement plate with gold etchings.
In the finishing department, we spot a young technician busy applying perlage on the movement plate. She rotates the plate, which is affixed to a turntable like disk, while creating overlapping circles in quick succession with a diamond-dust stylus. The diameter of the stylus determines the pressure needed on the workpiece and it takes years of skill and training to perfect this.
The technician tells us she goes through as many as 60 plates a day. Some parts like the swan’s neck regulator and screw heads are tin-polished. Also known as black polishing, it takes a technician about an hour and a half to polish the regulator.
In the assembly section, we see how all the components come together. Around 30 watchmakers sit in a dust-free “clean room” to assemble movements. Two watchmakers work on a single movement and it takes them about 8-10 hours to put together a simple one that is made up of 200 parts. The manufactory uses blued screws made by heating the tiny polished steel screws up to around 300°C.
The more complicated watches are assembled in the complications atelier, staffed by more experienced watchmakers. It may take up to 40 hours to assemble a complicated movement like the perpetual calendar. The dial, made at the Pforzheim manufactory, and hands are fitted before the movement is finally cased.
Following assembly, these watches are thoroughly examined and tested to ensure they meet the exacting standards for rate precision, water resistance, shock resistance, and numerous other properties. For example, all models in the Excellence line are subjected to a series of rigorous tests over a period of 24 days at the Saxon manufactory under conditions that are stricter than the ones used in German Chronometer testing.