The rarefied world of high watchmaking is heavily dominated by the Swiss, but view the watch industry through a German prism and you’ll find some of the finest timepieces that human hands have ever constructed. A Teutonic alliance of pure design and redoubtable micro-engineering, reports Nick Rice.
Founded in 1861 by Erhard Junghans and his brother-in-law Jakob Zeller-Tobler, in a small town called Schramberg in the Black Forest, the brand with the trademark eight-point star started out manufacturing watch components. The outstanding manufacturing precision of these parts naturally led the men on to creating their own watches and the first Junghans timepieces were presented in 1866. By the arrival of the 20th century the brand had become synonymous with inexpensive but extremely high quality German watches that flew off the shelves from New York to New Zealand, and by 1903, Junghans had become the world’s largest watch factory. By 1956, Junghans were also the largest German manufacturer of chronometers worldwide. Another landmark achievement was being the official timekeeper of the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972, but over the latter half of the century Junghans experienced turbulent times until the company was acquired by the Schramberg entrepreneurs Dr. Hans-Jochem and Hannes Steim in 2009. Today the brand’s collections still include the classic Meister watches, which have been produced since the 1930s, and the iconic ‘Max Bill’ watches, designed by the Bauhaus-inspired Swiss architect and industrial designer. The Max Bill watches have remained virtually unchanged – a stunning no-nonsense timepiece obeying the design tenet of form-follows-function. While some things are best unchanged, Junghans continues to innovate and in 1990 they created the world’s first radio-controlled wristwatch and branched out into groundbreaking solar powered timepieces.
The third brand at the epicentre of Glashütte is the über cool and multi-award winning NOMOS. Founded soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall in January 1990 by Roland Schwertner, NOMOS is world-renowned for its strikingly clean and pure Bauhaus aesthetic. The collections of mechanical and hand wound watches were initially powered by Swiss-made ETA movements but since 2005, NOMOS has been a proprietary manufacturer and today they produce fourteen in-house calibres with various complications. In 2014, the company launched its own in-house escapement – the NOMOS swing system – and this oscillating system is steadily being introduced across the NOMOS calibre range. Whilst the brand’s marketing is cooler than a thousand hipsters at a pop-up vintage bicycle bonanza in Brooklyn, they keep such investment low and direct revenue to quality instead. This also allows them to offer beautifully designed high quality mechanical watches at an inexpensive price point between $1,500 and $5,000. The brand’s original iconic piece is the ‘Tangente’, created by German graphic designer Susanne Günther (inspired by an early Lange watch) and unveiled in 1993 to immediate acclaim. Today, NOMOS continues to innovate and expand, evolving from humble beginnings with just three employees and bought-in movements to an autonomous manufacturer of highly desirable, incredibly well-priced ‘German
-Made’ watches with over 260 employees based in Berlin and Glashütte.
Glashütte Original has a fascinating history spanning over 170 years. It’s a journey that includes the division of Germany, communist rule and economic calamity in the aftermath of World War II. The company in its present form was founded in 1994 by the privatization of VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe – an East German conglomerate formed in 1951 from the watch companies based in Glashütte. Since it’s rebirth, Glashütte Original has been synonymous with technical pre-eminence and unmistakably bold design. At the turn of the century Glashütte Original joined the Swatch Group Ltd. (the top producer of finished watches) and has grown year on year. The brand is infused with an indomitable spirit and it has helped vouchsafe the future of the industry with the founding in 2002 of the Alfred Helwig School of Watchmaking – named after one of the founding fathers of the Glashütte watch industry back in 1845. Yann Gamard, CEO of Glashütte Original, reflects upon the long road travelled and says, “I feel intrigued by the history of our brand and proud to be part of it. Every country comes with its connotations. Being German means a lot of things to people: engineering quality, robustness and longevity, as well as clarity and legibility. But also, that sense of duty and poetry. It’s also Goethe and Beethoven. Above all, it’s knowing that it’s going to be well-built.”
Founded in Hamburg in 1906, Montblanc has long been an undisputed master of producing writing instruments, stationary and premium leather goods. It wasn’t until 1997 that the world-famous brand with the ‘snow peak’ logo entered into the sphere of watchmaking, making them one of the youngest brands in the exalted world of haute horlogerie. When Norbert Platt, the Montblanc CEO at the time of the launch, faced the watch industry press experts and collectors, he endured jibes such as, “Where do you fill it with ink?” and allowed the watches to speak for themselves. The jokes soon ceased when the outstanding quality, craftsmanship and innate sense of style shone through. Montblanc is part of the Richemont Group and a major element of the brand’s stratospheric rise to the highest levels of the watch universe came with Richemont’s acquisition of Minerva in 2006, a historically significant watch manufacture specialising in chronographs and high-quality movements. It was a wise strategy as the know-how was swiftly absorbed. Montblanc watches stand up to the scrutiny of the most knowledgeable watch connoisseurs. Today, Montblanc create fine wristwatches that range from a few thousand euros, right up to astonishingly fine complications that are the pinnacle of haute horlogerie and command six and seven-figure sums.
A. Lange & Söhne
In the east German state of Saxony is a small town of colossal importance in the watch industry. Glashütte, a short drive from the state capital of Dresden, is a veritable crucible of watchmaking and home to three major brands selected here. First is A. Lange & Söhne –
a prestigious giant in haute horlogerie. Founded by Ferdinand A. Lange in 1845, A. Lange & Söhne produced pocket watches and wristwatches of the most exceptional quality until the company was closed in 1948 by the Soviet administration post-World War II. The company was resurrected by Ferdinand’s great-grandson Walter Lange in 1990, who sadly passed away in January this year aged 92.
The last 27 years has seen the company rise to the highest echelons in the industry and it has produced some peerless wristwatches. The brand’s most iconic model is the Lange 1, which was in the first collection of the new era. It has remained largely unchanged in design terms – it simply can’t be improved. As CEO Wilhelm Schmid says, “We build watches with the intention of making them classical. We design them in a way that they never go out of fashion. They have timeless style.”