The launch of Junghans’ new Meister Pilot provided WatchPro editor James Buttery with the ideal opportunity to visit the historic German brand and learn where it comes from and, more importantly, where it is headed.
Say Junghans to someone with even just a passing interest in watches and the chances are the first thought that will pop into their head would be the minimalist Max Bill collection, either that or the curious line of radio-controlled watches that has had a diehard following around the globe for years.
The Max Bill collection has served as the German watch company’s headline piece for many decades, being so achingly stylish and yet utterly flexible that it is as likely to be seen in the pages of a fashion magazine as it is in a watch publication.
With such a stylish present day offer it is easy to forget that Junghans has a long and important history, having been established in Schramberg in the Black Forest in 1861, originally as a clock component manufacturer before making its first clock five years later.
In the space of just 42 years Junghans became the largest horological producer in the world with a staff of 3,000 and three million watches and clocks leaving the factory gates every year. The factory itself is a sprawling complex of elegant multi-storey brickwork buildings from the first half of the 20th Century, the most recognisable of which was built in 1918. The site’s valley location was not ideally suited to watchmaking, which at the time still required as much natural daylight as could be found. The steep forested sides of the valley coupled with traditional architecture meant daylight was in short supply. Arthur Junghans conceived a series of nine terraces that would be built into the valley slope and offer unhindered access to natural daylight throughout the year. In the following decades the Schramberg site was a hive a industry introducing mechanical manufacture movements, commissioning Max Bill to design clocks and pioneering radio controlled clocks and watches.
Things are quite different today; much of the huge industrial site is no longer required, with a number of local business tenants sharing the space. Production output is also far more modest than it was at its seven-figure peak.
The terrace building built in 1918 was abandoned some years ago, its listed status and lack of lifts meant it was no longer suitable for moving delicate components and movements around the building from department to department.
But Junghans is now well into its long-term plan of rebuilding its historic name on solid financial footings after previous owners Egana Goldpfeil left the company insolvent in 2009. The famed German watch brand was then in desperate need of a new owner and a new strategy.
Junghans has always been such a large part of life in the sleepy valley town of Schramberg, not least of all through employment, that when the brand was threatened with disaster it became everyone’s problem. This led to the Mayor emailing local entreprenuer Hans Jochem Steim to ask if he would consider saving Junghans. Steim was no stranger to the watch industry or the company, having made his fortune through a business manufacturing precision springs, which had been supplying Nivarox hairsprings to Junghans since the 1930s.
Steim, and his son Hannes, came onboard that same year bringing their enthusiasm, strategy and funding. At the time the brand was a curious assortment of affordable quartz and technology-imbued radio-controlled pieces, but it also had a luxury mechanical sub brand named Erhard Junghans, after the brand’s founder, that was attempting to make a commercial enterprise of releasing limited edition models in runs of just 12. The brand was in desperate need of direction and the Steim family brought just that, moving Junghans slowly, but surely, in an upwards trajectory, both in terms of its pricing and quality as well as reputation.
While Steim is a serious car collector – he built a car museum in the centre of Schramberg to house his personal collection that features all manner of 20th Century rarities – his son is passionate about flying. This bodes well as both are pursuits that sit neatly and authentically on the periphery of the watch industry and are a proven hunting ground for inspiration and associations.
Today, Junghans Max Bill collection has never looked more youthful thanks to a meticulously controlled injection of colour highlights on its dials and the introduction of fabric straps. It’s currently the darling of the fashion scene and a solid addition to any wardrobe, male or female. Elsewhere the Meister collection is home to Junghans’ higher-priced, mechanical watchmaking consisting of triple dates, moonphases, heritage reissues and chronographs.
After touring the Schramberg factory, where Junghans’ watches are assembled and tested, we were shown around the abandoned 1918 terrace building that manages to unnerve in a way that only abandoned buildings can, its M.C. Escher-like staircases completely unsuited to watchmaking in the present day. At the launch of the Meister Pilot that evening we learn that plans are underway to renovate the historic terrace building and use an external elevator to get around planning restrictions. Much like the building, there has always been a place in the market for Junghans’ watches and it would appear that the Steims have found it.