Over 70 years since it emerged from war and 27 years after re-unification, Europe’s most advanced industrial economy is still suffering in comparison to Switzerland from its lost years. While German may not boast the quantity of watchmakers of its Southern neighbour, it is making up for it in the quality of its design, engineering and manufacturing. In a land where form famously follows function, WatchPro investigates how today’s watchmakers are building on the strength and struggles of their ancestors.
It is hard not to divide the history of watchmaking in Germany into two halves: before and after World War II. None of the current watchmakers enjoy the focus of attention falling on such a catastrophic period, but to ignore the war would be to overlook the most significant event of the past century on Germany’s leading brands in its two key cities of Pforzheim and Glashütte.
Pforzheim watchmakers Laco and Stowa were both founded in the 1920s, Laco coming first in 1920, followed by Stowa seven years later. Laco and Stowa were both fitting Swiss movements into their German-made cases. But Laco had bigger plans and, in 1933, Ludwig Hummel launched a movement manufacture named Durowe. Through this new company, Pforzheim would gain a reputation for producing precision mechanisms. Durowe would go on to supply other watchmakers with its movements and by 1940 had the capacity to produce over 300,000 movements in a year.
Stowa was one of the biggest customers for Durowe’s movements. Many of the models in Stowa’s current line-up are re-creations of its pre-war watches. Stowa, to some extent, wrote the book on Bauhaus watches where form follows function. They certainly weren’t the only ones making watches with a Bauhaus look, but it heavily influenced the majority of their models. As the war approached, Stowa had been flourishing, and moved into bigger facilities just before 1940, which brings the timeline right to the doorstep of WWII.
With the military taking hold of the entire country, the watchmakers of Pforzheim were forced to join the war effort. Wristwatch production was stifled, and the watchmaking facilities were re-purposed to produce fuses for artillery rounds and torpedoes.
In addition, Laco — along with Stowa, and Glashütte resident A. Lange & Söhne — produced a number of Flieger (German for aviator or pilot) watches for the Luftwaffe. Stowa was also tasked with providing pocket watches for the German navy — another design that influences today’s watches.
Given Pforzheim’s strategic location, and its importance to the German military, it was an obvious target for the Allied countries. In 1945, the city of Pforzheim was levelled by an Allied attack. It would take several years before the watchmakers of Pforzheim would re-start civilian watch production but, thanks to the allocation of post-war regeneration funds, some like Stowa and Laco emerged stronger than ever.
Glashütte’s watchmaking story begain in 1845 when Ferdinand Adolph Lange, the founding father of A. Lange & Söhne, opened up a watchmaking facility. The city did not have a strong industrial heritage, so the Saxon government was happy to support the fledgling business; helping Lange and the rest of Glashütte develop rapidly into most active and important watchmaking town in Germany.
The war ravaged Glashütte’s watchmaking, but by then it had already accomplished a tremendous amount. The German School of Watchmaking had gained a worldwide reputation, and in 1920, one of its teachers, Alfred Helwig, invented the flying tourbillon. Glashütte not only had the ability to develop high-end complications, but also pump out movements en masse.
Uhren-Rohwerke-Fabrik Glashütte AG (UROFA) and Glashütter Uhren-Fabrik AG (UFAG) were both established in 1926, the former a producer of movements, and the latter focusing on assembly and distribution. UROFA managed to develop a number of different calibers, which powered UFAG watches and complemented Durowe’s supply of movements to Pforzheim.
In 1930, Ferdinand Adolph Lange’s descendent Richard Lange created and patented Nivarox, a new alloy that was to be used to produce quality balance springs. The ability to supply this vital component caused a gold rush of watchmakers in Glashütte, which might have given Germany an unassailable lead over Swiss rivals had the war not intervened.
Glashütte was hit just as hard as Pforzheim towards the end of the war. Even worse, being situated close to the borders of modern day Czech Republic and Poland, the area was overrun by Russians who took the majority of their watchmaking equipment after the war, setting them back many years.
Pforzheim and Glashütte enjoyed and then endured similar paths in the decades up to and during the World War II, but the post-war settlement that divided Europe between the Russians and Western allies changed all that.
Pforzheim watchmakers, particularly Stowa and Laco, thrived as Marshall Plan finance flooded into West Germany. To the East, Glashütte’s A. Lange und Söhne was consumed by the communist state apparatus and became a behemoth of government-run assembly lines. Smaller businesses were either subsumed or shrivelled; none kept pace with the development accelerating in West Germany or Switzerland.
Advances in Glashütte watchmaking effectively stalled for 40 years, producing timepieces of little more flair than the Soviet automobile industry, although it was at least self-sufficient and able to make its own components and complete movements.
Over in Pfozheim, Laco, with its movement maker Durowe re-started production in 1949. Stowa was back up in running in 1951. Utilising Marshall Plan funds, Laco was able to build a major facility to house itself and the Durowe team. Laco’s popularity prior to the war, and the sudden injection of capital sent them into a boom period in the 1950s. As the company grew in size, Laco stayed at the forefront of technology, producing ultra-thin movements, automatics, and even a prototype electric watch.
It was this electric prototype that piqued the interest of Timex, leading to a buyout of Laco and Durowe in 1959. Six years later Timex sold the movement business Durowe to Ebauches S.A., which later became ETA (now part of Swatch Group). The Laco name was mothballed until the 1980s when it was bought by Erich Lacher Uhrenfabrik, who set about building the company still operating today as a specialist in modern pilot watches.
Stowa also benefited from the Marshall Plan, leading to rapid growth in the 1950s and 60s, particularly in divers’ watches. As the quartz crisis developed, Stowa partnered up with a number of other German brands to pool together marketing resources. The group, known as Pallas, produced watches under a number of brands, all sharing similar construction and parts. The partnership helped Stowa survive the difficult times for mechanical watchmakers and it remains a respected manufacturer of affordable automatic pilot and divers’ watches. In 2002, the company even bought the rights to Durowe’s name and archive of movements.
Despite the advantages of Pfozheim over Glashütte in the post-war period, it is the East German town that has emerged as the most respected hub for contemporary watchmaking since reunification. Almost 150 years of investment in training master watchmakers has helped. The German Watchmaking School Glashütte, founded in 1878 was initially created by the Lange family and funded by the Saxony government, but has been superseded by the Alfred Helwig School of Watchmaking owned by Swatch Group’s Glashütte Original. It remains the most prestigious educational establishment in Germany today and turns out graduates that work in prestigious firms including Nomos, Union Glashütte, Mühle Glashütte and A. Lange & Söhne.
CREDIT: Special Thanks to Shane Griffin, founding member of Wound for Life, who provided considerable input into the history of German Watchmaking.
TEN OF THE BEST GERMAN WATCHMAKERS
A. Lange & Söhne
A. Lange & Söhne chief executive Wilhem Schmid believes his company competes in a global world of luxury watches, and is not content with being the best of Germany. “Being a German watchmaker in a Swiss-dominated market ensures a certain degree of awareness. However, in the world of haute horlogerie, the comparison is rather between the members of the peer group than between nationalities. A. Lange & Söhne stands for unmatched craftsmanship and pioneering inventions that have an impact on the development of fine watchmaking in general,” he says.
The company has been owned by Richemont since 2000, deepening its association with Swiss watchmaking, but is proud of its history in Glashütte dating back to 1845. “It is above all the history of the Lange dynasty of watchmakers that has given important impulses in our start-up phase in the early 1990s,” says Mr Schmid. “A. Lange & Söhne has always been a style-setting company, which has already shaped the German watchmaking history in the 19th and 20th century. One of the keys to the success of our business model has been the balance between historic continuity and substantial innovations,” he adds.
Junghans has been a leading clock and watchmaker in Germany since the turn of the 20th century. The company’s current CEO, Matthias Stotz, is a master watchmaker who demands the highest standards of his team married with a respect for the history of horology in his country. WatchPro spoke to him about the post, present and future for Junghans as part of our investigation into German watchmaking.
WatchPro: How has the history of German watchmaking influenced your current business?
Matthias Stotz: Junghans has actually been an important part of the history of German watchmaking. In 1903 Junghans has even been the biggest clock producer in the world, in 1956 the third biggest chronometer producer after Rolex and Omega. And in 1972 Junghans was official time keeper of the Olympic games in Munich, just to name a few of our historical milestones. Today’s collection still benefits and reflects this history.
WatchPro: How strong is the training and education of watchmakers in Germany?
Matthias Stotz: In Germany it takes three years to successfully complete a watch making course. A watchmaker may than complete a master watchmaking course, which allows him to train other watchmaker. The “Meister” (master) system is a highly respected education system for craftsmanship in Germany.
Like other employees at Junghans, myself I am master watchmaker in 4th generation and even today I hold lectures for the master watchmaker class at the watch making school in Villingen-Schwenningen.
At Junghans we have master watchmaker in all different departments. We believe that watchmaker not only “think about watches” but rather “live watches”, which is significant for us at Junghans. For myself this is also the ideal basis to guide a traditional watch company with a respectful passion for our timepieces. Already in the 1930th to 1960th our most precise watches have been named “Meister”, which is still the name of our core line in our collection.
WatchPro: Are there characteristics that you feel identify your watches as being German, and are key selling points?
Matthias Stotz: The main characteristics of German watches are surely a very clean and classical design – often inspired by the German Bauhaus philosophy. Junghans surly played a significant part in strengthening this design philosophy. This implies propositions like “less is more” and “form follows function”. Today our classic “max bill” is the most popular and authentic Bauhaus watch. Simple, authentic and straight forward – reduced to the minimum. It is the power and beauty of simplicity, which incorporates a great attention to details as well as professional craftsmanship and reliable quality. All these characteristics get implied by our watches and are a convincing selling point for our customers.
WatchPro: Does ‘made in Germany’ help you attract the best retailers that your brand targets around the world?
Matthias Stotz: “Made in Germany” definitely is a trigger for us to succeed in international markets. Together with our unique brand characteristics we are happy to see that this is also increasingly respected in terms of watches. Also in UK we are very satisfied with the level of retailers and the feed-back we receive from the market.
WatchPro: Can you describe your business in the UK – which retailers do you work with? What works well in the UK? How has business been in the past few years? Do you have any new ideas or plans concerning the UK in the coming 12 months?
Matthias Stotz: In the UK Junghans counts on 36 POS at present; this includes luxury watch retailers, department stores, designer stores and a few selected online retailers.
The hard work, well selected POS combined with the brilliant and unique design of Junghans has proven to be a great combination in last years’ results. The future is bright and positive with a number of potential new customers on the way.
Junghans’ Key Collections for 2017
Dufa’s Barcelona chronograph is a tribute to the iconic German pavilion built for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, which was designed as a ‘zone of tranquility’ within the show. The watch, which picks up the clean, crisp and angular aesthetics of the exhibition stand uses a Japanese quartz movement behind a white dial in a 38mm steel case. The watches, distributed by Dartmouth Brands in the UK, retail for around £300.
Bruno Söhnle, which has been brought to the UK this year by distributor Argento Fine Products, is inspired by the simple industrialised look associated with its home town of Glashütte. “We are more and more influenced and inspired by the traditional German watchmaking,” says Volker Neipp, export sales director of Bruno Söhnle.
The company uses clean and clear dials as much as possible, minimising the steel case on view and maximising the impact of clean dials. “This meets the tradition of Glashütte watch artistry and the tradition of the Bauhaus movement,” Mr Neipp describes.
Another aim of German watchmakers is to offer the highest quality at any chosen price point, which gives them an edge against Swiss rivals. Bruno Söhnle uses Swiss movements from Sellita and Ronda, but modifies them in order to give them Glashütte provenance. “To use the label “Glashütte” we have to add value to the movement in Glashütte of a minimum of 50%, which makes our movements unique and very special, explains Mr Neipp.
Argento Fine Products believes brands like Bruno Söhnle are finding an audience in the UK, even if retailers take time to embrace new brands. “Consumers have become more open to new ideas whereas, sometimes, the retail network constitutes a bottleneck, hence the rapid growth of the internet as a vehicle to find alternatives to the over-distributed products,” says Giuseppe Ferro, managing director of Argento.
One thing that is rarely questioned is the quality of Bruno Söhnle’s watchmaking thanks to Germany’s reputation for precision. “Made in Germany has become a label for high class engineering and quality. Mercedes, Porsche, BMW, Audi and Volkswagen are known worldwide. We are in this way the Volkswagen of watchmakers in Glashuette, but reliable and down to earth,” Mr Neipp says.
Junkers and Zeppelin
It has been three years since Junkers and Zeppelin watches, both manufactured by POINTtec on the outskirts of Munich, came to the UK. The turnover of the brands has doubled every year since then and there are now 60 active accounts in the UK and Ireland.
POINTtec is now promoting the brand even harder with Hans Brandt, sales director for Junkers-Zeppelin committing to a full distribution arrangement that will mean more stock in the country and better service and support for retailers and consumers. “Both brands haven’t exploited their potential. We are looking for more independent jewellers as partners,” says Mr Brandt. “There are still white spots on the map. At the Jewellery & Watch 2018 Birmingham we are going to present a large number of new designs,” he adds.
Being Made in Germany is a big selling point for Junkers and Zeppelin, giving customers confidence in the quality of the manufacturing. “The watches have a refined finish and a detailed and plain form follows function design. For an aviator watch for men this is a huge benefit and selling point all over the world,” says Mr Brandt.
Glashütte Original is proud to be owned by Switzerland’s Swatch Group, which has helped it invest heavily in developing watchmaking skills in Germany. “In 2001 we initiated an own apprenticeship programme for watchmakers at our manufactory. One year later our own Alfred Helwig School of Watchmaking was founded,” describes Thomas Meier, CEO of Glashütte Original.
“After graduation, all apprentices who finish their course with at least good results have a job guarantee within our company. For their further career, Glashütte Original offers diverse perspectives within the manufactory and within the Swatch Group,” he adds.
Glashütte Original sits within a town that can trace its watchmaking history back over 170 years. “The traditions have been handed over from one generation to the next, from the father to the son,” says Mr Meier. “Without any doubt, the knowledge, the experiences and the skills that we obtained in our long and rich history are an essential part of today’s business. The high degree of activities done by hand in our manufactory and the traditionally finished movements in our watches are just two examples,” he adds. Despite being owned by Swatch Group, Glashütte Original produces 95% of its watch components in-house.
Few brands are so well-placed to describe the similarities and differences of German- and Swiss-made watches. Both, Mr Meier believes, are world-beaters. “German watches and Swiss watches are both characterised by an excellent quality and precision. The labels “Made in Germany” and “Swiss Made” can be seen as two of the strongest labels in the world. Therefore, our challenge is not in the competition with the Swiss watch industry but in meeting the taste of our customers and connoisseurs. Our watches present a very pure and classic design, which distinguishes us from other manufacturers and give our timepieces a unique appearance,” he describes.
Jörg Schauer, owner, designer and watchmaker for Stowa, immediately reaches for quotes from the Bauhaus School when WatchPro asks about the impact of the history of German watchmaking on his company. “Future needs the past,” he says. “We still take old designs as inspiration for today’s new watches.”
Stowa is arguably as important to contemporary German watchmaking as its home town of Pforzheim and the Bauhaus School of design. Founded in 1927 and celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, the Black Forest watchmaker survived World War II but had to switch production to making watches for the Luftwaffe and fuses for military munitions. Its headquarters was destroyed by an allied bombing raid in 1945, but it rose again thanks to investment under the Marshall Plan helping to rebuild Germany.
The current company sells only online to the UK, but Mr Schauer describes it as a good market for the business. “We have a lot of collectors who have more than one watch in their collection branded with Stowa,” he says.
Flieger Kassik watches, which take inspiration from the early pilot watches made by Stowa, have been reissued to mark this year’s 90th anniversary. The classic easy to read mechanical automatic family ranges in price from around £1000-2000 when bought in the UK.
Meistersinger has customised City Editions of its No.01 timepiece for 43 world cities including London.
The company is working with local retailers in each city to create artwork for the display windows on the backs of the watches. In the case of London, the image is of a composite skyline including Tower Bridge, the Palace of Westminster and the Guerkin.
London retailers Watches of Switzerland and John Lewis have the opportunity to add a special message about the city. The watches are made in strictly limited quantities with every watch stamped with a unique serial number. They contain a Swiss-made automatic movement that can be seen behind the silhouette of the city.
Mühle-Glashütte is now under the management of CEO Thilo Mühle, the fifth generation of the family to run a company that can trace its heritage back to 1869 in Eastern Germany. In 1994, the company emerged from the grey days of life behind the Iron Curtain where it produced marine instruments as part of GUB and now produces modern mechanical timepieces with a nautical twist.
“Like for other German products, the title Made in Germany is a great opportunity for German watchmakers, because it stands for products of high quality and functionality. Watches that follow these guidelines consequently, the S.A.R. (search and rescue) Rescue-Timer for example, are different to other watches in many aspects and thus offer customers a watch with a unique character,” Mr Mühle suggests.
Since it was first developed, the S.A.R. Rescue-Timer has been used by 56 rescue cruisers of the German Maritime Search and Rescue Service, with which the watchmaker constantly exchanges ideas on how to improve the watches. The 42mm automatic watch on steel bracelet sells for around £1700.
Uwe Ahrendt, CEO of Nomos Glashütte, feels connected to the 170 year history of watchmaking in East Germany, despite his company being founded only in 1990, the year the country was re-unified. There were almost certainly easier places to start a watchmaking business, but Glashütte does carry weight in the horology world.
“By producing timepieces here, we are subject to the ‘Glashütte rule’, which states that at least 50% of a caliber’s value must be created on-site. At NOMOS Glashütte, we far exceed this requirement by creating over 95% of our watches’ calibers in-house, making us a true manufacturer. We have started producing our own in-house calibers in 2005, and have continued to develop our own capabilities ever since,” Mr Ahrendt states.
Nomos believes it has brought a level of fine mechanical watchmaking to Germany that is matched or exceeded only in Switzerland.
“Fine mechanical watchmaking is practiced at a high level in only a few parts of the world—including Switzerland and Glashütte. One of the core values of Nomos Glashütte is to carry out as much as possible in-house, and so to be independent from A to Z. Our proprietary escapement, the Nomos swing system, is a prime example — it broke the Swiss monopoly on this essential watchmaking part in 2014. Producing it ourselves ensures that we can control the quality and quantity of calibers we make. It also means that we no longer depend on third party suppliers, whether based in Switzerland or elsewhere, for this crucial component, which allows us to grow further. In short, it’s a declaration of technical independence for Nomos Glashütte in the watchmaking industry — and yet further proof that fine mechanical watchmaking is also synonymous with Germany, and Glashütte in particular,” asserts Mr Ahrendt.
Union Glashütte has been dedicated to fine watchmaking since its beginnings over 120 years ago. It was created by Johannes Dürrstein in 1893 who had a simple mission: to make watches that have everything to make them accurate and beautiful but nothing to make them expensive. It became part of GUB after the war before being bought by Swatch Group in 2000, and still adheres to the no nonsense principals of its founders.
The current Belisar Chronograph Sport, for example, is a £2500 model steel model with a carbon bezel. Its UNG-27.01 mechanical movement has 60 hours of power reserve. The dynamic design of the timepiece is accentuated by strong lines and stark contrasts which make its carbon bezel the centre of attention. This extremely strong, light material and its classic fibre structure give the timepiece a sporty feel, highlighted by its screwed-down, rubber-coated flanks, the company describes.
Helmut Sinn, an instructor for blind flight and former World War II pilot, founded the company Helmut Sinn Spezialuhren in Frankfurt in 1961 to produce pilot chronographs and has been associated with the aviation and extreme pursuits ever since. Watches have been made for space missions, polar treks and deep sea exploration over the past 56 years.
The name, which became Sinn Spezialuhren, stands for highly functional mechanical timepieces used by pilots, divers, first responders, and rescue workers. Sinn says its watches continually show their durability and precision both in everyday life and in extreme situations. Its watches are design with a rigid eye on required functionality.
The business moved into a new headquarters this summer and marked the occasion with the launch of a new Sinn Spezialuhren mission timer, the EZM 1.1 (pictured). Mission timers are specifically designed to meet the demands of a defined mission and adhere to the principle form follows function, so anything that interferes visually with the timing job is kept to an absolute minimum.