How many clocks and watches do you think Junghans has made since its creation in 1861? 5 million? 20 million? 50 million? Incredibly, the answer is half a billion timekeepers, according to the German company’s current chief executive Matthias Stotz. With history like that, it is small wonder that Mr Stotz is looking to harness it and project it forward into a new era of industrial scale watchmaking in the Black Forest.
WatchPro was delighted to attend the first press tour of Junghans’ new museum this summer, which is housed in the Terrace Building that clings to hillside above the company’s watchmaking facilities in the Black Forest town of Schramberg in the Southwest of Germany. The Terrace Building was purpose built over two years from 1916-18 in a feat of engineering that not only coped with the extremely steep slope to which it is anchored, but also to provide maximum daylight to every watchmaker working in the eight-layered structure in which every room opens out to the sky.
The museum takes visitors on a journey through the history of clock and watchmaking in the Black Forest starting in the 18th century through the boom in cuckoo clocks in the 19th century and then the meteoric rise of Junghans in the first half of the 20th century. Some of the highlights are the descriptions of Junghans at various points in its history. For example, the fact that in the first decade of the 20th century, Junghans was the largest clock and watchmaker in the world, with 3000 employees making more than three million timepieces per year.
The company was even bigger in the 1950s, when 6000 employees working in over 100 buildings churned out more chronometers than every other watchmaker in the world except Rolex and Omega.
Today the company is much smaller, making around 400 watches per day.
Like many of its peers in Switzerland, Junghans misjudged the impact of quartz watches in the 1970s. The company decided at the time that customers wanted the highest level of accuracy in their watches, which quartz delivered in comparison to mechanical watches. Even more accurate was the invention of radio-controlled watches that communicated with radio towers and adjusted themselves to within minuscule tolerances.
Junghans focused on quartz and radio-controlled watches and abandoned its mechanical watch business in 1976; a near fatal decision according to Mr Stotz, who took over as CEO in 2007. “We followed quartz with radio-controlled watches, and for me Junghans did not pay enough attention to the rebirth of mechanical watches in the 1980s. In 1990, we created the first Swiss-made radio-controlled wristwatches, which put us in the lead with that technology, but we did not have any mechanical watches. That lost us the opportunity to rebuild the business into one of the biggest in the world in the 1990s and 2000s,” Mr Stotz recalls.
Junghans may have turned its back on classic mechanical movements, but it remained a leader in classically designed watches. Max Bill and Meister, the names of today’s core collections, have been in use for decades, and have grown to be associated with minimalist, Bauhaus-inspired design.
These watch families have been the saviour of the business as it once again started offering Max Bills and Meisters with mechanical movements. “I joined Junghans in 2007, and since then we have changed our image to become known again as a classical watchmaker, and that is our position today. If you see our watches you will feel they have great tradition and design; they have incredible history and a fantastic price. This is the reason why I hope the trade and its customers will explore the background of Junghans,” Mr Stotz suggests.
Junghans could be viewed as just another watch company assembling watches around ETA movements, but the company uses its history too good effect in its current portfolio. The Max Bill and Meister style is used as a foundation for all its volume watches, but customers have the choice of buying these classic watches with quartz, mechanical and — from later this year — radio-controlled movements.
The press tour of the new Junghans museum was timed to coincide with the launch of radio-controlled Meister and Max Bill models; a retro move that the company could not resist celebrating in the company of a tribute Back to the Future act complete with a Delorian car powered by a flux capacitor.
The radio-controlled watches, which will hit retail this autumn, will be branded as Mega, but look like either Max Bill or Meister models. Mega was the name of Junghans’ first radio-controlled watch that launched in the 1990s, and has been brought back to life in 2018 with a J101 radio-controlled manufacture movement.
The radio-controlled movement guarantees precision when it is in range of a timekeeping radio signal. On three continents, including Europe, the time is received via a time signal with a deviation of just 0.006 seconds in one million years. If the watch is outside of the reception range, it continues to run automatically with a maximum time deviation of 8 seconds a year.
The Max Bill Mega and Meister Mega watches automatically adjust to the correct time every day. When travelling to another time zone, the time can be adjusted via the crown, either in hourly steps or by using the stored time zones, without losing the precision of the seconds. The Max Bill Mega collection, which uses a steel 38mm case, ranges in price from £790 on a leather strap to £835 on steel mesh.
Junghans knows that radio-controlled watches are a niche product, but they contribute to the story of a watchmaker with serious history of accurate timepieces and a clear contemporary identity.
“When I started we were in a phase where we need to think about our identity. We stopped selling imported watches and decided to only sell watches that we assembled here Schramberg so that everything would be made in Germany. We would be smaller, but everything would be assembled here. The result is that the company turnover has doubled in size in the past 10 years. The share of mechanical watches was very small 10 years ago, but today it is more than half our production. There is a good balance between mechanical, quartz and radio-controlled watches today,” Mr Stotz asserts.