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German Watches Club


wotsch
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In October 2018 I spent ten glorious days in Berlin (barely a cloud seen in that time), but, from the perspective of this group, not that interesting. Was busy, so did not have the chance to dig out the watch specialists  --  so saw only the usual city centre outlets (Wempe, Bucherer, Leicht) selling the usual stuff, but did notice that the asking prices were higher than UK by a few per cent.

 

During my stay however I did contact Glashütte Original to ask whether there was any possibility of looking at their manufacture during my subsequent visit to Glashütte. At least three emails in each direction ensued over the course of a week, culminating with an extremely polite and apologetic phone call on the day I arrived in Glashütte (when I was already there) to the effect that they could not accommodate me. Ironically, I then sent a tongue-in-cheek mail to Moritz Grossmann, only to receive a reply within 15 minutes apologizing that, that day, they could do nothing  --  but that, were I to visit again and give them a couple of days notice, they would love to show me round. Drat, backed the wrong horse  --  but impressed with MG.

To their credit, GO did give us (Mem'sahib and me) free entry to the Glashütte watch museum, and have subsequently followed up with another mail hoping I got home safely :)

 

So, general impressions  . . . . .

 

Glashütte is a large village rather than a small town. It is very attractively located (meaning that there is quite a drive on very small roads to get there), is quite picturesque, and (considering that it was in East Germany thirty years ago) very well maintained.

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It does have a railway station, but services are infrequent.

 

The most amazing thing about Glashütte is the juxtaposition of so many famous brands. I took a panoramic photo from outside the front door of GO to illustrate, and caught four world famous brands (and the source of five (at the time  --  now seven) of my watches) . . . .

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This is ALS with the tower of GO visible immediately behind . . .

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And Nomos and MG are separated only by the railway line . . . 

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Tutima is about two minutes walk further on . . . .

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Additionally, Union, Mühle, Söhnle and Wempe are only a few hundred metres further.

 

Interestingly, there seems to be only one AD in Glashütte (Union, Mühle, Söhnle), though there is a small but smart Nomos factory outlet. GO told me that they had a factory store, but moved it to the centre of Dresden. So, you can visit the source of German high-end watchmaking, but you can't buy a really high-end watch :whistle:

 
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There are some things I didn’t realise, though, had I applied a few grey cells, I should have.

 

Caveat: I am not a historian, so, whilst I am very aware that not everything which may be read is necessarily true, I have not assiduously checked the following research. If you know better, please feel free to correct me.

 

I think everyone here will have read that the transformation of Glashütte from mining village to watch manufacturer was led in the early nineteenth century by Ferdinand Adolph Lange, Julius Assmann, Moritz Grossmann and Adolf Schneider, with the financial support of the royal Saxon government  --  and that the family firms grew over the next century, via skill and innovation, to be among the world leading timepiece manufacturers. I understand that the only real blip was being late to realise that tastes were moving from pocket watches to wrist watches. The culmination of the “heyday” was supplying the large demand for military timepieces from 1933-44.

 

Having been untouched by hostilities for six years, the village was bombed at the very end of the war  --  apparently on 8th May 1945 (the day after the German unconditional capitulation). This photo purports to show the Lange factory. Fortunately, there were few casualties.

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As they took control of eastern Germany after the war, the Russian government authorised the confiscation of German industrial assets of all kinds by way of reparation for the damage caused by the German invasion of Russia. Almost all machinery in working order remaining in Glashütte, and most designs and templates were expropriated. The people however, and their skills remained.

 

In the late forties, the remaining craftsmen gradually rebuilt their production capability. Resources were scarce, so machines and tools had to be built from scratch. Working together was the natural way, which fitted well with the new communist philosophy of the DDR. In 1951, the re-emerging watchmaking capabilities of Glashütte (including the still existing firms of Lange and Mühle) were nationalised as a group as Glashütte Uhren Betriebe (GUB). With very restricted import possibilities, GUB had to become self-sufficient in almost all component parts and in the machinery to make them. Nevertheless, GUB became a major exporter to other parts of the Warsaw Pact bloc, and even to West Germany (earning much needed “hard” currency). It was in this period that Spezimatic and the later Spezichron were developed. By the mid 1980s GUB employed 2,500 people, produced (IIRC) hundreds of thousands of watches each year, and enjoyed a good reputation for fine (if industrial) movements. Interestingly, GUB did dabble in quartz (mainly for ladies’ watches) but it never became a focus.

 

Everything changed again in 1989 with the “fall of the wall” and German reunification (treaty actually in 1990). East Germany became part of the Federal Republic (West Germany), a capitalist economy with little appetite for state controlled businesses. In common with about 8,500 other old DDR businesses, GUB was placed under the administration of the Treuhandanstalt, the agency responsible for reprivatizing previously state owned enterprises. Treuhand slimmed GUB down to around seventy people in order to try to make it competitive and saleable before finally finding a buyer (Heinz Pfeiffer) in 1994. Pfeiffer took GUB upmarket in every sense, and renamed it “Glashütte Original” before selling it again to the Swatch group in 2000.

 

The slimming down of GUB/GO from over 2,000 employees to less than one hundred of course left a lot of skilled human capital available in the town. Unencumbered by the need to reorganize, entrepreneurs with newly available financing began forming new, western-style watchmaking companies in Glashütte, using the choice of newly unemployed skilled personnel. The earliest were ALS and Nomos in 1990 (ALS was founded by the great nephew of Ferdinand Adolph Lange). Others followed, culminating in the creation of Tutima and Moritz Grossmann in 2008. As was usual in Glashütte, there was a tendency to “inbreeding”. As an example, Christine Hutter had spent time working at both ALS and GO before taking the plunge to form MG. This “commonality of heritage” probably explains why so many Glashütte companies are keen to follow in the footsteps of GUB by making so much in house.

 

So, what is the take-away point? IMHO it is that, when watch enthusiasts say that all the Glashütte manufacturers are “johnny come lately” and don’t have the heritage of the major Swiss brands, they are right in the strict (legal) sense (with the possible exception of GO), but fail to understand the depth of heritage instilled in the people (the watchmakers) who have been continuously active, and continuously developing their skills and innovations, over the last 170 years.

 
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In the centre of the village there is a memorial to the man generally considered to be the father of watchmaking in Glashütte. 7th December 1845 is remembered as the day when he began training his first apprentices. Three years later their skills were considered sufficient to allow the first timepieces to be produced.

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A few metres down the road, dominating the village centre, is the German Watch Museum. Its full title translates as "Glashütte German Watch Museum  --  Nicolas G Hayek".

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The museum, and the associated charitable foundation, was established in 2006 by GO with the support of the Swatch group. Its purpose is to support the art and culture of German watchmaking via science, research and education. It embodies the exhibition (part of which changes frequently), a library, and a restoration workshop.

 

To give you a flavour, the following are a few photos (only "phone quality" I'm afraid) that I took during our very informative visit.

 

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There were many other wonderful exhibits which (unfortunately) did not photograph very well  --  but, I think you get the idea.

 

All the way round, I had to keep reminding myself that the "A. Lange & Söhne" pieces I was looking at have nothing to do with the company currently using that name (except that the grandchildren of the people who made the pieces probably now work for "new" ALS). They were all made by the old company, which was absorbed into GUB, and finally became GO.

All very confusing :o

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Of course, I did not go on holiday without watches of my own  --  so here is the obligatory photo. Naturally, I chose only "German speaking" watches: one representative from each Glashütte manufacturer in my collection, and one from Schaffhausen.

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UPDATE

All rectified in July this year.

Was invited to take a tour round GO (pics not allowed, so no report) and also Moritz Grossmann (pics allowed, so the report is in the Grossmann Owners Club thread).

Splendid people, and wonderful watches  --  my positive initial impressions were completely justified.

 

.
 

Edited by yokel
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  • 10 months later...
41 minutes ago, yokel said:

if you can understand German, this presentation is worth a few moments of your time.

Sadly my German was woefully inadequate for this, but I did enjoy watching the historical film clips - the lady dancing by the lake in the "dress of watches" was, err, special!

It has inspired me to get an old GUB Glashütte watch (probably) from the 1960s serviced.

Thanks for the link!

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