I love museums. There is something about curated history that makes it fascinating to spend hours going through exhibits. Couple that with my admiration for German watchmaking, and you’ll understand why visiting the Glashütte German Watch Museum was a gratifying experience for me. The genesis of Saxon watchmaking is a thoroughly documented affair in the world of horology and dozens of books have been written about how it started. Of course, much of it came from the revolutionary mind of Ferdinand A. Lange, the founder of the A. Lange & Söhne brand name.
View of the Glashutte Watch Museum from outside
After studying how Swiss watchmakers set up towns dedicated to horology (and profited handsomely from it), Lange submitted plans of his own to the Saxon government, requesting to build a Saxon version. The small town of Glashütte, far on the east of Germany, was chosen to be the hub of Lange’s vision. His first mission was to educate the villagers on fine watchmaking and to accomplish this, he roped in his associate Adolf Schneider to train 15 apprentices in 1845.
View of the town of Glashutte today
What Lange and Schneider imparted to these apprentices weren’t necessarily the generics of watchmaking. Each apprentice learnt to craft different parts of his timepieces. Lange then gathered all of them and used them in his watch manufacture. Over the years, other esteemed German watchmakers such as Moritz Grossmann and Julius Assmann set up their own manufactures in Glashütte and began imparting their knowledge to new and rising apprentice watchmakers. In 1878, the Glashütte German School of Watchmaking was formed.
Within its hallowed halls, students learnt all the aspects of Saxon watchmaking. The institution continues to operate to this day with credit going to the Swatch Group-owned Glashütte Original. While many brands from Glashütte use the family name of a watchmaker (even Nomos), Glashütte Original’s name stems from the post-World War II merger of all the brands in the town. After Glashütte was heavily bombed in 1945, most of the manufactures were partially destroyed. It was only after the war that Soviet forces rebuilt the factories and merged all brands under VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe (or VEB Glashütte Watch Factories).
With the German Democratic Republic installed, the town of Glashütte and its watchmakers started producing timepieces for a domestic market as well as for the Eastern Bloc, pursuing an aesthetic that was distinct from other watch manufacturing regions. It’s important to note that from 1951 to 1990 when the Berlin Wall fell, brand names were non-existent in Glashütte.
Those years saw the art of German watchmaking bow to the need to mass produce in order to stay competitive during the quartz crisis. This was when German watchmaking slipped under the radar, becoming all but lost. It was only in 1990, after the reunification of Germany that Glashütte Original was registered as a brand of its own. During this time, the A. Lange & Söhne brand name was revived as well, followed by several others including Mühle and Nomos – all backed by investors coming in to claim a piece of history.
It was a time that saw the birth and demise of many brands, but Glashütte Original and A. Lange & Söhne remain two of the largest and strongest. Since 2002, Glashütte Original has been owned by the Swatch Group and fine mechanical watchmaking has been the focal point of the brand again.
You often hear the debate of German versus Swiss timepieces, and which produces better timepieces. I don’t think one can decisively pick a winner, but I find myself leaning sympathetically to the story of German watchmaking’s turbulent past and amazing comeback to modern relevance. The highs and lows it has seen has had a positive effect on the art of watchmaking in Glashütte, evident by the standard to which the entire town adheres.
There are many geographical labels we put to timepieces as certifications but none are as heartwarming as the tiny Saxon town that has dedicated itself to the craft for over 172 years. “Made in Glashütte” is more than just a statement; it’s a promise.