A History Of German Watchmaking: From The 1700’s To 2021
Simon Schneider27 August 2021 | 7 min read
Germany is known for many things. The autobahn, beer, and cars most notably. One thing missing though is watchmaking. Why is that the case though? As a nation with a rich horological history and known for their incredible engineering and economic strength Germany should give Switzerland a run for its money.
Today, as a German national, let me be your guide through the history of German watchmaking. We will explore how wooden clocks made in the Bavarian forests started things off. How a little town in the east of Germany became a watchmaking metropolis. And how the fate of the Glashütte was sealed by its geographic location. Finally we will look at the magical comeback that has occurred since the 1990s.
A history of German watchmaking
Our story begins in a time long before Germany even was the country we know it as today. The nation was still part of the Holy Roman Empire and had just fought a gruesome religiously motivated war that was creatively titled the 30 year war. History was at a turning point as the transition towards the Prussian empire was imminent. This meant that what was predominantly a religious mindset was to be swapped out for a stoic rational one and provide a fertile breeding ground for a new industry to blossom.
Deep in the south of Germany, in the Black Forest, the first archetypes of what would become watchmakers slowly started honing their trade. Wrist watches as a concept were still centuries away and even pocket watches were still a novelty but clocks were already a developed market.
17th century clock market
In the second half of the 17th century production started with wood as a base material but progress was anything but fast as a war ridden continent hindered progress since both resources and labour were relocated to more pressing issues.
It would be an entire century later before German clockmakers would start to seriously rethink their production so much so that their products gained a global edge. The magic ingredient was division of labor.
While in 1730 it would take a watchmaker one week to produce a single clock, thirty years later he could produce one per day. Specialization, machinery, and wood as a cheap base material led to Germany becoming the biggest player in the global market with a yearly production of 600,000 pieces in 1840.
The Clockmaking market was running on limited time though. While the local speciality of the „Kuckucksuhr“ (a clock where a little bird jumps out every full hour and chirps in accordance with the current time) is still popular to this day, advancements in accuracy of small movements meant that pocket (and wrist) watches were destined to be the future of the industry.
The birth of A. Lange & Söhne
In 1845, only 5 years after the clockmaking market in the Schwarzwald found its height, a young Ferdinand Adolph Lange decided to settle in Glashütte to build up his business in pocket watches. Lange had trained under the Royal watchmaker Johann Gutkaes Senior.
He had made a name for himself as a talented young man and even got an offer for a lifelong position under the Austrian watchmaker Joseph Thaddäus Winnerl. Winnerl was the inventor of both the rattrapante and the hacking seconds mechanism who himself had trained at Breguet.
Taking a risky road, Lange decided to go independent and build up his shop which would prove to be the stone that got the entire current industry rolling. The city that was destined to become the new home of Lange watchmaking was a small place called Glashütte, which previously was mainly a mining municipality.
His decision for this quirky city with the charming name (which literally translates to glass hut) was the result
of a state sponsored credit line offered to him to attract business to the region. He incorporated „A. Lange, Dresden“ together with Friedrich Schneider who worked with Lange back in their time in Dresden. His company name would be changed to „A. Lange & Söhne“ once his son Friedrich Emil Lange joined the company back in 1868.
Lange was a fantastic watchmaker and he and his team produced some of the most amazing pocket watches. The most stunning example of this was the Grand Complication 42500 built in 1902. This 300 gram rosegold monstrosity with an email dial and hand engraved case had 833 parts and sold at the time for 5600 gold mark, the equivalent of a stately home at the time.
When it was rediscovered and brought back to Lange in the 2000s it would take a 5 man team 5000 hours to restore this piece to its former glory. The true genius of Lange though can not be found in his technical innovations, as impressive as they were, but in his economic understanding and belief in the power of having a watchmaking hub.
His vision which he brought to life was to create a German equivalent to the Vallée de Joux in Switzerland by encouraging talented workers of his to create their own companies in the city. This allowed for a move away from traditional in-house manufacturers towards specialization of labor, a transition that already proved powerful for the clockmakers of the black forest, and allowed for more efficient workflows and division of Labour.
This is the reason that the name Glashütte to this day is synonymous with German watchmaking and houses the biggest manufacturers in the nation. The students spawned by Lange’s tutelage are responsible for many of the names that still dominate the current landscape.
None was more important for the establishment of Glashütte as the central hub, and hence the backbone of the nation’s international edge in the industry, than Moritz Grossmann. You can think of him, and the others that went independent, as part of the Paypal mafia of their times.
He played his part by being responsible for the creation of the German School of Watchmaking in 1878. The school is still around today, though now named after Alfred Hewig, who in 1920 invented the flying tourbillon in Glashütte. No big deal.
What happened to German watchmaking?
Having read all this you may wonder why Germany isn’t the Mecca for watchmaking. Taking nothing away from the Swiss, but from an industrial and economic standpoint alone you can see how “Made in Germany” would lend itself so well to watchmaking. The reason for this can be found in the one major difference between Switzerland and Germany in the 20th century. While Switzerland was doing its own thing somewhere in the mountains protected by passivity, Germany went through hyperinflation, a world war, economic austerity, and another world war for good measure (though to be fair it’s not like they didn’t instigate those events).
World War II specifically was to leave a devastating impact on an industry otherwise filled to the brim with potential. Not only were a lot of the factories bombed, unfortunately literally on the last day of the war, and left in shambles but Glashütte as a city was robbed of its chances of rebuilding following the separation of Germany. Located so far east that it is only 5 kilometers from the borders of the modern day Czech Republic the city and all its talent
never stood a chance to escape the DDR.
To say that DDR was bad oversimplifies a very complex part of German history. Priorities were set differently and fine watchmaking was not at the top of that list. Watches were still produced just as cars were. But while Audi, Mercedes, and BMW were located in the west the east had the Trabant. The car still has a cult following to this day and it will get you from A to B but I know I wouldn’t expect the Trabant nation to produce watches worth remembering.
The soviets came, took from the factories what they considered more useful elsewhere in the USSR, and disenfranchised all watchmakers. What was left over was mashed together into one big new company called the VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe or short GUB. The quality of these watches produced wasn’t necessarily bad, and Glashütte remained an export nation for wristwatches, but the innovative spirit was lost.
The resurrection of German watchmaking
On November 9th 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and, shortly after, so did the DDR. The revival of a unified Germany was also the revival of German watchmaking. 145 years after the initial launch of A. Lange & Söhne it would be the great grandson of Adolph Lange himself, Walter Lange, who relaunched the brand as the Lange Uhren GmbH who while a different company on paper bought the naming rights for Lange watches.
Not only old brands got revived, but also new ones created. The most significant of these has to be Nomos. Founded in 1990 their Bauhaus design watches with interesting movements and fair prices have propelled them to be a popular choice for those entering the hobby.
They have become the largest producer in the nation and a global player with wonderful exhibition booths at Baselworld (back when that was a thing), a fantastic marketing team, and are at the forefront of selling directly to the consumer through their website rather than through ADs.
While all of Glashüttes watch brands would be too many to list, you can rest assured that any timepiece from this city is bound to be a quality timepiece. That is because similar to the Swiss made logo the Glashütte name is protected only for those watches that have at least 50% of the value from their movement created within the city borders, a bar that many surpass.
Glashütte or not, in 2021, there are lots of great German made watches out there to suit every budget and taste. Keep your eyes peeled on the Watch & Bullion blog; we’ll be sharing some of our favourite luxury & affordable German watches in the near future.