Vorsprung durch tik-tök

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the tiny town of Glashütte has witnessed a phenomenal resurrection in its local watchmaking industry. Alex Doak hikes his way to Germany’s Ore Mountains.

WERE it not for Ferdinand Adolph Lange’s particular penchant for lazy Sunday-afternoon rambling, we might not have ever seen the likes of Nomos, Glashütte Original and A. Lange & Söhne lighting up the windows of Bond Street today. All of these brands, with their sober but elegant design and surprisingly pretty movement decoration, offer a genuine alternative to the dominant Swiss brands, and they all owe their existence to the aforementioned 19th-century clockmaker.

What’s more, unlike Switzerland’s scattered horological landscape, they all come from one tiny village, Glashütte, itself like a mini Swiss idyll, surrounded by snowy peaks and spiked with ornate, chocolate-box rooftops.

Herr Lange (1815-1875) enjoyed a privileged lifestyle in the royal palaces of Dresden, the “Florence of the North”, where mathematics and physics were embraced in equal measure to the arts. Lange was not the sort to rest on his laurels, however. On his weekend hikes through the neighbouring Erzebirge mountains, he soon became aware of the dreadful poverty that had stricken the local mining towns since their seams had run dry. Glashütte – getting its name from the glass-like “glasenerz” lead-silver ore it once relied upon – was one of the worst; a ghost town.

Taking advantage of interest-free subsidies levied by the Saxonian prince, Lange determined to inject life back into the so-called Ore Mountains with a new watch company staffed by Saxon peasants.

“A competition was held in 1845, where each town petitioned to Dresden’s palace,” explains the German Watch Museum Glashütte’s Ulrike Kranz. “Glashütte was chosen over everwhere else because it was the closest to Dresden, its rough paths made it (just about) accessible and enough locals were willing to become watchmakers.”

Of Lange’s original volunteer apprentices, 15 qualified successfully as watchmakers, and his ingenious enterprise was soon in full swing, making 600 watches a year. Former employees set up on their own and became suppliers to Lange, or even brands in themselves.

“At the peak of the German empire, from the late 19th century up to the Twenties,” says Kranz, “southern Saxony’s watches were the finest – a byword for quality, reliability and mechanical sophistication.”

However, it was World War II that almost saw-off the Glashütte as we know it. Not only was it heavily bombed on the very last day of the war, with 80 per cent of the surviving machinery plundered by the Russians, but by 1951 it had fallen into the DDR’s socialist doldrums. Every local watch company was expropriated by the state and consolidated into the people’s watch company, or “VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe” (GUB), turning out multitudinous, generic and unrefined product.

It was Ferdinand Adolph Lange’s great-grandson and master watchmaker Walter who first took the initiative. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, he returned from the West in 1990 and teamed up with IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre’s then-owner, the late, great Günter Blümlein.

“Certainly there was no lack of qualified staff in Glashütte and its surroundings,” Lange recalls in his memoirs, The Revival of Time (Econ, 2005), “for GUB alone had about 1,000 employees… Most of GUB’s employees probably thought the idea of building a company in Glashütte to market exclusive watches sheer adventurism…”

Adventurism or no, relatively unskilled but eager watchmakers were plucked from the GUB and trained up at IWC in Switzerland, millions were invested into machines, refurbishing the original run-down premises, and – in keeping with the doctrine of its eponymous forefather – no compromise spared when it came to quality and finish. Sure enough, A Lange Sohne now produces watches comparable to those of Patek Philippe, Piaget or Vacheron Constantin.

Lange’s success has paved the way for as many as 12 other local concerns, all crammed into Glashütte’s tiny, idyllic enclave. Most of them are revived brand names, like Moritz Grossman and Nautische Instrumente Mühle-Glashütte; one of them, Swatch Group’s Glashütte Original, is a consolidated tribute to the Saxon tradition; some of them, like Tutima, have returned from their Western boltholes to reclaim some of their Glashütte heritage; and there’s even a relatively new kid on the block, Nomos, whose ice-cool Bauhaus designs may take shape in hip Berlin, but whose manufacture – the company produces its own movements at extraordinary value – couldn’t happen anywhere other than sleepy Saxony. The Swiss have every reason to keep an eye over their shoulder.

Nomos
Orion Grau

One of the most exciting emergent watch brands in any country, Nomos makes its own movements for its minimalist watches. £1,530 www.nomos.com

Glashutte Original
Senator Panorama Date

The town’s other senior haute horlogerie brand to A Lange & Sohne specialises in exquisite, unfussy pieces like this new stunner. Price on application. www.glashuette-original.com

Tutima
Classic Flieger 1941 Chronograph

Leaving aside the fact that this was originally designed for Luftwaffe airmen, a classic retro pilots’ watch £2,125 from www.stewartswatches.co.uk

Wempe
Chronometerwerke

You may know the sensational Bond Street boutique, but the retailer also produces its own sensational watches. Price on application. www.wempe.ch