You reach Glashütte, near Dresden, after a drive through green countryside. It’s basically just two streets, joining at a T-junction, with a population of about 7,000. Though small, it is one of Germany’s most important watchmaking centres. Brands based here include A. Lange & Söhne, Glashütte Original, Mühle-Glashütte, NOMOS Glashütte, Tutima, Union Glashütte and Wempe Glashütte. Though competitors, they all share something of the same history. And it’s an amazing story of success, disaster and rebirth.
Glashütte was originally a glassmaking centre (Glas, glass; Hütte, foundry), but the discovery of silver and iron made it a mining town. It thrived from the 1400s to late 1700s, but Napoleon’s defeat of Saxony in 1796 caused a massive crisis. Ferdinand Adolph Lange, born in 1815, had studied watchmaking in Dresden and Paris, and had the idea of introducing watchmaking to Glashütte as a way of creating new jobs – partly because local demand for timepieces had been increased by the new Dresden-Leipzig railway. The government of Saxony gave him a grant to start a company, he began by making the watchmaking tools, and took on 15 apprentices. Business went well, other watchmakers began to arrive, and a watchmaking school was opened in 1878.
A. Lange & Söhne
The town’s watches acquired such a standing that manufacturers placed ‘Glashütte i/SA’ on the dial, the second part referring to Saxony. They even had to come to terms with piracy: several Swiss watchmaking companies marked their watches ‘System Glashütte’ purely to benefit from the town’s reputation. In 1910, the company Wempe helped found Glashütte Observatory high above the town, and in the 1930s, Herbert Wempe and Otto Lange developed it into an institute for testing timepieces.
During the Second World War, companies continued making watches but also military equipment such as timers for bombs. For this reason, Russian aircraft bombed the town. It became part of the Soviet occupation zone, and all the watchmaking equipment was confiscated and sent it to Russia as part of reparations. And so, after a century, Glashütte, now part of East Germany, had to start all over again.
They spent three years rebuilding the factories and making new machinery. Glashütte watchmaking became a single state-owned concern. After reunification, some of the original companies were revived. One of them was A. Lange & Söhne, established by Walter Lange, great-grandson of founder Ferdinand Adolph. It was yet another new beginning. He said, “We didn’t have much, we had no watches to build and sell, we had no employees, no building and no machines.” That was 1990: A. Lange & Söhne presented their first collection in 1994.
Other companies share parts of this story. Glashütte Original was founded in 1994, but traces its history back to the 19th century pioneers. NOMOS Glashütte appeared in 1990, and today it makes the largest number of watches in Germany, at entry-level prices. Wempe returned to Glashütte Observatory in 2005, and Tutima moved back to Glashütte a few years later.
NOMOS assembly process
Today, this story is told at the German Watch Museum Glashütte, in the building that used to be the watchmaking school. Watches made in Glashütte often have certain distinctive characteristics such as a three-quarter plate, providing a strong and stable base for the movement, swan’s-neck regulation, and a large date display. The brands seem to get along reasonably well, even in these times of economic insecurity. Considering what they’ve gone through, they would be justified in commenting today’s situation with the words “Crisis? What crisis?”