Glashütte: a story of complication
Words Mark Hooper
We visit the home of German horology to uncover an unlikely tale of innovation that has survived wars, communist state control et al to emerge as a major player once more…
Glashütte is unique in many ways. The home of German watchmaking, situated just outside of Dresden, seems to have originally been established for entirely arbitrary reasons. The spectacular geographic location – along the Müglitz valley – offers no advantage to the making process (besides a nice view out of the window). Similarly when, in 1845, Ferdinand Adolph Lange (who had taken an apprenticeship under Johann Christian Friedrich Gutkaes, royal court clockmaker of Dresden) first established the Saxony watchmaking industry here, there was no history of fine craftsmanship in the area. But while no specific horological skills had been passed down in this small town, there was a keen and dedicated workforce readily available – former silver miners who had been left largely unemployed.
What sprung up was one of the most respected centres of clockmaking expertise outside of Switzerland. The German School of Watchmaking Glashütte was founded here in 1878, attracting a stream of international students and homegrown talent (Alfred Helwig, inventor of the flying tourbillon was both a pupil and instructor here). The rise in popularity of first pocket watches and then wristwatches saw Glashütte become world famous. And when war came, where other industries floundered, the town prospered from the demand for precision personal timekeeping, delivered at scale without stinting on accuracy.
And then it was all put on pause. For almost 40 years – from 1951 until 1990, the several brands that had developed along the valleys of Glashütte were subsumed by a single, state-owned company: VEB Glashütter Uhrenbetriebe (or GUB). In place of high-end luxury timepieces, the onus was now on producing affordable mass-produced wristwatches for the people. Of course, this was in many ways a noble pursuit – and the Deutsches Uhrenmuseum in the centre of town (housed in the old School of Watchmaking building) boasts many a fine design from that period – alongside some wonderful GDR era adverts that sell the dream of progressive socialism not only to Eastern Bloc countries but also to the decadent West).
Following reunification in 1989, true luxury watchmaking returned to the town. In 1990, exactly 145 years after Lange had founded the first factory here, his great-grandson Walter registered a new company under the Lange name. But it was to the Glashütte Original manufactory specifically that we headed, to discover how – together with a number of other world-famous marques – they have revived the strong traditions of handmade artisanal watchmaking for the 21st century, incorporating and encouraging technological innovation at every turn. Today, the handmade production line is as well-orchestrated as the finest complication: construction engineers, product designers, technicians, programmers, toolmakers, precision engineers, engravers, electroplaters, varnishers, goldsmiths, polishers, production engineers, watchmakers and quality assurance officers all play their part, their roles locking together like… what’s that analogy again?
The Glashütte Original manufactory is presented to visitors from behind glass walls (partly out of privacy, partly to avoid contamination), but the team are surprisingly open about their processes – even inviting guests to try their hand at burnishing the impossibly tiny screws that affix the plate. This is craftsmanship at its very height, combining cutting-edge science with a forensic knowledge of material (have you ever considered how, for instance, one goes about slicing mother of pearl so that it’s thin enough to make a watch dial?) This is a place where the clichés of science meeting art are raised to new levels – as in the building itself, the workings are on show in every timepiece, and that means the movement is built with an audience in mind – the gold and the rhodium, the ‘ribbing’, the beveling, the polishing, the galvanization – every tiny detail is designed not only for precision but also admiration.
Today Glashütte Original sponsor the annual Berlin Film Festival. Quite what the GDR commissariat would have made of this year’s joint UK-US entry, Seven Days in Entebbe (about the role of West German left-wing terrorists in the infamous 1976 hijacking of a flight from Tel Aviv to Paris) is anyone’s guess. But the people behind GUB were watchmakers at heart – and despite the anti-elitist ideal the brand sold to the masses, you can’t think they’d have had a nod of admiration for the craftsmanship behind the complications in the limited edition Senator Chronographs adorning the wrists of the actors at the premiere. Some watches are more equal than others, after all.